Daniel was born on September 5, 1842, in Lynchburg. Through his father, William Daniel, a judge of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, he was connected to many of the leading families in the state. His mother, Sarah Ann Warwick Daniel, was the daughter of a wealthy Lynchburg tobacco merchant. After she died in August 1845, Daniel was raised in the Lynchburg household of his maternal grandparents. He attended local primary schools and from 1855 to 1859 Lynchburg College. He then matriculated at a preparatory academy that operated for one year in Albemarle County and the following year in Nelson County.
After Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, Daniel enlisted in a Lynchburg cavalry troop, but early in May he secured a commission as a second lieutenant in the 27th Virginia Infantry Regiment. He was wounded at the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) and after convalescing gained a commission as a second lieutenant in the 11th Virginia Infantry Regiment. On July 11, 1862, Daniel was promoted to first lieutenant and adjutant (to rank from June 17 of that year), and on March 24, 1863, he was named assistant adjutant general for Major General Jubal A. Early and promoted to major (to rank from April 30). At the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864 a minié ball shattered Daniel’s femur. The injury required him to use a crutch for the rest of his life and later earned him the nickname “The Lame Lion of Lynchburg.”
After the Civil War, Daniel studied law at the University of Virginia for one year and then joined his father’s practice in Lynchburg. When not busy with cases, he continued his legal studies and indulged his passion for oratory by memorializing the Confederate war effort and speaking out against Reconstruction. In 1868 Daniel published one of his lectures as The Character of Stonewall Jackson, followed the next year by a compilation entitled The Law and Practice of Attachment, under the Code of Virginia. On November 24, 1869, he married Julia Elizabeth Murrell, also of Lynchburg. They had two daughters and three sons, the youngest of whom died in a horseback-riding accident in 1894.
Early Political Career
Daniel’s political career began with his election as a Conservative to the House of Delegates in July 1869. As one of three men representing Campbell County from 1869 to 1871, he served on the Committee for Courts of Justice and chaired the Committee on the Library. Although Daniel did not seek reelection in 1871, he may already have set his sights on higher office. He unsuccessfully sought nomination to the Sixth Congressional District seat in the House of Representatives in 1872 and 1874 and canvassed the state in behalf of Conservative candidates during the 1873 campaign. Most of his time during this period, however, was devoted to the law. Through intensive study of the legal codes governing financial transactions Daniel made his most important contribution to the profession, A Treatise on the Law of Negotiable Instruments (1876). Reprinted several times, the two-volume work became the standard text on the subject throughout the United States and gained a substantial reading in other English-speaking courts.
Virginia’s massive public debt emerged as the principal fault line of state politics. In 1871 the General Assembly passed the Funding Act, which committed the state to assume the full burden of its antebellum debt. The issue split the Conservative Party into two factions. Opponents of the act, later known as Readjusters, favored a debt adjustment that would leave Virginia in a better position to maintain government services, particularly the new public education system, while defenders of the act, called Funders, argued that the state’s honor and future ability to attract capital depended on paying its creditors in full. Although Daniel had voted against the Funding Act, he emerged as one of the most prominent Funder spokesmen.
In 1875 Campbell County voters elected Daniel to the Senate of Virginia, where his growing reputation was reflected in assignments to important committees. He chaired the Committee of Privileges and Elections in 1875 and 1876 and the Committee for Courts of Justice from 1877 to 1880. He was an at-large elector for Samuel J. Tilden, the unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate in 1876. In a spirited contest for the Conservative gubernatorial nomination in 1877, Daniel became the principal Funder candidate opposing the leading Readjuster, William Mahone. Eventually Mahone withdrew his candidacy and threw his support behind a third candidate whose stance on the debt was less clear.
Despite the loss, Daniel’s popularity was growing, and he continued to help lead the Funder faction in the state senate. Although not opposed in principle to a new debt settlement, he vehemently fought any plan that did not make debt payment the state’s top budgetary priority. In making his case during one debate, Daniel argued that it “were better to burn the schools,” the key focus of the Readjuster camp, “than sustain them on money taken by force” from the state’s creditors. Although not intended as an attack on the public schools, Daniel’s clumsy rhetoric provided fodder for Readjuster assertions that Funders opposed not only a debt adjustment but public education as well. The publicity that the incident aroused and the philosophy that it reflected—that the property rights of bondholders superseded all other interests—helped spur the Readjusters to sweeping victories in the 1879 elections, although Daniel himself easily won reelection.
Road to the U.S. Senate
Daniel stepped onto the national stage for the first time in 1880 when, as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, he gave a celebrated nominating speech in behalf of Winfield Scott Hancock. He praised Hancock as a candidate who offered the best hope for reconciliation between North and South, a theme that often appeared in his rhetoric. The following year Daniel secured the Conservative Party nomination for governor. Despite an energetic campaign, he lost by almost 12,000 votes, of more than 211,000 cast, to William E. Cameron, the candidate of a coalition of Readjusters and Republicans.
Daniel’s defeat did not significantly diminish his reputation. Having resigned from the state senate during the campaign, he retreated from politics in order to focus again on his law practice. He cemented his status as a leading tribune of Confederate remembrance and was chosen as the keynote speaker at the unveiling of Edward Virginius Valentine‘s recumbent statue of Robert E. Lee for the chapel at Washington and Lee University. Daniel’s oration, delivered on June 28, 1883, and reprinted in newspapers throughout the country, strengthened Lee’s image as the embodiment of all that was noble, even sacred, about the South and the cause for which it had fought. Daniel also used the speech to assert Virginia’s central place in the nation, a theme that he elaborated on in an address during ceremonies dedicating the Washington Monument in the nation’s capital on February 21, 1885.
Pride in Virginia and in the efforts of its white people during the Civil War emerged as primary vehicles in the resurgence of the Conservatives. Reorganized as the Democratic Party in 1883, they regarded the state debt controversy as settled and placed race and the presumed cronyism of their opponents at the heart of the 1883 campaign. Although not running for office, Daniel campaigned vigorously and in a celebrated speech, which linked the Readjuster-Republican coalition with Reconstruction-era hostility toward former Confederates, summarized the reasons for supporting his party: “I am a Democrat because I am a white man and a Virginian.”
One of the first acts of the victorious Democrats in the General Assembly was a reapportionment of the state’s ten congressional districts. Daniel was removed from the same district as the popular John Randolph Tucker, and when Republicans challenged the plan, Daniel successfully defended it before the Supreme Court of Appeals. In November 1884 Daniel easily won election to the House of Representatives from the Sixth District, which comprised Lynchburg and the counties of Bedford, Botetourt, Campbell, Charlotte, Halifax, Montgomery, and Roanoke. Already well-known at the national level, he received prestigious assignments to the Committees on Foreign Affairs and on Labor. Daniel’s tenure in the House was short-lived, however; in December 1885 the General Assembly elected him to succeed Mahone in the U.S. Senate.
Reelected four times, Daniel remained a senator until his death. As a Democrat in an era when Republicans dominated Congress, he wielded little power. His committee assignments tended to be relatively inconsequential, although during a brief period when Democrats held the majority he chaired the Committee on the Revision of the Laws of the United States and gained a spot on the influential Committee on Foreign Relations. In later years Daniel was the ranking Democratic member of the Committee on Finance. He introduced no major legislation but often represented the minority position on such issues as the tariff and other fiscal policy. His courtly manners, oratorical prowess, and somewhat iconoclastic positions made him a beloved fixture in the Senate, and his popularity in Virginia remained unparalleled.
Although an adherent to states’ rights Virginia conservatism and aligned with a nascent party organization that had isolated political power in the hands of a few business-oriented brokers, Daniel often took positions that appealed to the mass of voters. He supported an education bill that would have secured federal funding for schools in the South. Most important, Daniel became a leading advocate of a more-inflationary monetary policy. Although opposed to the free circulation of greenbacks and other more-radical measures, he believed that a significant portion of the nation’s currency should be based on silver, in addition to gold. In perhaps his most important congressional speech, Daniel argued against repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which gold advocates had blamed for the economic panic of 1893. He excoriated the deflationary constraints that had governed the nation’s economic policy since British creditors had gained influence after the Civil War.
Daniel’s silver stance placed him at the center of the revolt within the national Democratic Party against the hard-money policy of Grover Cleveland’s administration. At the 1896 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Daniel’s election as keynote speaker and temporary chair signaled the triumph of the pro-silver faction and paved the way for the nomination of William Jennings Bryan. Daniel remained a significant force at every subsequent national convention during his lifetime. Although his commitment to silver cooled during the next four years, he acceded to Bryan’s nomination at the 1900 convention. As he had in 1896, Daniel squelched efforts to nominate him for vice president. By the 1904 convention he had come to view silver as an impracticable policy, and he helped lead the conservative counterrevolt against Bryan. Named chair of the platform committee, Daniel supervised the removal of a pro-silver plank and mandated silence on more-radical proposals, such as a federal income tax and stringent regulation of trusts.
Convention of 1901–1902
Daniel’s deepening conservatism likewise affected Virginia’s political structure. Although staking out independent positions on some issues, he largely cooperated with the Democratic organization led by Thomas Staples Martin, his Senate colleague, including helping to delay the party’s adoption of primary elections and opposing party mavericks who challenged the organization. The two senators disagreed about calling a convention to revise the state constitution, which Daniel advocated as early as 1895. Momentum for the convention became too strong even for Martin to withstand, and after voters approved calling it in the spring of 1900, Daniel ran unopposed to represent Campbell County in the convention, which met in Richmond from June 12, 1901, until June 26, 1902.
As chair of the Committee on the Elective Franchise, Daniel was expected to exercise a controlling influence over the key question facing the convention, the disfranchisement of African Americans. On the committee he led the minority faction, which proposed slightly less-onerous suffrage restrictions than did the majority plan. The convention could not decide between the plans, and Daniel was widely viewed as having failed to provide the leadership necessary to break the deadlock. Exhausted and ill, he retreated to Lynchburg and had to be dissuaded from resigning. Daniel returned in March 1902 and served as a chief floor advocate for Carter Glass‘s amended plan, which the convention eventually adopted. Daniel’s address before the convention deprecated the loss of suffrage that many white voters would face but declared it proof that “the Anglo-Saxon … will accept tyranny rather than … surrender to the inevitable consequences of a putrid electorate.” Although he maintained his opposition to proclaiming the constitution in force, rather than submitting it to the electorate for approval in a referendum, he crafted the compromise scheme that made proclamation virtually inevitable. Daniel sat on the Committee on Final Revision, and on June 6, 1902, he voted to approve and place in effect the new constitution.
Daniel spent his last years as elder statesman of the Democratic Party. He remained responsive to reform-minded Virginia voters and acceded to stronger regulatory powers over interstate commerce and a federal eight-hour work law. More-radical proposals drew his sharp rebukes, however, and in 1908 many conservative Democrats considered him a promising alternative to Bryan as a presidential nominee. Despite Daniel’s precarious health, he easily won election to the Senate for the fifth time in January 1910. He had suffered a stroke in October 1909 while in Philadelphia, and a second stroke, suffered the following March while he was resting in Florida, paralyzed his left side. Never fully recovering, Daniel died in a Lynchburg sanitarium of a cerebral hemorrhage on June 29, 1910, and was buried in Spring Hill Cemetery in that city. His family declined the governor‘s offer of a state funeral at the Capitol in Richmond. Lynchburg citizens honored Daniel with a bronze statue, unveiled on May 26, 1915, with the inscription, “Foremost and best beloved Virginian of his time.”