Daniel was the son of William Daniel, a Cumberland County attorney, and his first wife, Margaret Baldwin Daniel. He was born on November 26, 1806, most likely in his mother’s hometown of Winchester and was related to many influential Virginians. His sister Martha Daniel married Wood Bouldin, a member of the Supreme Court of Appeals after the Civil War, and his sister Elvira Augusta Daniel married a noted civil engineer, Charles Ellet, and became the mother of Mary Virginia Ellet Cabell, one of the founding officers of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. In 1813 Daniel’s father became a judge of the General Court. The family moved from Cumberland County to Lynchburg about 1819, and they later lived at Point of Honor, a residence then just outside the city in an area that became known as Daniel’s Hill.
William Daniel Jr., as he continued to sign his name even after the death of his father in November 1839, graduated from Hampden-Sydney College in 1826. He attended three academic sessions at the University of Virginia from February 1827 through July 1829 and during the final session studied law. He numbered among the first generation of Virginia attorneys educated in law schools rather than by reading law as apprentices. The experience fostered in Daniel and his contemporaries a sense of professionalism and began to mark the end of the planter-lawyer image that had characterized preceding generations of Virginia’s legal culture. Daniel maintained a thriving law practice in Lynchburg and soon became one of the celebrities of the bar. On December 8, 1841, he married Sarah Ann Warwick, also of Lynchburg. Before her death on August 8, 1845, they had one daughter and one son, John Warwick Daniel, a Democratic Party leader who served in the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.
Political and Judicial Career
In August 1831 Daniel won election to the House of Delegates from Campbell County. He was twenty-four years old when elected and therefore not old enough to take office, but he met the minimum age requirement by the time the assembly convened in December. Daniel served on the standing Committees for Courts of Justice and of Finance and on a joint committee to examine the records of the Bank of Virginia and the Farmers’ Bank of Virginia. He made his legislative debut during one of the General Assembly’s most important debates, on the future of slavery in Virginia. Although he had probably not yet acquired any slaves, at that time his father paid taxes on about thirty age twelve or older. On January 14, 1832, Daniel spoke in opposition to a proposal for emancipation post nati, which would have freed children born to enslaved mothers and thus slowly extinguished the institution of slavery as older slaves died. Daniel’s proslavery argument was premised on his strong commitment to the sanctity of the private property rights of slave owners.
Daniel was not reelected in 1832, but he returned to the House of Delegates for the 1835–1836 and 1838 sessions. During the first term he was ranking member of the Committee of Privileges and Elections and chaired the Committee to Examine the Second Auditor’s Office; during the second he was a member of the Committee for Courts of Justice. Daniel, a Democrat and defender of states’ rights doctrines, in 1845 delivered a long eulogy in Lynchburg after the death of Andrew Jackson.
On December 15, 1846, the General Assembly elected Daniel to a vacant seat on the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. One of the unsuccessful candidates was R. C. L. Moncure, who won election to the court in 1851. Daniel’s maternal uncle, B. G. Baldwin, sat on the court until 1852, and Daniel joined the family of another court member on June 6, 1850, when he married Elizabeth Hannah Cabell, a celebrated beauty and daughter of William H. Cabell, who was also a former governor. They lived at Rivermont, Daniel’s house on Daniel’s Hill. They had no children.
Daniel took his seat on the bench during the January 1847 term and wrote his first of more than 100 majority opinions for the court in the combined cases Sheppards v. Turpin and Sheppards v. Stubbs. These cases dealt with questions of equity jurisprudence and property rights, realms of law in which Daniel excelled and that provided the subject matter for many of his subsequent opinions. His opinions were generally long essays that often recounted the legal history of the statute or precept in question and reflected a strong grasp of the procedural and conceptual technicalities characteristic of Virginia’s laws.
The Constitution of 1851 altered the method of appointing judges by establishing five judicial districts, each of which popularly elected one justice to the Supreme Court of Appeals. Daniel’s section comprised the city of Lynchburg and twelve counties to its south and east, including Campbell, Charlotte, and Pittsylvania. As a testament to his standing in the community, 400 Lynchburg residents endorsed his candidacy in an open letter published in a local newspaper days before the election. On May 27, 1852, he defeated James M. Whittle, a member of the Convention of 1850–1851, and John Robertson, a former member of the House of Representatives.
Daniel delivered his most notable opinion on April 9, 1861, in Baker v. Wise, Governor, which upheld a Virginia law that required state inspectors to verify that ships owned by residents of another state departing Virginia for northern ports carried no escaping slaves. Daniel, who reported forty-one slaves and $200,000 in real estate in the 1860 census, ruled that the statute was a valid exercise of the police powers reserved to the states and not an infringement of Congress’s power to regulate interstate and foreign commerce.
The court sat through the Civil War and last met on February 8, 1865. The judges intended to sit again in April but did not as a result of the evacuation of Richmond. In February 1866 the General Assembly, which under the constitution adopted by the Restored government had again taken responsibility for electing judges, did not return Daniel to his seat on the bench.
Because the value of his property exceeded $20,000 after the Civil War, Daniel was required to apply for a presidential pardon, which he received on July 14, 1865. He resumed practicing law in Lynchburg with his son and son-in-law. Daniel died of apoplexy while attending a session of court in the Nelson County courthouse on March 28, 1873. He was buried in the Old City Cemetery (also known as the Old Methodist Cemetery) in Lynchburg, where his memorial stone bears the inscription, “Be just and fear not.”