Montague was born on October 3, 1862, to Robert Latané Montague and Cordelia Gay Eubank Montague in Campbell County, the family having fled their Middlesex County home because of the invading Union army. (The Montagues returned to Middlesex after the Union threat had been eliminated). He was named for his father’s favorite brother, who had been killed in the Battle of Gaines’s Mill. Robert Montague, then the lieutenant governor of Virginia, was a lawyer and an avid secessionist. He had served as a member of the Virginia Convention of 1861 and would represent Virginia in the Second Confederate Congress. He was known as “the Red Fox of Middlesex,” a nickname that was later given to his son as well, perhaps in part because of their flaming red hair.
Andrew Jackson Montague attended schools in Middlesex and Williamsburg as well as being tutored at home. He entered Richmond College in 1880, was active in college life, and graduated two years later. Because of his speaking prowess he served as commencement orator. He next took a law degree at the University of Virginia in 1885. He married Elizabeth Lyne Hoskins in 1889; they had three children.
Early Political Career
Montague established a thriving law practice in Danville, where he became the local attorney for the Richmond and Danville Railroad. This position brought him financial security and many political contacts across the state. Although he lost his first bid for elective office as commonwealth’s attorney in 1888, he was appointed to the state Democratic executive committee in 1892. A year later President Grover Cleveland selected him as U.S. district attorney for the western district of Virginia, an office Montague would hold until 1898. He gained greater exposure during the 1896 presidential race, when he campaigned enthusiastically for Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan and the free silver movement.
Montague’s political ambitions and views, which were increasingly in line with those of the Progressive movement, caused him to break with the Martin Organization, the Democratic Party machine led by Thomas Staples Martin. Montague was particularly concerned with the corrupting influence of railroad money in Virginia politics—the means by which, it was charged, Martin had won his Senate seat. Having established himself as an opponent of the machine, Montague received the Democratic nomination for state attorney general in 1897 and handily defeated the Republican in the general election. Montague further alienated Martin by supporting the movement to select Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate by primary elections, rather than by vote of the General Assembly. The state Democratic committee twice defeated his proposal, and Martin was re-elected by the assembly in 1899.
In 1900 Montague announced his candidacy for governor. His major opponent for the Democratic nomination was Congressman Claude Swanson, who had Martin’s backing. The key issues were Martin Organization control of Virginia politics and corruption. Montague advocated increased aid to schools and roads, an employer’s liability bill, and a direct primary system. His platform mirrored the Progressive reform movement that was sweeping the country at this time, targeting corrupt politicians, urban decay, social disarray, and powerful corporate monopolies that were destroying the competitive economic order and a stable community system. Progressives pressed for regulation of the railroads, the prohibition of alcohol, conservation of natural resources, and direct primaries and direct election of senators, which were designed to put power into the hands of the people.
Capitalizing on this desire for change, Montague, now the acknowledged leader of the reformers, or Independents as they were called in Virginia, adopted a new tactic in the 1901 campaign. Unlike earlier politicians who had refrained from pre-convention campaigning, he toured the state, employing his formidable oratory skills to talk to voters about corruption. In a campaign speech he delivered in Roanoke, he proclaimed that he “would rather be defeated a thousand times by the ‘bosses’ than elected by them”; in Richmond he declared, “Indifference to dirty politics prolongs dirty politics.” Relying on his eloquence, his statewide recognition as attorney general, and the reform spirit of the day, Montague easily won the convention nomination over Swanson. He went on to defeat Republican J. Hampton Hoge with nearly 60 percent of the vote, becoming the first governor since Reconstruction who had not served in the Civil War.
Throughout the election, the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1901–1902 was convened in Richmond, deliberating over how to address concerns about economic monopoly and black suffrage. Montague and many Independents favored eliminating blacks from the political process. They believed the black vote had been manipulated to sustain the Democratic Party machine and divert attention from more serious issues confronting the commonwealth. Shortly after Montague’s inauguration, the convention produced a new constitution that restricted suffrage by way of a poll tax and literacy requirement, disfranchising not only many blacks, but also many white voters as well. The constitution also established a State Corporation Commission to regulate railroads and other businesses, instituted an employer’s liability principle, and created a circuit court system. Ironically, the new law likely strengthened the machine by producing less democracy; the number of Virginians voting declined by half. Nevertheless, Progressives enthusiastically looked to their new governor to implement their agenda.
As his first order of business, Montague attacked the deplorable condition of Virginia’s schools. Little more than half the school-age population was enrolled, most schoolhouses had only one room, the state had only one four-year public high school, terms were abbreviated, and teacher salaries were abysmally low. Similar conditions across the South had prompted northern philanthropists to direct funds to the region through the Southern Education Board and General Education Board, and Montague used these efforts as well as the embarrassment of the statistics to arouse Virginians to participate in a “good schools” movement.
During his term, Montague devoted most of his time to publicizing educational deficiencies rather than advancing specific legislation. Rural poverty and isolation, localism, race, and hostility to government were barriers to change. He toured the state, meeting with educators and philanthropists and speaking to the people to urge more funding and reforms in term lengths and teacher training. With blacks essentially removed from voting, he even felt comfortable supporting compulsory education over the objections of whites in counties with large black populations. In 1903 he convened a conference on southern education in Richmond. Montague was assisted in this effort by a group of Richmond women that included Lila Meade Valentine and Mary-Cooke Branch Munford, both of whom had helped form the Richmond Education Association in 1900.
In March 1904 these educational reformers created the Co-Operative Education Association of Virginia to publicize the need for nine-month school terms, more high schools, improved teacher training, and agricultural and industrial training. Montague served as chairman of its executive board. The following spring the commission undertook a statewide speaking campaign, known as the May Campaign of 1905, in which 100 speakers made more than 300 speeches across 94 counties. Even the cynical Martin, then in a race for his Senate seat against Montague, was jolted into giving his lukewarm support.
Although advances were made in consolidating schools, increasing some school terms, and raising local funding, little was done at the state level to improve education during Montague’s term. Conservative attitudes and the opposition of the Democratic Party machine caused the General Assembly to turn down his requests to increase the tax rate for schools, enact a longer statewide school term, and raise teacher pay. Nevertheless, Montague deserves to be known as Virginia’s first educational governor for laying the groundwork for the educational reforms implemented by his successors.
Similarly, Montague was an outspoken advocate for better roads in Virginia, but improvements would await a more favorable political climate. The introduction of the automobile had created a need for paved highways that would be essential to Virginia’s economic growth. He spoke at many so-called good-roads meetings across the state as well as at the National Good Roads Association, on whose advisory committee he served. He called for a state highway commission, matching funds for local roads, and guarantees for local bond issues, but the assembly approved only the latter during his term. After he left office, the assembly created the highway commission and permitted state convicts to work on local road gangs, another of his suggestions.
Several factors account for Montague’s failure to accomplish more as governor. He was reluctant to involve himself in the legislative process, perhaps because he was temperamentally unfit for the political infighting such involvement required. Well-known for his scholarly bent and kindly demeanor, he was more a patrician than a populist. His view of the role of governor may also have prevented him from taking a more active role. “My position as governor,” he once said, “prevents my interceding with members of the legislature in behalf of any measure … I do not think I should undertake to favor in advance bills which are likely to come before me for approval or disapproval.”
Furthermore, Senator Martin’s allies in the General Assembly thwarted Montague’s efforts to improve schools and roads, to strengthen the new corporation commission, to construct a school for deaf and blind blacks, and to pass a state primary law. These legislators were primarily from rural areas and saw less need to spend money on Montague’s priorities, but they were also likely influenced by Martin, who was not inclined to advance the agenda of a political enemy who intended to contest his Senate seat. Montague may have believed it was futile to challenge such entrenched conservatism, especially when the reform-minded Independents themselves were not united. He did win some minor victories when the General Assembly passed his employer’s liability bill, a watered-down child labor law, and allocated money for the upcoming Jamestown exposition in 1907, but, by and large, Progressivism in Virginia was restrained by a conservative economic and social culture.
In 1905 Montague challenged Martin for his Senate seat in the Democratic primary election, initiating a long-awaited battle between the forces of reform and the defenders of the Martin Organization. The primary had recently been adopted by party convention; Martin had bowed to popular sentiment and conceded the use of a primary to select Democratic nominees, just as he had belatedly supported the movements for schools and roads.
The governor seemed to have the personality and popularity to win the primary, but Martin’s shifts on the aforementioned issues undermined Montague’s effort to paint Martin as an unreconstructed reactionary and minimized the differences between the two candidates. The governor vigorously campaigned across the state, advancing a progressive agenda of tariff reduction, railroad regulation, and election reform, and attacking the corruption and obstructionism of the Democratic Party machine. The loss of voters through constitutional revision cost him many votes, however. Furthermore, Montague lacked a strong campaign organization, did not have Martin’s talent for raising money, and had lost the support of leading Independents such as A. Caperton Braxton and Carter Glass. Martin cruised to a relatively easy primary victory with 56 percent of the vote. The authority of the machine remained intact.
Following his defeat, there was little more for Montague to do as governor except to turn power over to his political opponent, Claude Swanson, who, ironically, expanded on Montague’s progressive agenda. Montague’s biographer, William Larsen, summarizes his governorship: “Montague played a prominent role as governor, performing creditably in promoting the crusades for schools, roads, and the senatorial primary. As a vigorous progressive, challenging the right of the dominant organization to govern the Commonwealth, he also rendered service vital to democracy itself—that of promoting political dissent. As a catalytic agent, he helped force the Martin machine to shift its ideological base—making it more representative and responsive to Virginia’s needs.”
Montague did not stay inactive for long. He served as dean of the Richmond College law school for three years before returning to the practice of law in Richmond in 1909. In 1912 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he became a strong proponent of President Woodrow Wilson‘s progressive program. Montague was highly regarded by his House colleagues, but he authored little significant legislation and chaired no major committees during his twenty-four years of service. Any ambition he might have had for a cabinet position or a Supreme Court appointment was likely thwarted by Senator Martin, whose seniority Wilson had to respect. Montague did gain a reputation as an internationalist, attending several international conferences and serving as an official of two international peace groups and as president of the American Peace Society. He faced serious opposition for his congressional seat for the first time in 1936, perhaps because he had been less than enthusiastic for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and although his campaign for re-election was successful, it took a toll. He died on January 24, 1937, after several years of declining health.