Peery was born in Cedar Bluff, Tazewell County, on October 28, 1873, to James Peery of Burkes Garden (formerly a surgeon in the Confederate army) and Mary Letitia Spotts Peery of Cedar Bluff. The family had lived in Southwest Virginia for more than a century. George Peery worked on the family farm and in the family store before enrolling in Emory and Henry College in 1890. After graduating in 1894 he served briefly as principal of Tazewell High School and then received a law degree from Washington and Lee University in 1897. He practiced law in Tazewell for two years before moving to Wise County, where he represented Virginia Iron and Coke in its pursuit of new coal deposits. He married Nancy Bane Gillespie in 1907; they had three children.
Peery returned to Tazewell and in 1915 helped form the law firm of Chapman, Peery, and Buchanan. During World War I (1914–1918) he served as food administrator for the county. He entered local politics and became chairman of the Ninth District Democratic Committee. The “Fighting Ninth” was the one congressional district not controlled by the powerful state Democratic Organization; for the first two decades of the twentieth century it was under the direction of Republicans Campbell Slemp and his son, C. Bascom Slemp, who represented the district in Congress for twenty years, from 1903 to 1923. Peery sought to change that. His organizational skills forged an effective Democratic opposition to Slemp, enabling E. Lee Trinkle to carry the district in his successful campaign for the governorship in 1921. A year later, Peery personally ended the Slemp “dynasty” by defeating John Hassinger of Abingdon for the congressional seat when Slemp declined to run in the face of a national Republican recession. For that success, he won the title “Redeemer of the Ninth.”
In that election, Peery established a close relationship with Byrd Sr., who would soon become the leader of the Byrd Organization in Virginia. As the new chairman of the Democratic state committee, Byrd campaigned in the district for Peery, whose campaign manager, Everett Randolph “Ebbie” Combs, became one of Byrd’s closest advisers. He never let Byrd forget the importance of the Ninth District to Byrd Organization success. Money was always available to register voters and pay the poll taxes of loyal Democrats.
Campaign for Governor
Peery won two additional terms in Congress before retiring in 1929. He sponsored no significant legislation in his six years in Washington. He was ambitious for the governorship, but Byrd needed a candidate less identified with the Organization, preferably from eastern Virginia, to combat the Republican challenge generated by Herbert Hoover’s victory in the Old Dominion in the presidential election of 1928. Peery deferred to Governor Byrd’s selection of Pollard to run in 1929, and Byrd rewarded his loyalty with an appointment to a seat on the State Corporation Commission. Four years later, to protect his legacy as well as his newly acquired U.S. Senate seat, Byrd required a solid Organization man and he handpicked Peery—over his friend William E. Carson—to succeed Pollard as governor. They shared similar conservative views on fiscal policy and Peery fit the dignified image of Virginia’s governors: he was tall, good-looking, had an impressive speaking voice, and was quietly reserved and free of scandal.
In the 1933 campaign Peery endorsed Byrd’s gubernatorial record—the short ballot, tax segregation, and pay-as-you-go fiscal policy. Joseph Deal and W. Worth Smith, two anti-Organization Democrats who had grown dissatisfied with Byrd’s conservative direction of the party, ran against Peery for the Democratic nomination.
Two issues threatened to derail Peery’s expected victory. Charges were made that the State Corporation Commission, while Peery was chairman, had sanctioned an investigation of utility rates that was to be partially funded by the power companies. Aware of the seriousness of the issue when the newspapers seized on its political ramifications, Byrd advised Peery to remain silent and urged Governor Pollard to provide state funds for the investigation, even though the General Assembly had made no appropriation for it. Divorcing the power companies from the review effectively stifled the critics.
An even more inflammable issue was prohibition. Personally “dry” but favoring repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, Byrd and Peery equivocated on what course Virginia should follow. Given Byrd’s unpopular vote against the Senate’s beer bill, which would have legalized the sale of beer, wine, and “similar fermented malt and vinous liquor,” and the “wet” position of Peery’s two opponents, the question threatened to undermine the campaign. With Richmond restaurants openly selling beer and opponents calling for an end to prohibition, Byrd conceded. Meeting secretly with Peery and Combs, he devised the plan of retreat. Byrd and Peery jointly announced their support for a special session of the legislature to legalize the sale of beer and to establish procedures for repealing state and national prohibition laws. Despite his personal opposition, Governor Pollard called an August session that legalized beer, taxed it, and set up an October referendum on the Twenty-first Amendment that overwhelmingly ended the “noble experiment” in Virginia.
With these potential impediments removed, the Peery bandwagon rolled to an impressive victory with Harry Byrd the consummate director. He advised Peery where to go and whom to see. Although Byrd sent letters to Organization faithful cautioning against overconfidence, Peery captured 62 percent of the primary vote in the three-man contest and ran up an even greater margin against Republican Fred McWane in the November general election.
Much like his predecessor’s, Peery’s governorship was dominated by the Great Depression. Although conditions were improving through the assistance offered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the decline in state revenues restricted Peery’s agenda. Calling for “thrift and economy” in state government in his inaugural address, he was compelled to impose a 5 percent cut in general fund expenditures only months into office, continuing a policy begun by Pollard and approved by Senator Byrd.
His first—and controversial—order of business was to establish new liquor laws to replace the repealed Eighteenth Amendment. Peery recommended a three-man liquor control board to regulate licenses for the sale of alcoholic beverages and to create a chain of state-run liquor stores. The opposition, led by Senator Henry T. Wickham, wanted private licensing and liquor-by-the-drink in restaurants instead of a state monopoly. Hoping that state control would moderate consumption and “outlaw the bootlegger,” Peery forcefully pushed his plan through the 1934 legislative session. By 1938 the new Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) Board had established 187 state stores, and new revenues were flowing into the state treasury.
A second controversy arose over the governor’s request to raise taxes to help fund public education, which was confronting shorter school terms in the face of the depression. The idea of raising taxes was a direct challenge to Byrd Organization orthodoxy and it met bitter opposition. One state senator called it a “school teachers’ salary program.” Having balanced the increase with a reduction in auto license fees, Peery compromised further by cutting some of the proposed new taxes, but he held firm on the basic proposal to increase the education appropriation by $2 million and used his patronage power with the new ABC Board to win approval by the General Assembly.
Peery also instituted a change to the fee system by which local justices of the peace were paid. Because these justices were paid from fees they collected for their services, the door was open, according to Joseph Fry, “to unlimited abuse.” In order to keep his business, a justice was almost required to rule in favor of the plaintiff. This was evident in criminal cases “where after 1924 the justice received only half his fee if he failed to convict the accused.” To remedy this corruption, the Trial Justice Act, augmented by a more comprehensive measure in 1936, replaced the justice of the peace with a circuit court–appointed, salaried trial justice in every county. These measures greatly diminished the authority of the justice of the peace and helped create today’s system of district courts.
Despite Peery’s efforts to increase revenue for public education, he did not endorse funds for direct relief for the unemployed. While not unsympathetic to the needs of Virginians, he and Byrd feared such relief would undermine individual character, unbalance state budgets, and lead to more federal interference in Virginia. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), which was providing such assistance, required matching funds from the state. Harry Hopkins, director of FERA, repeatedly requested such funds and, if they were not forthcoming, threatened to cut off federal aid. Peery, however, argued that using state highway money to hire unemployed workers was the equivalent of direct relief appropriations. Whether Hopkins bought this argument or not, he never did cut off relief funds for Virginia because he did not want to withhold such aid from the state’s needy nor unduly antagonize its political leaders. The result was that FERA paid more than 90 percent of the Old Dominion’s relief bill between 1934 and 1935.
Peery’s and Byrd’s parsimonious natures also dictated Virginia’s response to the social security legislation passed by Congress in 1935. In spite of the fact that Virginia had one of the worst public welfare systems in the country, senators Byrd and Carter Glass voted against the law that would provide pensions for the elderly, aid for dependent children and the disabled, and unemployment insurance ostensibly on the grounds that they would cost too much. Confronting different estimates on the cost of these programs, Governor Peery, at the behest of Senator Byrd, delayed implementation and asked the 1936 General Assembly to establish a commission to study such costs; he did, however, recommend adoption of a state unemployment insurance plan. He also presented a $2 million relief bill to care for the unemployable, who were no longer receiving direct assistance because of the termination of FERA. The legislature passed the proposal for the commission along with a modified relief appropriation, but under intense lobbying from the Virginia Manufacturers Association, it rejected the request for unemployment insurance, an illogical response since Virginia workers would be denied its benefits even though employers would still have to pay into the system. Legislators also opposed a criminal probation bill, a bill limiting the workday to eight hours for women, an antinepotism bill, and a more equitable redistricting bill.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch called the legislature during this time “one of the most reactionary” to sit in Virginia since Jamestown. Peery had not lobbied enthusiastically for the insurance plan, believing that it would die when other states refused to participate. When enough states joined the plan, however, he was compelled to call a special session of the assembly in December 1936 to create a state unemployment compensation commission. The program proved its worth when it put millions of dollars into the hands of the unemployed during the recession of 1938. As for other components of the security program, such as pensions for the elderly, those would have to be considered by another governor and assembly.
The depression also contributed to considerable labor unrest during Peery’s term. The United Textile Workers of America called for a nationwide strike in 1934, but the union was so weak in Virginia that state officials declined to participate. Nevertheless, national union leaders threatened to send “flying squadrons” of organizers into the state. Governor Peery authorized police road checks to prevent such outsiders from entering the state. Accused of strike-breaking, Peery claimed he was only trying to prevent violence.
Passage of the Wagner Labor Relations Act and formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) in 1935 encouraged further union activity. A new tactic was the adoption of the sit-down strike, whereby workers struck by remaining inside the factories in order to coerce management to grant union recognition and wage hikes. The most significant sit-down strike in Virginia occurred at the Industrial Rayon Company in Covington on March 29–30, 1937. The company closed the factory, but 400 workers refused to evacuate. Although he was not sympathetic with the tactic, which he believed violated property rights, Peery chose to let local authorities handle the situation. Calm prevailed. The workers left the plant after ten days, set up their picket lines outside, and continued negotiations to end discrimination against union members. The strike proceeded in this manner into July, when fighting broke out between strikers and nonstrikers who desired to return to work. Peery ordered twenty-five state troopers to the scene to maintain order; within days they were allowing nonstrikers back into the plant. The strike was broken and charges of strike-breaking were again leveled at the governor.
Legacy and Later Years
Although he left office in the midst of a recession in 1938, Peery had had the good fortune to govern during years of recovery. Revenues had so increased that he estimated a surplus in general-fund monies of more than $5 million and a reduction in the public debt of more than $3 million. He presented the largest budget in the state’s history, with major increases in expenditures for capital outlays, roads, education, and the ABC Board. As he stepped down, Peery drew praise for his service, especially for the advances in social reform and the maintenance of fiscal integrity. In the tradition of Virginia’s leaders, he had governed honorably, fairly, and conservatively—a performance that enabled Byrd Sr. to solidify his control of Virginia politics.
Peery retired to Tazewell and returned to his law practice and operation of his cattle farm. He served on the boards of trustees of both Hollins College and Washington and Lee University. After a lengthy illness, he died in Richlands on October 14, 1952, and is buried at Maplewood Cemetery in Tazewell.