Henry Carter Stuart was born on January 18, 1855, in Wytheville, Virginia. His father, William Alexander Stuart, owned a number of businesses and farms in Russell County, where Stuart grew up. His mother, the former Mary Taylor Carter, a descendant of the patrician Carter family that held sway in colonial Virginia, was a homemaker. While Stuart’s father manufactured salt for the Confederacy during the American Civil War (1861–1865), his uncle, the famed, was commanding Confederate cavalry. At age nineteen, Stuart received an AB from nearby Emory and Henry College and then went to the University of Virginia to study law. The following year, however, he returned to Russell County to help his father manage his holdings—which by now had been given over extensively to raising cattle and acquiring property—in an attempt to recoup the losses his family had been dealt during the depression of the 1870s.
When his father died in 1893, Stuart assumed control of these holdings and used them as a springboard for building an agricultural empire of his own, which he incorporated as the Stuart Land & Cattle Company of Virginia. Over time, Stuart amassed more than 50,000 acres of farmland that sprawled over four counties. At the center of his Russell County acreage was Stuart’s own palatial estate at Elk Garden, which, in feudal fashion, employed families of skilled laborers from one generation to the next. While working for the estate, Stuart’s employees were forbidden to drink alcohol and partake in temptations offered by “town life.” With these landholdings, Stuart became one of the nation’s largest livestock breeders outside of Texas, and he promoted the sale of his beef all over the world. He also owned extensive holdings of coal and timber in Southwest Virginia and he served as president of the Buckhorn Coal Company and the First National Bank of Lebanon, Virginia. Ironically, despite his antipathy for urban life, in 1896 he married his cousin, the city-loving and unconventional Margaret Bruce Carter, with whom he had a daughter, Mary Fulton, who not only shared her mother’s distaste for country life but who also rebelled against her father’s stolid values.
Early Political Career
Prior to the death of his father, Stuart had shown little interest in politics or government, although, as was befitting a man of his social position, he served on the county electoral board. In 1893, however, he decided to become more involved in the politics of the state by supporting the candidacy of former governor, the nephew of , for the United States Senate. When the popular Lee was passed over by the Virginia General Assembly in favor of , a relatively obscure railroad attorney, Stuart helped organize a state campaign in favor of the popular election of U.S. senators.
In 1901 Stuart was sent from Russell County to the convention that wrote the Constitution of 1902. That document is best remembered for two provisions. One, that Stuart helped write, took away the vote from African Americans as well as a number of illiterate whites. The other created the State Corporation Commission (SCC) with Stuart as one of its commissioners. Over the next six years, he helped to bring about uniform railroad freight rates and a drastic increase in the ridiculously low taxes paid by corporations to the state.
Stuart’s service as an SCC commissioner caused his name to be bruited about as a possible candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1909. Instead of running himself, he was induced by Martin, who controlled the state Democratic Party, to support the candidacy of Martin’s man, William Hodges Mann. Martin also convinced Stuart to run for Congress in 1910 against Campbell Bascom Slemp, the Republican incumbent who represented Southwest Virginia’s Ninth District. Should Stuart lose (which he did), then Martin pledged to support Stuart’s candidacy for governor when Mann’s term expired. In 1913 Stuart—the only gubernatorial candidate since the Civil War to run without opposition in the Democratic primary and general election—was elected to succeed Mann as governor.
Stuart took office on February 1, 1914. Even though he preferred the “local option” on the issue of liquor, because of his desire to unify Democrats and because he needed political support from the powerful, leader of Virginia’s , he pressed for and oversaw a statewide referendum that made Prohibition law. During his tenure he also worked to reform the tax codes that had previously allowed both the state and the localities to tax the same forms of property, which resulted in confusion and fraud. During his administration, taxation was “segregated” so that real property was taxed by the localities and personal property was taxed by the state. By the end of his administration, this change had resulted in the state’s collecting almost $750,000 more than it had under the old code. He appointed a commission to revise the Code of Virginia, from which came the Code of 1919, the first official revision of the state’s statutory laws since 1887. He also helped to launch the political career of by endorsing Byrd’s 1915 bid for a seat in the Senate of Virginia.
The biggest national event that took place during Stuart’s administration was World War I (1914–1918). Stuart contributed to the war effort by proclaiming Planting Day as a means of encouraging Virginians to raise food in home gardens for the troops, and he appointed a Council of Defense to mobilize Virginians further. The governor’s biggest challenge proved to be unrest in Hopewell, where a huge munitions plant had been built in 1915. Before then, Hopewell had not existed, but the boomtown conditions created a population of 20,000 and a Wild West atmosphere of lawlessness that threatened to impede the operations of the plant. Things got so bad that Stuart declared martial law in Hopewell and sent in the state militia to restore order.
Stuart left office early in 1918. For the next two years, he served on the federal War Industries Board as chair of the agricultural advisory committee. In 1921 he helped organize and then served as president of the Pay-As-You-Go Roads Association, which campaigned successfully against the state’s plan to sell bonds in order to build better highways. The bulk of his time after serving as governor, however, was spent tending to the affairs of Stuart Land & Cattle and his other business interests. He died on July 24, 1933, at Elk Garden.