Elbert Lee Trinkle was born on March 12, 1876, in Wytheville, to Elbert Sevier Trinkle and Letitia Sexton Trinkle. His father was a veteran of the American Civil War (1861–1865) and local businessman who died in 1883, leaving his three sons a sizable landed estate. E. Lee Trinkle was educated at local private schools and at Hampden-Sydney College, where he graduated in 1896 with BA and BS degrees. He gained a reputation for exceptional oratorical and debating skills, talents he further demonstrated in law school at the University of Virginia, from which he graduated in 1898. Throughout his political career, he was known for his public speaking ability.
Trinkle practiced law in Wytheville for the next twenty-three years, developing a wide circle of friends through membership in several fraternal and business organizations, including the Masons, Odd Fellows, and Elks. In the words of his biographer, Stanley Willis, he was a “booster and a joiner … a gregarious man who loved fellowship … and understood the political advantage of wide acquaintanceship.” He married Helen Ball Sexton in Houston, Texas, on February 24, 1910. They had three sons and a daughter.
Early Political Career
After serving as chairman of the Wythe County Democratic Party for several years, Trinkle embarked upon his own political career in 1915, winning a seat in the Senate of Virginia as a representative of Giles, Bland, Pulaski, and Wythe counties. In the 1916 session, he advanced a moderately Progressive agenda, supporting prohibition and woman suffrage, but opposing the establishment of a coordinate college for women at the University of Virginia, believing that it would undermine the four normal, or education, schools for women that had been created in 1908.
That record encouraged Trinkle to run for Congress in 1916 to “redeem” the so-called fighting Ninth from the clutches of C. Bascom Slemp, whose Republican family had controlled the district since 1902. Trinkle failed in his effort to unseat the incumbent, but his energy and enthusiasm against the Slemp organization won him many plaudits. He won reelection to the General Assembly sessions of 1918–1919 and 1920, and his continued support for woman suffrage, prohibition, and improved highways led to his consideration for the governorship in the 1921 election.
Ordinarily, Trinkle’s relative inexperience, modest legislative record, and occasional opposition to the positions of U.S. Senator Thomas Staples Martin‘s Democratic machine would not have created such an opportunity, but the death of Martin in 1919 produced a leadership vacuum. Governor Westmoreland Davis, an opponent of Martin’s machine, moved to fill the void by appointing the independent Carter Glass to succeed Martin. He then persuaded another independent, Henry St. George Tucker, to run for governor. And he personally threatened to challenge Senator Claude Swanson for the other U.S. Senate seat. Organization control of the party was being threatened.
When other party leaders did not challenge Tucker’s candidacy, Trinkle emerged as a compromise choice supported by several influential businessmen and the rising young star, Harry F. Byrd of Winchester. In the campaign he contrasted his youthfulness to Tucker’s age and offered his progressive record to combat the mercurial Tucker. Trinkle was “dry,” or pro-prohibition, where Tucker was “wet,” and he had voted for woman suffrage and Tucker against, a significant fact in this first gubernatorial race in which women would vote. He easily won the primary with 57 percent of the vote.
In the autumn contest against Republican Henry W. Anderson, Democrats derided the Republican proposal to repeal the poll tax as an invitation to black political domination. Ironically, the GOP had declared itself a party for white people only, which forced African Americans to run their own candidate, John Mitchell Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet, on a “lily-black” ticket. Predictably, Trinkle’s victory on November 8 was never in doubt; he won 66 percent of the vote.
E. Lee Trinkle’s Tenure as Governor
During his campaign Trinkle had been ambivalent about the appropriate mechanism, but once in office he came down on the side of a $12 million bond issue recommended by the Virginia Good Roads Association. He also wanted to reorganize the Highway Commission, making its commissioner more accountable to the governor. Having departed from his previous position, he claimed that a department reorganization, improved economic conditions, and lower material costs had changed his mind on the efficacy of bonds.
However, he did not take into account the remorseless opposition to bonds by Harry Byrd who had replaced his uncle Hal Flood as party chairman. Byrd believed in economy in government. Public indebtedness, he feared, would cultivate a spendthrift mentality, affecting not only road building but all other state services. He particularly disliked the long-term nature of bonds, which, like Virginia’s nineteenth-century debt, could remain a burden for generations to come and hinder the state’s development. Trinkle, on the other hand, was more disposed toward taking advantage of the efficiencies of modern technology and management; he was less concerned with past errors and favored faster road building, which the bond mechanism would accomplish.
Their opposing views reflected the current mood of cautious optimism in post–World War I Virginia. The war had been a boon to segments of the state’s economy, but the predictable postwar recession increased anxiety as the state retreated to “normalcy.” This was particularly true of farmers, who entered a deep trough that would last for two decades. While urban residents and manufacturers, whose businesses continued to expand in the 1920s, supported bond plans to underwrite good roads, rural residents, who made up two-thirds of the population, cautioned against debt that they feared would lead to higher property taxes. The onset of the farm recession may explain why state voters overwhelmingly voted for bonds in 1920 and rejected them by a similar margin three years later.
In the 1922 General Assembly session, Trinkle’s bond plan was obstructed by Byrd and other Democratic organization stalwarts, who preferred a “pay-as-you-go” scheme that relied on gasoline taxes. Byrd also seized the initiative from the governor on the reorganization issue. He proposed abolishing the office of commissioner and replacing it with a state highway commission of five members, plus a chief engineer who would handle technical responsibilities. Although a counter proposal retained the position of commissioner, Trinkle was forced to endorse most of Byrd’s plan since it corresponded to the one he was ready to propose.
To this point Trinkle retained a slim chance of contesting Harry Byrd for the future leadership of the organization, but the defeat of his bond proposal shifted momentum to Byrd and the “pay-as-you-go” crowd. To demands that a special General Assembly session be called to pass the bond legislation, Trinkle weakly responded that he would do so only if support for it was overwhelming. But then he once again back-tracked. Believing the public was on his side, an embittered governor presented a new plan that combined bonds with a two-cent gasoline tax and called a special session for February 1923.
In his opening address to the delegates, Governor Trinkle dispassionately reviewed the case for both bonds and pay-as-you-go funding for the highways, and then, to the shock of many listeners, he voiced a preference for a three cent gas tax, suggesting that revenues from the tax alone would be enough to complete the highway system within seven years, a unexpected conversion applauded by Harry Byrd. Bond spokesmen retorted that highway building would be faster and more predictable and state development more rapid under their plan. The debate between the competing plans—the three-cent gas tax versus a $50 million bond issue—raged on for the duration of the month-long session, but it was clear that the anti-bond forces dominated the Assembly, which passed the gas tax bill but condescendingly allowed a statewide referendum on a $50 million bond issue in November. With the organizational skills of Harry Byrd and rural sentiment arrayed against it, the bond issue was overwhelmingly defeated by the voters, confirming Virginia’s commitment to a “pay-as-you-go” fiscal policy for years to come.
The debate over the future of Virginia’s road network effectively ended Trinkle’s political career. He was outmaneuvered by Harry Byrd in the battle over roads, but more importantly he lost the contest for the leadership of the Democratic Organization. Everyone now recognized Byrd as the driving force behind the results of the referendum, as a man of rare organizational ability and indefatigable energy, who would go on to dominate Virginia politics for the next forty years. Trinkle, who temperamentally preferred compromise and conviviality to confrontation, lacked Byrd’s energy and tough-mindedness; he vacillated on the issues; and he did not command the support of a strong coterie of political allies as Byrd did.
The final two years of Trinkle’s term reflected this changing of the guard. He attended to problems in the state prisons, for which he was nationally recognized, and signed both the Racial Integrity Act, designed to protect against the perceived dangers of race-mixing, and a law legalizing forced sterilization. Both laws later led to U.S. Supreme Court cases. Loving v. Virginia (1967) overturned Virginia’s prohibition on certain interracial marriages, while Buck v. Bell (1927) upheld the right to forcibly sterilize some patients.
Largely, though, Trinkle had become a figurehead, indeed even a whipping boy for Byrd’s insistence on fiscal and ethical integrity. At the end of 1923, Trinkle announced an unexpected budget deficit of $1.8 million, blaming it on the nationwide recession, but he anticipated that revenues over the next two years would cover the deficit and leave a small reserve of $50,000. Byrd saw this as a gross violation of the principles they had been fighting for over the past two years. He believed this was an example of Trinkle’s negligence and demanded a $2 million budget reduction. The two men denied any rift, but Trinkle felt obliged to consult Byrd on subsequent economic matters. The split widened a year later when alleged improprieties in the Game and Inland Fisheries Commission angered Byrd, who tolerated not even the whiff of scandal when it came to public officials. A small comfort was Trinkle’s election in his last year in office to be chair of the National Governors Association.
In his post-gubernatorial career, Trinkle remained very active. He eventually broke with Byrd politically, opposing Organization candidates and supporting Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. He was often mentioned as a possible candidate for a U.S. Senate seat, but he refused to run, likely acknowledging his lack of support from Byrd Organization leaders. He was a frequent speaker at commencements and booster banquets, served on the boards of trustees of Hampden-Sydney and Hollins colleges, and was an official of the state Chamber of Commerce. In 1930 Governor John Garland Pollard appointed him chairman of the state Board of Education, and he became a strong advocate for more state spending for public education.
Trinkle had served as vice president of the Shenandoah Life Insurance Company, of Roanoke, since its organization in 1916, and in 1933 he became president. On September 23, 1939, a state investigation into the company’s business practices recommended that the company be led by someone more knowledgeable of the insurance industry. The investigation had uncovered improper loans and investments, all of which Trinkle denied. Perhaps distressed by what he described to a friend as “outrageous newspaper stuff,” Trinkle died of a heart attack in Richmond on November 25, 1939. He is buried in East End Cemetery in Wytheville.