William Munford Tuck was born on September 28, 1896, near High Hill, in Halifax County, the son of R. J. Tuck and Virginia Fitts Tuck. The eighth of nine children, he grew up at Buckshoal, the farm his family had owned for three generations. Tuck’s namesake grandfather had commanded Company K of the 3rd Virginia Infantry Regiment atduring the (1861–1865), while his father owned a tobacco warehouse. As a child William Tuck worked in the tobacco fields from spring until autumn, labor that was relieved occasionally by hunting, fishing, horseback riding, and other rustic pastimes. Tuck’s mother died in 1909.
There being no local public schools, Tuck’s father established a small school on his farm for educating his own and neighborhood children. Tuck also attended Virgilina High School, in Virgilina, Halifax County; the Chatham Training School (later Hargrave Military Academy), in Pittsylvania County; William and Mary Academy; and the College of William Mary. After two years of college he left to work as a teacher-principal in Northumberland County during the 1917–1918 school year. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1918 to 1919, deployed mostly in the Dominican Republic, Tuck entered Washington and Lee University in September 1919, earning a law degree in June 1921. He was admitted to the Virginia bar that same year, practicing law in South Boston, in Halifax County.
Tuck’s grandfather and father had both been active in localpolitics, with R. J. Tuck serving a single term in the House of Delegates, from December 6, 1899, until March 7, 1900. This early immersion in public affairs predisposed Bill Tuck, as William Tuck was called by friends, toward a political career. In 1923, he was elected to the House of Delegates as a Democrat from Halifax.
Twice reelected with ease, Tuck abruptly announced in 1929 that he would not seek another term. The reason, he explained, had to do with his marriage the previous year, on February 26, 1928, to Eva Lovelace Dillard, a South Boston widow. The union had created family and financial considerations that required Tuck to devote more time to his law practice. His retirement, however, was short-lived. When his successor in the House, Samuel L. Adams, died on January 21, 1930, Tuck’s political allies persuaded him to run for the seat, which he won. Then, the following year, he won election to the Senate of Virginia, where he remained for ten years.
In the State Senate
In the Senate, Tuck was a member of the Byrd Organization, the conservative Democratic political operation run by Harry F. Byrd Sr., the former governor who served in the U.S. Senate from 1933 until 1965. More supportive than Byrd of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s package of-relief programs known as the New Deal, Tuck even campaigned for Roosevelt’s reelection in 1936. But his apostasy was brief, and in 1938 Tuck fell into line with Byrd, denouncing the New Deal as a “wild orgy of spending.”
By 1941, Tuck was widely regarded as a leading contender to receive the Byrd Organization’s support for the governorship, having proved to be an effective vote-getter from the outset. Expansive in girth and flamboyant in behavior, Tuck was variously described as “salty, jovial, paunchy, … blimp-like in his physical contours” and as “garrulous, blustery, earthy [and] stout as a tobacco hogshead.” A Richmond newspaper further noted that he was “known to chew tobacco, drink whiskey, and play a wicked hand of poker … His vocabulary began where the resources of Mark Twain left off.” However, the singular personality, combined with conservative politics, that endeared him to the nearly all-white voting public did not necessarily commend him to the one who mattered most: Senator Byrd himself, whose decorum was as bland as his politics.
Reluctant to endorse Tuck, Byrd turned instead to the urbane and erudite congressman. Tuck accepted the nomination for lieutenant governor and along with Darden easily won election on November 4, 1941, defeating the candidate, Benjamin Muse, with 80.6 percent of the vote. The two men, so dissimilar in personality, nevertheless worked well together in leading Virginia during World War II (1939–1945) and formed a lasting friendship.
Governor: Vepco Affair
That alliance proved crucial in the gubernatorial contest four years later when Darden’s support for his lieutenant governor was instrumental in persuading the still-skeptical Byrd to support Tuck. Given the almost complete domination of state politics by the Byrd Organization at that time, Tuck’s election was a foregone conclusion; he easily won his party’s nomination and on November 6, 1945, defeated the Republican candidate, S. Lloyd Landreth, with 66.6 percent of the vote.
Seldom had the Byrd Organization been more dominant than in the post–World War II period. Democrats held both U.S. Senate seats, all nine congressional seats, a large majority in the General Assembly, and virtually all local offices. This did not guarantee a smooth administration for Tuck, however. Indeed, he encountered difficulties almost from the outset. Inaugurated on January 16, 1946, Tuck saw the so-called Vepco affair erupt just a few months later.
The episode occurred within a national atmosphere of heightened tension between organized labor and the general public as the economy adjusted to peacetime conditions. Strikes of unprecedented number and duration, what is sometimes known as the Great Strike Wave of 1946, created an angry mood across the nation. In Virginia the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) announced that its members would strike against the Virginia Electric and Power Company (Vepco) on April 1, 1946, unless its demands for a wage increase were met. Such action threatened to curtail electricity to about 1.7 million people, or more than half of the state’s population. His effort at mediation having failed, and with only days remaining before the strike deadline, Tuck addressed the situation in an unorthodox and startling manner.
Central to the plan was a statute that divided the militia into four classes: the National Guard, the Virginia Defense Force, the naval militia, and the unorganized militia. This latter unit hypothetically would consist of all able-bodied males between the ages of sixteen and fifty-five who could be summoned by the governor if needed. On the books since 1930, this part of the statute was nevertheless obscure and never used. Two days before the strike deadline, however, and with no forewarning, the governor decreed that all IBEW employees were summarily drafted into the unorganized militia and ordered, on pain of court-martial, to continue at their jobs. The maneuver made headlines across the country before the dispute was resolved just hours before the strike was to begin. The settlement rendered moot such questions as the constitutionality of Tuck’s actions, punishments of union members who refused to work, paying of salaries to those who did work, and disposition of the profit made by Vepco while under state operation.
Nonetheless, labor leaders excoriated Tuck, with one spokesman calling the action “sinister, damnable, and unprincipled.” By way of contrast, the general public, the vast majority of whom were non-union or did not support unions, hailed the governor for his audacious stratagem. The episode was instrumental in creating a popular image of Tuck as a bold—opponents said rash—leader. In May, President Harry S. Truman used a similar tactic in threatening to draft into the U.S. Army railway workers whose union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, was calling for a nationwide strike; as in the Vepco affair, the two sides reached a settlement at the eleventh hour. In 1947, Tuck scored another victory against unions, signing a right-to-work bill into law on January 21.
Governor: Anti-Truman Bill
Though coming early in Tuck’s administration, the Vepco affair proved to be one of the two most memorable events of his governorship. The other was the so-called anti-Truman bill. The background of that controversial measure lay in the Byrd Organization’s opposition to the Truman administration’s increasing support for African American civil rights. Truman’s proposals, announced in the president’s State of the Union address on February 2, 1948, included strengthening existing civil rights legislation and passing laws designed to help protect African Americans from, from voting and employment discrimination, and from discrimination in interstate transportation.
When Truman announced his decision to seek reelection, Tuck, in his determination to see the incumbent defeated, formulated a remarkable plan to revise the state’s election laws. On February 25, 1948, Tuck presented to the General Assembly his anti-Truman bill, also known as the ballot bill. It proposed to keep the presidential candidates’ names off the ballot, using only the names of parties and electors, and, further, to permit a state party convention to decide for whom the state’s electoral votes would be cast—even after the election had been held. In a state controlled by the Byrd Organization, this in effect would have given Senator Byrd—who spoke in favor of the bill on the floor of the U.S. Senate—the power to choose Virginia’s presidential electors and, therefore, whom they would support.
No single proposal of the Tuck governorship provoked such a uniformly hostile reaction, even from conservative allies such asand . In the Richmond Times-Dispatch, on February 27, 1948, Dabney argued that Democrats ought to fight Truman “openly in the Democratic National Convention.” And should they lose that fight, “neither Virginians, nor any other Southerners, ought to be willing to abdicate their responsibilities as citizens by giving to a small group of politicians the right to decide after November for whom Virginia’s electoral votes will be cast.”
In response to such attacks, the governor agreed to a modification of the bill that, while still permitting a state party to instruct its electors to stand for someone other than the national party nominee, also required that such action be announced at least sixty days before an election or the electors would automatically be committed to the national ticket. The modified bill passed the General Assembly on March 14 but was not actually employed in the 1948 election or thereafter. In November, Truman defeated the Republican candidate, Thomas E. Dewey, of New York, and even carried Virginia. For his part, Tuck supported a third-party candidate, Strom Thurmond, of South Carolina, who represented the pro-segregation States’ Rights Democratic Party (also known as the Dixiecrats).
The sensational nature of the Vepco affair and the anti-Truman bill overshadowed other aspects of Tuck’s governorship—actions that, though hardly reformist, included several moderately progressive innovations. Among them was a slight increase in both corporate and personal income taxes. The additional revenue permitted some improvement, however slight, in the commonwealth’s traditionally meager funding for state services. Other advancements included creation of the State Water Control Board, an agency to control water pollution, as well as reform of the prison system to outlaw corporal punishment and to phase out road camp chain gangs, and a modest reorganization of state government to create more efficient functioning of the state bureaucracy.
When Tuck’s term as governor ended in 1950, he returned to private life in Halifax County, but his absence from politics proved brief. In 1953, when the Fifth District congressman Thomas B. Stanley resigned to run for governor, Tuck won the seat in a special election on April 14, 1953, defeating Lorne R. Campbell, the Republican candidate, with 57.8 percent of the vote. Rejecting occasional entreaties to run for the U.S. Senate, he remained in the House for the next sixteen years, regularly winning reelection unopposed or with only minimal opposition.
When the “massive resistance” effort crumbled after a few years, Tuck shifted his focus to opposing theand Voting Rights Act of 1965—all, he declared, in defense of —but to no avail. The problem was that he was warring against the tide of time, with the result that his congressional career overall yielded little lasting accomplishment. It was apparently with genuine relief that he announced his decision in 1967 to retire at the end of his term, preferring to be “back down there on my poor rocky farm.”
Tuck practiced law in desultory fashion for a few years, resisting sporadic suggestions that he run for the General Assembly. His eyesight dimmed by cataracts and his mobility diminished by a stroke in 1976, Tuck gradually withdrew from politics. His wife died in November 1975. Tuck died at Halifax–South Boston Community Hospital in South Boston on June 9, 1983, of heart ailments related to his stroke. He is buried with his wife in that city’s Oak Ridge Cemetery.
Though he held many offices during his long career, it was as governor that Tuck found his métier and as governor that he would be primarily remembered. Some contemporary observers may have felt that his behavior was sometimes unbecoming of a governor, but many others were charmed by his unabashed personality. A country boy by birth and always one at heart, he was unaffected by the social constraints of high office. His dining preferences ran to chitlins, collards, and cornbread—traditionally preceded by a generous quantity of bourbon tinctured but slightly with branch water. Some of his escapades become legendary: firing a pistol in the night air outside the governor’s mansion in a playful, impromptu test of Capitol security; inviting sundry unsuspecting passersby to have cocktails in the mansion; kicking up his heels at the Old Dominion Barn Dance, a popular Richmond hoedown. Accustomed as they were to conventional, essentially colorless political leaders, Virginians found Bill Tuck to be a rousing iconoclast—perhaps the closest thing to folk hero ever to serve as governor.