James Hoge Tyler was born on August 11, 1846, at Blenheim plantation in Caroline County, to George and Eliza Hoge Tyler. His parents were both descendants of established Virginia families; George Tyler represented Caroline County in the General Assembly. Eliza Tyler died in childbirth, and James was raised by his Hoge grandparents at their estate in Pulaski County. He received his early education from tutors and in the seasonal old field schools that dotted the played-out fields of the rural South. After his grandfather’s death in July 1861, Tyler returned to Caroline County and attended Edge Hill Academy and later Minor’s Academy in Albemarle County.
Tyler enlisted in the Confederate army at age sixteen and served as a private in the Signal Corps until the end of the American Civil War (1861–1865). After the war, he returned to Pulaski County and took up farming at Belle Hampton, the estate he inherited from his grandparents. Tyler became a successful cattle rancher known for his Durham shorthorns and a prominent economic booster of southwestern Virginia. He served as the president of the Virginia State Farmers’ Institute and the Southwest Virginia Live Stock Association. With the discovery of coal on his property and the development of the Belle Hampton Mine, which was valued at $100,000, he turned his attention to the revival of that industry in the region. Hoge married Sue Montgomery Hammet in 1868 and they had eight children, seven of whom survived.
Tyler’s interest in the economic development of southwestern Virginia led him into politics, first through farmers’ clubs that he organized, which established him as “the farmer’s friend.” He seemed well suited for public life; he had an outgoing personality that made him a natural politician, a distinguished family name, a record of Confederate service, and successful farming and business interests. He lost his first bid for a seat in the state senate in 1873 but won election in 1876. He served only one term, however, after he was caught up in the debate over funding the state’s prewar debt and the emergence of the Readjuster movement. The Readjusters sought a downward adjustment of the debt that was consuming much of the state’s budget. Tyler was an advocate of debt reform, but he didn’t support a thoroughgoing readjustment of the debt, which he feared would harm the state’s reputation and its ability to attract outside capital. He lost his seat in 1879 as the Readjusters gained strength.
Tyler mounted two unsuccessful congressional campaigns in the 1880s and remained prominent in civic life, serving on the board of the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (later Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) and helping to found the Farmers’ Assembly. He and his wife moved to Halwick, an estate in Radford, in 1892. He ran for governor in 1889 but declined to rally economically distressed farmers to his cause for fear of splitting the Democratic Party, which had unified to beat back the Readjuster movement. The Democratic nomination went to Philip W. McKinney. Tyler reluctantly accepted the lieutenant governorship and was swept into office with McKinney. Four years later, he pursued the top spot once again and lost the nomination to Charles T. O’Ferrall. In that campaign, however, Tyler declared his support for free silver. The issue of the free coinage of silver caught fire after the devastating financial panic of 1893, as Silverites promised it would restore prosperity and reduce inequality. The silver issue propelled Tyler to an overwhelming victory over Republican Patrick H. McCaull in the 1897 governor’s race.
Members of the All-Black 6th Virginia Volunteers
Despite a promising start to his administration, Tyler soon became embroiled in a revolt within the Democratic Party. Reformers were seeking to oust U.S. Senator Thomas S. Martin, who was using railroad money to build a powerful conservative Democratic political machine that would dominate the state well into the twentieth century. The leaders of the so-called May Movement advocated for the direct election of U.S. senators, which would circumvent Martin’s power in the state legislature, and curbs on the widespread voter fraud that was believed to aid Martin. Tyler plunged into the fray as Martin’s opponent, despite being vastly out-organized and out-funded by the canny Martin. When the outcome of the ill-conceived challenge appeared preordained, Tyler withdrew from the campaign just weeks before the vote. His apostasy effectively ended any hope of higher office; Tyler’s only consolation was that his effort contributed to the momentum for a constitutional convention and reform of the party primary system, although he had no influence on the constitutional convention.
Tyler did have some modest successes as governor. He oversaw increased funding for public schools, a reduction of the state debt by more than a million dollars, creation of a conditional parole system, and the establishment of the state Labor Bureau and Farm Bureau. He also helped to settle a long-running dispute between Virginia and Maryland over harvesting rights to oyster beds in the Chesapeake Bay region and resolved a border dispute with Tennessee. Tyler did, however, sign Virginia’s first Jim Crow law into being in 1900, a measure requiring segregated railroad cars.
Overall, however, Tyler biographer Thomas Gay assessed him as “more spectator than participant” in the tumultuous politics of late nineteenth-century Virginia. He had the instincts of a moderate reformer but lacked the political skill—or will—to marshal allies and effect change. He was remembered as an honest, “kindly man,” said Gay, who “wanted to be liked more than he wanted to be a true leader,” which made him “strangely out of place in an era dominated by political rings, railroad money, and chicanery at the polls.”
Tyler retired to Halwick and resumed his farming interests and involvement with agricultural organizations when his term ended in January 1902. A devout Presbyterian of Scots-Irish descent, he was active in the leadership of the church. He was elected to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church three times and served on the boards of Hampden-Sydney College and Union Theological Seminary. He died on January 3, 1925. A book of Hoge family genealogy that he authored, The Family of Hoge, was published posthumously in 1927.