By Stanley Willis


    Even a casual glance at newspapers available to Ninth District residents in the early months of 1916 would have revealed much of interest and grave importance. The armies of France and Germany were locked in deadly embrace at Verdun, a blood bath that would produce over 700,000 casualties. Interest in the 1916 presidential election was already beginning to build. Woodrow Wilson, in these months, advocated a program of national preparedness, fought the Gore-McLemore resolutions, congressional measures to reduce the president's power to conduct foreign affairs, and pushed the nation to the brink of war with an ultimatum to Germany following the sinking of the Sussex in late March. From Richmond, a freshman state senator from Wytheville, Elbert Lee Trinkle, received wide press coverage for his strong advocacy of prohibition and woman suffrage in the Virginia General Assembly.
    Democratic politicians in the District were concerned about the events in Europe and Washington, but they were more immediately interested in Trinkle's impact. Since 1907, the incumbent Ninth District Congressman had been a Republican, Campbell Bascom Slemp of Big Stone Gap, and one of the fondest dreams of the Democracy was to redeem the Ninth and return the state solidly to Democratic control. Trinkle seemed a likely possibility to dethrone Slemp and, even before the session ended, Western papers were predicting bigger things for the Wytheville legislator. Two months later, political breezes from the mountain counties hinted that Trinkle sentiment for the 1916 Congressional campaign was building.
    By the first of August, with the District Democratic Convention only two weeks away, several possibilities for the candidacy were being mentioned, but nobody seemed anxious for the honor. A week before the convention, headlines screamed, WILL NOT RUN IN NINTH, SAYS TRINKLE. The Roanoke Times had asked him point blank what his intentions were and Trinkle, not very originally or convincingly, spelled out why he would not seek the nomination. Trinkle cited that he had two years yet to serve as state senator. He had been chosen elector-at-large at the state convention and wanted time to devote to that; he had no law partner, and above all he felt there were men better qualified. (1) He left unsaid other and more pressing considerations. To contest Slemp in his lair, particularly with a late start, required large expenditures of time and money with little chance of defeating the incumbent. Offsetting these adverse considerations was the opportunity to have the honor, to make the good race, and to get the publicity so necessary to future political aspirations.
    The matter still was not settled when the district convention met in Bristol on August 12. A roll call of the counties failed to produce a candidate. A committee composed of one man from each of the thirteen counties and headed by Governor Stuart retired to recommend someone. When they reconvened, Stuart addressed the assembly, lauded the qualities and selflessness of their choice, and concluded with Trinkle's name. Amid a long, vocal and enthusiastic demonstration, Trinkle, "red, perspiring and trembling with emotion," made his way to the platform. Always ready for a speech and undoubtedly having one prepared, Trinkle was piously and properly humble and singularly optimistic. "If ever a man on bended knee prayed to be delivered from politics, I am that man...But if it please God that out of all these men that I have been chosen to lead you, I accept." He went on to set the directions of the campaign in a eulogy to President Wilson's program and the solemn announcement that with Wilson, next only to Jefferson in principle and purpose, this was a Democratic year. (2)
    Trinkle's campaign plan as simple. Legally, since poll taxes had to be paid six months prior to the general election, it was too late to qualify more voters. The Republicans, of course had paid up their people for the ever-possible challenge. This was not to be a vote-buying contest. Stuart in 1910 had proved the futility of that approach. Trinkle's only chance was to work hard, to build upon a few simple issues, and to try to force Bascom Slemp into some critical mistake.
    The Democratic campaign opened at Pulaski on September 4, and, amid his cousins and friends, Trinkle made a speech in which pathos, flag-waving, scorn and biting ridicule held equal sway - a speech with variations he would make all over the district. He recalled with glee that in 1912, Slemp, Pulaski editor Tom Muncy, and imported Republican orators had toured the district arguing that if the tariff laws were changed, the Ninth's economy would collapse and babies would die for lack of nourishment. Yet, all mines were running at full production, all men were working, agricultural prices were up and babies were growing fat "upon the milk and honey of Democratic prosperity." He lauded in detail Wilson's domestic program, then turning to foreign policy and the preparedness issue, Trinkle praised peace, America, Wilson, and God, and the four became one:
    America, dear old America, has had the flag made up of the stars and stripes, the emblem of our nationality, floating and waving triumphantly during that very same period, and under a Democratic administration, and under the leadership of that great and fearless American Woodrow Wilson, over a people to whom there has been given more happiness, more prosperity, and more of peace than has ever been vouchsafed to any other nation of the world. God, in his merciful providence, seems to have selected as the chief instrumentality for the accomplishment of this good to our nation, Woodrow Wilson, the president of the United States of America. Nothing short of Divine guidance, Divine support, Divine intelligence, and Divine physical constitutional make-up could have given to us such leadership as we have had. At the setting of the sun of each passing day we knew not what would happen with the coming rays over the eastern hills in glory the morning next. We have patiently and quietly and confidently felt that at the helm was brain- power of unlimited foresight, muscle of untiring strength and hands of never-ceasing activity and have laid ourselves down at nightfall to pleasant sleep, in this period of turmoil, disquietude, and fraternal strife, believing that all would be well under his guidance. How wisely our belief was placed and how satisfying has been our reward! Can America ever pay to Woodrow Wilson the debt that it owes? Can any American citizen, who has in his make-up one spark of gratitude, ever cast his vote to take away such a man from the leadership of the nation?
    Attacking the Republicans, he compared Charles Evans Hughes, the Republican presidential candidate, and Slemp to the wonder that was Wilson. Hughes "has dwindled from a high position as a capable jurist to less than a cross roads politician." As in subsequent speeches, Trinkle charged that Hughes had uttered no word that history would record: he had offered no constructive leadership. To compare him with Wilson was to liken the ridiculous with the sublime. To compare the Democracy with Republicanism was to match the party of peace, happiness, and prosperity with that of the corporate interests, the trusts and the money kings.
    Bascom Slemp, Trinkle added, had done nothing for the Ninth or for his country. He had sent out complimentary packets of garden seeds at government expense: he had never consumed more than a half hour of Congress' time with anything he had ever said: he had favored public buildings for the Ninth, but so had the rest of the state's delegation; he promised more offices than either Congress or the President had the power to give; and he had consistently voted against the interests of the people. By implication, Trinkle would back the President fully, and under Democratic guidance, the Ninth would continue to be prosperous, and the nation would remain at peace. (3) 
    Immediately upon Slemp's nomination in absentia on August 29, Trinkle sent him an open challenge to debate throughout the district. Slemp sidestepped it, and thus provided Trinkle with an additional barb. "When I have been to Congress as long as C. Bascom Slemp and some mountain boy invites me to meet him in joint debate I'll met him if he skins me alive." (4)
    In the first major effort to dethrone Slemp since 1910, Democratic state leaders found their way into the district to help the "boy orator", offering speeches, money, and their own considerable experience in organizing. Davis, Ellyson, Pollard, all eager for exposure for the coming gubernatorial campaign, were there along with Martin, Flood, Swanson, Glass, Tucker, and Montague, bringing flowing, empty oratory and practical, shirt-sleeve politics, all for the people who loved it best. (5) Enthusiasm was high, and the miners, tobacco farmers, and moonshiners came out of the hills and valleys to mingle, to listen, to revel in it, and, ultimately, to vote for Bascom Slemp. (6) 
    Most of the thunder in the mountainous Ninth was stirred up by the Democrats. The Republicans seemed uninterested and in fact carried on a very lackluster campaign. Slemp knew that Trinkle was no real threat. The Republicans had been duly registered and "paid up" as usual that spring. There was probably a three or four thousand Republican majority on the capitation rolls, and the county chairmen and the precinct captains could be counted on to get out the vote. Slemp's interest that entire year had been on national politics and most of his work was at that level.
    Bascom Slemp was rapidly becoming the South's most powerful Republican. His interest was less and less in trying to build a strong party in the state and more and more in being the chief Republican patronage dispenser in the state and in the South. This insured his control of the Virginia delegation to the national conventions and the control of many delegates throughout the South. Thus by simply holding on to his Ninth District fiefdom, he had a safe power base from which to exercise tremendous personal political influence. Aside from the pure enjoyment of having and exercising political power, his probable aim was a cabinet post, an honor he sought and was denied three times.
    Lewis P. Summers of Abingdon was Slemp's chief lieutenant. In 1915 and 1916, through Slemp, Summers served as political errand boy for the conservative Republican National Congressional Committee, and as a paid organizer for an aspiring presidential candidate. The National Republican party in 1916 was optimistic that it could seal the break of 1912 and regain the presidency. Candidates were numerous. There was a groundswell for Taft; Roosevelt was engineering a groundswell for himself; there was great support for Hughes. Surreptitiously, many conservative business men and standpat politicians were backing another eager hopeful, Senator John W. Weeks of Massachusetts. (7)
     Certainly by December 1915 and probably before, men like Summers were traveling over the country with a dual purpose - to raise money to organize and finance the campaigns of businessman congressional candidates and to seek convention support for Weeks. The appeal to business men for money was an interesting one. It was an outright plea to actively organize business interests to influence legislation in their favor by turning out the "demagogues, busters, and smashers" and electing a legislature of business men. (8)
    Although Weeks' candidacy died at the convention, Slemp was honored in August by being chosen to head the Speaker's Bureau for the national campaign. This would keep him out of the district until well into September, while Trinkle's campaign seemingly gained momentum. (9)
    Slemp was in no danger. Summers' papers are full of ungrammatical but indicative letters like the following:
    Mr. Summar if you can arrang to have my pole tax pay I have work here at homme will distaine me frome coming to Abingdon on Satursday and if you shall attend to this little matter for me, I will consider it a great accomadation to me. (10)
    After the deadline for tax payment, Slemp told Summers that the district appeared to be in better shape than any time since 1904, and he judged their majority at 3000. Since this had been Slemp's life-blood since 1902, there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of his estimate. Characteristically, Slemp was careful to note the passage of the absentee vote law in the 1916 Assembly and instructed Summers to give careful attention to it. He was particularly interested in the possibility of getting troops on the Mexican border to vote. (11)
    Slemp finally opened his campaign at Abingdon on September 25. IN a dull, measured and fact-filled address, he stated his position. He apologized for being absent at the convention in August, explained his work for the national ticket, and then recited a long list of "progressive" acts for which he had voted and on which Trinkle had "misrepresented" his position. He pointed out other measures which Trinkle had praised and for which he had voted, including the good roads bill and the income tax amendment. He claimed responsibility for establishing the Good Roads Committee, quoted letters to prove it, and said that he had become a member of the Appropriations Committee in order to insure that the Ninth received its fair share of the monies. But all this was only part of the ritual. Slemp, who spoke seldom and not well did so not to win votes, but because it was expected. Trinkle, who spoke well and often, spoke because he loved it, because he looked to a future day, and because it was his only chance of victory. A better indication of the way the campaign was progressing is the fact that Slemp and Summers apparently exchanged no significant letters concerning the campaign after Slemp took the field.
    Election day found Slemp with his usual majority; he even carried Wythe County by two votes. Trinkle explained to Andrew Jackson Montague that it was "simply a case of too many poll taxes unpaid by Democrats, and too large a campaign fund in hands of the opposition." His public statement was similar, emphasizing his belief that even in defeat the campaign had served to cement the party for the future. Trinkle's evaluation was not quite accurate. As long as Bascom Slemp chose to run he was unbeatable. For Trinkle, however, the campaign served a valuable purpose. He had worked closely with the state Democratic power structure with ample opportunity to display his talents. When these state leaders needed a gubernatorial candidate in 1921 with energy, considerable talent and a definite oratorical flair, Trinkle was readily available. The time and money invested in the campaign against Slemp paid valuable dividends.

(1) Roanoke Times, March 4, 18, August 6, 1916; conversation with Stuart B. Campbell, Wytheville, August 24, 1966. 

(2) Roanoke Times, August 13; Bristol Herald Courier, August 12; Big Stone Gap Post, August 16, 1916. 

(3) SOUTHWEST VIRGINIA ENTERPRISE, September 8; Roanoke Times, September 5; Bristol Herald Courier, September 5, 1916; lest one be too inclined to scoff at the rhetoric, Stuart Campbell said that he read what must have been this speech before Trinkle ever delivered it and thought it empty. Yet, he heard Trinkle give it three times and cried with him every time. 

(4) Roanoke Times, September 13, 1916. 

(5) See W. J. Cash, THE MIND OF THE SOUTH, (New York, 1941), 52-54 for a discussion of oratory as an integral part of the Southern mind. 

(6) Patrick Henry Drewry Papers, University of Virginia, Drewry to Trinkle, September 7, 1916; the Roanoke Times and the Bristol Herald Courier give the campaign good coverage. See, in particular, October 1, 5, 26 and 28 in the Times.

(7) George Mowry, THEODORE ROOSEVELT AND THE PROGRESSIVE MOVEMENT (New York, 1942), 337 ff, see letters from O. E. Wellers, Weeks' staff man, to Summers, December-June, 1915-1916, W. P. Summers Papers, University of Virginia. 

(8) Summers to W. Cooper Procter, Cincinnati, February 25, 1915, IBID. 

(9) See letters to Summers from National Congressional Committee, June-August, 1916; Slemp to Summers, August 25, September 1, 1916, IBID; Histories of the 1916 Republican campaign ignore Weeks although he was second to Hughes on the first ballot; see Mowry, THEODORE ROOSEVELT, 345-359; William S. Myers, THE REPUBLICAN PARTY, (New York, 1928), 416-425; George Mayer, THE REPUBLICAN PARTY 1854-1964 (New York, 1965), 339-342; William Harbaugh, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT, (New York, 1963), 457-460. 

(10) John Brisen to Summers, May 5, 1916, Summers Papers 

(11) Slemp to Summers, September 5, 1916, Summers Papers; Horn, "Democratic Party", 199; ACTS OF ASSEMBLY, "Chapter 369," 633.

Pages 18 to 26

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