Great Conservatives from American History #9: W. Chapman Revercomb

From 1895 to 1933, Republicans were the dominant party in West Virginia politics. The shift had come about from the economic depression during the Cleveland Administration. It would take another depression to swing things back to the Democrats, and in 1932 H. Guy Kump was elected governor while Matthew Neely, who had been elected once again to the Senate in 1930. Both men created their own machines to dominate West Virginia politics, with Kump’s state machine being more conservative while Neely’s federal patronage machine was populist and liberal. This resulted in a conflict in the Democratic Party of the time and there was a figure who could come in and capitalize on party divisions: William Chapman Revercomb (1895-1979).

Revercomb had unsuccessfully run for governor in 1936, but 1942 provided a unique opportunity for him. Neely had resigned his Senate seat after being elected governor of West Virginia. He had sought the post with the intention of destroying Kump’s machine and was successful. However, Neely liked being a senator and given his stature thought that returning would be an easy matter. Revercomb’s strong candidacy, plus an unfavorable midterm environment for Democrats given that World War II wasn’t going well for the United States at that point, resulted in him defeating Neely by over ten points.

First Term

Chapman Revercomb contrasted vastly from Neely in his first term. He was solidly conservative on domestic issues and extreme on foreign policy. On November 4, 1943, Revercomb proposed an amendment to the resolution calling for the establishment of a United Nations that any participation by the United States in an international organization should be by treaty only, which was rejected. In 1945, he was one of seven senators to vote against the UN Participation Act. He would reflect on this vote thirty years later and regard himself as justified as the UN could commit troops without consulting nations at the time, a provision that was changed (Gwin).

During the Republican 80th Congress he was a poster child for the American left about what was terrible about the Congress. Revercomb antagonized organized labor by voting for the Taft-Hartley Act and he voted against both Greek-Turkish Aid and the Marshall Plan, hallmark legislation of Truman’s postwar anti-communist approach. He was one of only three senators, with Hugh Butler (R-Neb.) and Pappy O’Daniel (D-Tex.) being the others, who ADA scored zero in both 1947 and 1948. What Revercomb probably caught the most flak for was his approach to displaced persons.

Revercomb and the Displaced Persons Controversy

World War II produced many refugees who were without a home or wouldn’t or couldn’t go back, and the United States was one of numerous nations looking to take said refugees in. During the 80th Congress two more expansive plans were proposed, including by the Truman Administration, the Stratton (R-Ill.) bill, and the Fellows (R-Me.) bill. All were more expansive than what Revercomb had in mind. He clashed not only with President Truman on this matter, but also Republican presidential nominee Thomas E. Dewey, who requested a more liberalized bill. His bill called for the admissions of 100,000 (a halving of the original number) displaced persons, and restricting access to those who had registered in camps by December 22, 1945 (Friman, 9). This served to considerably impact downwards the number of Jews who be admitted. Revercomb suspected that a lot of the new refugees would subscribe to subversive left-wing doctrines. He wrote in his report that he submitted to the Republican Steering Committee in December 1946, “Many of those who seek entrance into this country have little concept of our form of government. Many of them come from lands where Communism had its first growth and dominates the political thought and philosophy of the people. Certainly it would be a tragic blunder to bring into our midst those imbued with a communistic line of thought when one of the most important tasks of this government today is to combat and eradicate Communism from this country” (Yad Vashem, 1-2). This approach was condemned as an insult to the people who had suffered the worst of World War II. The final legislation in 1948 was the Revercomb bill with an alteration to expand it back to 200,000 but the additional numbers counted against future national origins quotas. However, President Truman’s commissioners for displaced persons were so loose in their interpretation of the law it was as if the Revercomb legislation didn’t exist (Yad Vashem, 3). Although Senator Pat McCarran (D-Nev.) cracked down on this loose interpretation, legislation passed in June 1950 to liberalize the displaced persons legislation, ending the controversy.

Dewey Proves No Help

As the Republican nominee, Thomas E. Dewey was distinctly a representative of the moderate wing of the party and didn’t care for Revercomb or people like him in the GOP. When Dewey campaigned in West Virginia, he pointedly did not endorse Revercomb, who faced Neely again for reelection, and snubbed him, thinking that he had the commanding lead to do such things. Both Dewey and Revercomb lost that year. Although both men lost reelection by double digits, Revercomb ironically ran slightly ahead of Dewey.

Attempted Comeback: 1952

West Virginia was a tough cookie for Republicans in the 1950s…its entire delegation was Democratic after the 1948 midterms as was the state’s governor. Revercomb embraced an anti-Communist campaign to take on incumbent Senator Harley Kilgore. He condemned his support for sharing nuclear information with the USSR right after the dropping of the atomic bomb and accused him of opposing the Internal Security Act of 1950 (communist registration) (Smith). On the latter, Kilgore had voted for the initial legislation only to vote against the conference report and then vote against overriding President Truman’s veto. Kilgore struck back that unlike Revercomb, he had voted for Greek-Turkish Aid and the Marshall Plan to combat communism internationally. Kilgore’s argument swayed the voters of West Virginia, and this was a state that even Dwight Eisenhower lost. Ironically, Revercomb’s campaigning appears to have backfired (Smith). However, this was not the end for him.

Revercomb’s Comeback

In 1956, Senator Kilgore, who had been in decline for some time, died of a cerebral hemorrhage. The Democrats messed up in their primary and picked the unpopular outgoing Governor William Marland. Unlike Dewey had in 1948, President Eisenhower endorsed Revercomb for a comeback. That year was excellent for the Republican Party in the state, and not only did Eisenhower win the state, but Republican Cecil Underwood was also elected governor, Republicans Arch Moore and Will E. Neal were elected to House, and Revercomb was elected to the Senate.

In his second term, he proved considerably less conservative than in his first. Although Revercomb remained an opponent of public housing, supportive of anti-subversive legislation, and an opponent of foreign aid, he supported increasing benefits for the elderly and disabled under the Social Security Act, federal aid to education, and the Area Redevelopment Act. He also had an interesting record on civil rights. Although he opposed the Anderson-Aiken Amendment which eliminated 14th Amendment implementation in the Civil Rights Act of 1957, he supported the O’Mahoney-Kefauver-Church Amendment, which was an expansive jury trial amendment for contempt cases to the act that served to weaken the bill. Revercomb’s justification for backing this provision was that organized labor contempt cases would also be subjected to jury trial. His ADA scores in 1957 and 1958 respectively were 25 and 45, a substantive departure from his arch-conservative reputation in his first term. He was joined in 1958 by John D. Hoblitzell, an appointment of Governor Underwood after Matthew Neely died of cancer.

Despite Revercomb’s recent moderation, an economic recession hit the United States in 1958 and West Virginia got it particularly hard. To compound matters, Democrats picked two top tier candidates to run for the Senate: Congressman Robert Byrd and former Congressman Jennings Randolph, who campaigned as a team. Byrd was Revercomb’s opponent, and he was a former KKK organizer who was considerably less favorable to civil rights. Although Revercomb capitalized on Byrd’s past in the KKK, he ignored the issue and the economy proved the overriding factor, with both Revercomb and Hoblitzell being trounced. This began an over fifty-year draught of Republican representation for the state in the Senate. Although Arch Moore, a Republican success story who had by this time served as governor, came within striking distance of defeating Jennings Randolph in 1978, the state’s Democratic voting habits kept up. The Democrats being the dominant party in the state would not start to decline until the 2000 election, when George W. Bush won the state and Moore’s daughter, Shelley Moore Capito, was elected to Congress.

Revercomb tried one more time for public office, running for the gubernatorial nomination in 1960 on a platform of eliminating the sales tax, but Governor Underwood’s endorsement of Harold Neely, a younger man who had served in a minor role in his administration, was decisive. Neely lost and Underwood, who had been 34 when first elected governor, would not get elected to the post again until 1996. Revercomb continued the practice of law but a stroke that compromised his sight and hearing forced his retirement in 1968. Despite no longer practicing law, Revercomb continued to go down to his office to keep up correspondence, a practice he would maintain until his death.

In 1975, the Charleston Daily Mail asked him about the issues of the day, and he called for people to clamp down on personal spending to combat inflation. He also commented on the Kanawha County textbook controversy which involved introducing the concepts of multiculturalism and egalitarianism as well as including material that some parents found blasphemous. The KKK also decided to insert itself into the controversy, and Revercomb stated, “Now on this business of the Kanawha County books, and the KKK coming into the area – there are things in some of those books that I wouldn’t have put in them, but I think they’ve gone about it in the wrong way. I don’t think a thing of the KKK, never had anything to do with it in any way, shape or form. And it is not a step in the right direction” (Gwin). The following year, he suffered another stroke, further compromising his health. Revercomb died of pneumonia on October 6, 1979.

Revercomb makes the list because of his commitment to preserving American sovereignty, his anti-communism, and his generally conservative domestic record.


American Immigration Policy 1945-1950. Yad Vashem.

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Friman, H.R. (2019, October). An “Untrammeled Right”? The McCarran Immigration Subcommittee and the Origins of Presidential Authority to Suspend and Restrict Alien Entry Under §1182(f). Political Science Faculty Research and Publications, 76.

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Gwin, A. (1975, February 5). Ex-Senator Chapman Revercomb: We’re Living Too High. Charleston Daily Mail.

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Hill, R. Chapman Revercomb of West Virginia. The Knoxville Focus.

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Little, H. (1979, October 7). Ex-Senator Revercomb Dead at 84. The Associated Press.

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Smith, J.H. (2007). Red-Baiting Senator Harley Kilgore in the Election of 1952: The Limits of McCarthyism during the Second Red Scare. West Virginia History: A Journal of Regional Studies New Series, 1(1).

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The Congress: Surprising Defeat. (1957, August 12). Time Magazine.

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