The 12th governor of West Virginia, William Mercer Owens Dawson (May 21, 1853-March 12, 1916) was born in Bloomington, Maryland, just across the Potomac River from what is now the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. Dawson was the son of Francis Ravenscraft Dawson and Leah (Knight) Dawson, and after his mother’s death moved as a child with his father to Western Virginia. Dawson was educated in the public schools and was the last governor not to have a college education. He taught school briefly and in 1873 moved to Kingwood, where he became editor and then owner of the weekly Preston County Journal.
Dawson’s first elected political position was as chairman of the Preston County Republican committee in 1874. Six years later he was elected to the state senate and reelected in 1884. He advocated railroad rate regulation and served on the Banks and Corporations, the Finance, and the Mines and Mining committees, and on a special subcommittee to investigate tax laws. In 1891, Dawson became chairman of the Republican state committee and served until 1904. Governor William MacCorkle, a Democrat and a contemporary, considered Dawson an outstanding political organizer, saying he was second only to U.S. Sen. Stephen B. Elkins in that regard. Historian Otis Rice credited Dawson with providing a modern organization to the state Republican Party, with connections to every county. Dawson was a key factor in bringing the Republicans back to power in the 1890s, after a long line of Democratic governors.
Dawson served as West Virginia’s secretary of state from 1897 until his election as governor in 1904. He was not an impressive public speaker, but his years of political experience and his contacts helped him secure a victory over conservative Democrat John J. Cornwell, 121,520 to 112,457, even though Dawson ran behind the rest of the Republican slate. Conservatives in the Republican Party had attempted to prevent Dawson’s nomination, concerned about his anti-corporate tendencies. During his tenure as secretary of state he had drafted legislation, popularly known as the ‘‘Dawson corporation law,’’ which significantly increased state revenue.
A progressive Republican, Dawson campaigned in favor of the tax reforms proposed by the tax commission appointed by his predecessor, Governor A. B. White, and in favor of railroad regulation, including increased taxation, an anti-pass law, establishment of a railroad commission, and safety legislation. As governor, Dawson also called for an anti-lobbying law and for a comprehensive primary election law requiring parties to hold state-funded primary elections for all state and national party candidates. He recommended other progressive measures, including a pure food and drug act, the establishment of a legislative reference library to assist in drafting bills, mine safety legislation, and a public service commission.
Dawson called the legislature into extra sessions to address these issues, but his reforms were opposed by business elements in both parties. He was largely unsuccessful in implementing his progressive agenda. After leaving office, he remained politically active, supporting Congressman and former chairman of the tax commission William Hubbard against Republican incumbent Nathan B. Scott for U.S. Senate. In 1912, he embraced Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose presidential candidacy. Dawson later served as a member of the Public Service Commission established under Governor Henry Hatfield.
Dawson had a son by his first wife, Luda Neff, and after her death he married Maude Brown in 1899 and had a daughter and son. Dawson fought poor health for many years and eventually succumbed to tuberculosis. He died in Charleston at age 62.
Read Gov. Dawson’s inaugural address.
Written by Nicholas Burckel
Rice, Otis K. & Stephen W. Brown. West Virginia: A History. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993.
Morgan, John G. West Virginia Governors, 1863-1980. Charleston: Charleston Newspapers, 1980.
Burckel, Nicholas C. Publicizing Progressivism: William M. O. Dawson. West Virginia History, (Springummer 1981).