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The Election Case of Clarence W. Watson and William E. Chilton of West Virigina (1913)

Clarence Watson

Electoral misconduct: charges of bribery.

Petition submitted: Aug. 26, 1912
Referred to committee: Aug. 26, 1912
Committee report: Feb. 11, 1913
Senate vote: Feb. 11, 1913

Result: Retained seats

Politics and industry blended in West Virginia in a union that often crossed party lines and blurred the distinctions between Democrats and Republicans. Senator Stephen B. Elkins dominated the Republicans while his father-in-law and business associate, Henry Gassaway Davis, controlled the Democrats. In 1911 this interconnection of political and industrial interests contributed to the elevation of two Democratic West Virginia senators, Clarence W. Watson and William E. Chilton.

Statement of the Case
On February 2, 1911, Clarence Watson took his seat for a term that ended March 3, 1913. Four days later, the credentials of William E. Chilton were presented for the other West Virginia seat for a term that began on March 4, 1911. On April 4, 1911, the first day of the Sixty-second Congress, Chilton took his seat.

Stephen B. Elkins had died in January 1911, ending the iron grip he had maintained on West Virginia political and industrial life. Since he had dominated the state's governors, it was not surprising that after his death the state's executive sought to flex his own political muscle.  Accordingly, more than a year after the seating of Watson and Chilton, the West Virginia governor filed a petition charging that the two—both well connected to state industrialists—had secured their nominations through bribes paid by rail and oil corporations. The charge was based on the claim by one member of the West Virginia legislature that prior to the 1911 Democratic caucus he had accepted $1,000 as inducement to vote for the two senators. The Senate referred the matter to the Committee on Privileges and Elections.

Response of the Senate
On February 11, 1913, the committee returned a unanimous report favorable to Watson and Chilton. The report concluded that the only evidence of improper conduct stemmed from the account of the legislator, L. J. Shock, and he had subsequently recanted the charges in a letter he sent to Clarence Watson on January 8, 1913, stating: "I have let the talking go on because I hated to be put in a wrong light. The truth is that I set up the whole business. Nobody tried to buy my vote . . . .  So far as I know, your election and Chilton's was honest and fair." The committee deemed the written retraction sufficient to recommend dismissing the charges. Any other allegations in the West Virginia petitions the committee considered to be nothing more than political rumors calculated to arouse suspicion and create prejudice during a campaign and thus unworthy of Senate consideration. The Senate accepted the recommendation for dismissal and took no further action.

Clarence Watson left the Senate at the completion of his term in 1913. He then ran a coal company and owned a training stables. He died in 1940. William Chilton served in the Senate until 1917. When narrowly defeated in 1916, he contested the election, but the Senate determined that his opponent should retain the seat. A forceful attorney and a dynamic public speaker, Chilton failed in his subsequent attempts at reelection to the Senate. He died in 1939.

Source: Adapted from Anne M. Butler and Wendy Wolff. United States Senate Election, Expulsion, and Censure Cases, 1793-1990. S. Doc. 103-33. Washington, GPO, 1995.

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