Matthew Mansfield Neely (November 9, 1874-January 18, 1958) was the 21st governor of West Virginia. He was born near Grove, Doddridge County, the second of three children of Alfred and Mary (Morris) Neely. His father was a farmer and country doctor. His mother’s side of the family claimed a relationship to the poet Robert Burns.
Neely earned his teaching certificate at 18, and his first job was as a teacher across the state in Mineral County. He taught in Mineral County for two years, and in 1897 he enrolled at West Virginia University. A year later he volunteered for service in the Spanish-American War, enlisting as a private and serving more than seven months, mostly in Georgia and Tennessee, before returning to WVU. Neely was president of the senior class in 1901. He received his A. B. degree that year and his law degree a year later. He opened a Fairmont law office in 1902 and married Alberta C. Ramage of Fairmont on October 31, 1902. They had three children, Alfred R. Neely, John Champ Neely, and Corrine Neely.
His first attempt at politics was successful when he was elected mayor of Fairmont in 1908, serving two years before being elected clerk of the House of Delegates. After serving as House clerk from 1911 until 1913, Neely was elected as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives on October 14, 1913, to fill an unexpired term. He was reelected three times before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1922. Six years later he was defeated in the Hoover landslide of 1928. But he was again elected to the Senate in 1930 by a majority of more than 133,000, which was the greatest to that date for any candidate in the state. He topped that record when he was reelected to the Senate in 1936 by an even greater majority. He resigned from the Senate, January 12, 1941, to become governor.
Neely had decided to run for governor in 1940 after his list of prospective candidates was ignored by the Democratic faction headed by Governor Holt. When Holt’s group decided to run R. Carl Andrews, the Democratic state chairman, in the primary election, Neely filed as a candidate himself. The party was bitterly divided. Neely led the liberal, pro-labor wing, while the conservative statehouse faction was led by Holt and former Governor Kump. Neely won the Democratic primary in 1940 with 200,653 votes to 152,544 for Andrews. He then defeated Republican Daniel Boone Dawson, 496,028 to 383,698, in the general election.
Neely resigned from the Senate at the last minute, to keep the appointment of his successor away from outgoing Governor Holt. He resigned as senator and took the oath of office as governor almost at the same instant. Neely took four oaths of office—the first at 11:35 p.m. on January 12 ‘‘with the intention that it should become effective the instant I was completely divested of my office as U.S. Senator.’’ The second was held at approximately 11:45 p.m., and the third just after midnight. The fourth and formal inauguration was held about noon on January 13. Neely appointed Joseph Rosier, also a Fairmont resident, to his vacancy in the Senate on his first day in office, but Holt had already appointed Clarence E. Martin. The U.S. Senate, after prolonged consideration, finally accepted Rosier on May 13, 1941. Neely himself attempted to return to the Senate in 1942, before completing his term as governor. He defeated Kump in the primary but lost in the general election to Republican Chapman Revercomb of Charleston.
Historian Jerry Bruce Thomas considers Neely a major figure in the state’s political history and—along with United Mine Workers leader Van Bittner—the architect of the Democratic-labor alliance that dominated West Virginia politics for many years. He served as congressman, senator, and governor, as well as mayor of a major city, a record of service that is unequaled. He was both a friend of labor and a defender of the state’s business interest in Congress and the Senate, championing major coal, humanitarian, and progressive legislation. As governor, he was not remarkably successful at getting his programs passed by the state legislature, because the New Deal was ebbing and because of his own combative personality.
Neely returned to the House of Representatives in 1945 after defeating Republican A. C. Schiffler of Wheeling by a narrow margin of 950 votes. He reentered Congress on January 16, 1945, the day after completing his four-year term as governor. But in 1946, Neely lost a bid for another term in the House of Representatives when Republican Francis J. Love of Wheeling defeated him, 45,691 to 40,370. In 1948, he won another term in the Senate by turning the tables on Revercomb. In 1954, he won again and was halfway through that Senate term when he died.
Read Gov. Neely’s inaugural address.
This Article was written by Tom D. Miller
Last Revised on October 21, 2010
Morgan, John G. West Virginia Governors, 1863-1980. Charleston: Charleston Newspapers, 1980.
West Virginia Blue Book. State of West Virginia. Charleston, 1940.