Absalom Willis Robertson

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Absalom Willis Robertson
Absalom Willis Robertson.jpg
United States Senator
from Virginia
In office
November 6, 1946 – December 30, 1966
Preceded by Thomas G. Burch
Succeeded by William B. Spong, Jr.
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 7th district
In office
March 4, 1933 – November 5, 1946
At-large: March 4, 1933 – January 3, 1935
Preceded by John W. Fishburne
Succeeded by Burr P. Harrison
Member of the Virginia Senate
from the 22nd district
In office
January 12, 1916 – January 9, 1924
Preceded by William T. Paxton
Succeeded by Robert J. Noell
Personal details
Born (1887-05-27)May 27, 1887
Martinsburg, West Virginia
Died November 1, 1971(1971-11-01) (aged 84)
Lexington, Virginia
Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Gladys Churchill Willis
Religion Episcopalian

Absalom Willis Robertson (May 27, 1887 – November 1, 1971) was an American politician. A member of the Democratic Party and ally of the Byrd Organization led by fellow U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, Robertson represented Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives (1933–1946) and the U.S. Senate (1946–1966), and had earlier served in the Virginia General Assembly. A Dixiecrat or member of the conservative coalition during his congressional career, Robertson was also the father of televangelist Pat Robertson.

Early life and education[edit]

Robertson was born in Martinsburg, West Virginia, the son of Josephine Ragland (née Willis) and Franklin Pierce Robertson, just two weeks before fellow Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd was born in the same community.[1] He graduated from the University of Richmond in 1907.

Early political and legal career[edit]

Robertson as a state senator during the 1916 General Assembly

Robertson then established a private law practice and began his elective career. He was elected to the Virginia State Senate as a Democrat in 1915 to represent Bedford and Rockbridge Counties and Buena Vista, Virginia in Senate district 22, replacing W. T. Paxton, who had replaced J. Randolph Tucker in 1913. Robertson served from 1916 to 1922, when he resigned and was replaced by Samuel S. Lambeth Jr. in the February 1923 special session but Robert J. Noell won the election to succeed him later that year.[2] During World War I, Robertson enlisted and served in the United States Army, but was assigned stateside so he could continue that part-time elective office.

Robertson served as Commonwealth Attorney for Rockbridge County, Virginia (an elective office per the Virginia constitution, which prohibited such officials from also serving as legislators or judges during their terms) from 1922 to 1928.

Federal political career[edit]

In 1932, Robertson was elected from Virginia's 7th congressional district to the U.S. House of Representatives, and was reelected six times. In 1946, he won a special election for the right to complete the final two years of Senator Carter Glass's term and took office on the day after the election. He won the seat in his own right in 1948 and was reelected two more times without serious opposition.

Among his legislation is the Pittman–Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act which creates the formula for federal sharing of ammunition tax revenues with states to establish wildlife areas. The program is still in effect and remains a primary financing source for wildlife areas.

Robertson was a typical member of the Byrd Organization, and very conservative on social issues. He was chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs from 1959 to 1966. In 1956, Robertson was one of the 19 senators who signed the Southern Manifesto against the US Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which mandated schools' desegregation.

When President Lyndon Johnson sent his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, on a train trip through the South to encourage support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Robertson was one of four Southern Senators who refused to meet with her on the whistle-stop trip.

In retaliation, President Johnson personally recruited Virginia State Senator William B. Spong, Jr., a considerably more liberal Democrat, to run against Robertson in the 1966 Democratic primary. Even some Byrd Democrats had moved away from resistance to integration as espoused by Robertson and the Organization's patriarch, Harry F. Byrd, Sr. Meanwhile, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had added black and lower income voters. Spong defeated Robertson in the primary in one of the biggest upsets in Virginia political history. The Byrd Organization's long dominance of Virginia state politics had begun to end.[3]

Death and legacy[edit]

In 1971, Robertson died in Lexington and was buried in its Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery.[4] His papers are held at the Swem Library at the College of William and Mary.[5]

Opposition to civil rights[edit]

March 10, 1956, Christian Science Monitor[edit]

Asked to comment "on his region's state of mind and any specific American attitudes he feels are necessary to avoid violence and bring healing in a deteriorating situation following the Supreme Court school desegregation order," Robertson stated:

Virginia recognizes the correctness of the 1850 decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Court and in the 155 subsequent decisions of State and Federal courts holding that the equal rights provision of a constitution could be properly satisfied by public schools for the white and colored races which are separate but equal.

During the last 10 years notable progress has been made in the Southern States in meeting that equality requirement. But that progress will be nullified by a program of rapid, enforced desegregation. In fact, public education for both races in some Southern States would be destroyed.

The worst feature of the current desegregation effort, however, is the resulting bitterness and racial animosities in areas where harmony heretofore prevailed. Southerners believe that the cherished constitutional right of every citizen to select his personal associates is being violated.

Monday, July 9, 1956, Congressional Record[edit]

I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Congressional Record the weekly newsletter of my distinguished successor in the Seventh Congressional District of Virginia, Representative Burr P Harrison, in which he discussed the so-called civil rights bill now under consideration by the House. Representative Harrison's analysis is lucid and accurate, and I fully endorse the position he has taken in opposition to it.

Harrison had stated:

Even a casual reading of this bill, sponsored by the President, reveals it as one of the most drastic measures ever to receive consideration by the Congress. It would set up a Federal Commission with a staff of snoopers who could roam the length and breadth of the United States, armed with subpoenas, looking for civil-rights incidents. One of the objectives of this Commission would be to advance the idea of complete racial integration in private business.

Electoral history[edit]

  • 1934; Robertson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives with 68.33% of the vote, defeating Republican J. Everett Will, Socialist Lester Ruffner, and Independent W.R. Eubank.
  • 1936; Robertson was re-elected with 63.87% of the vote, defeating Republican Will and Socialist Ruffner.
  • 1938; Robertson was re-elected with 63.87% of the vote, defeating Republican Charles C. Leap.
  • 1940; Robertson was re-elected with 65.11% of the vote, defeating Republican Jacob A. Garber and now-Communist Ruffner.
  • 1942; Robertson was re-elected unopposed.
  • 1944; Robertson was re-elected with 59.87% of the vote, defeating Republican D. Wampler Earman.


  1. ^ Ancestry of Pat Robertson
  2. ^ Cynthia Miller Leonard, The General Assembly of Virginia 1916-1978 (Richmond: Virginia State Library 1978) at pp. 611, 616, 620, 625, 630
  3. ^ David John Marley. Pat Robertson: An American Life. ISBN 978-0-7425-5295-1.
  4. ^ Absalom Willis Robertson at Find a Grave
  5. ^ http://scdb.swem.wm.edu/index.php?p=collections/findingaid&id=7141&rootcontentid=111042&

External links[edit]