Lee S. Overman (1854 – 1930)

Written By Jonathan Martin

Born on January 3, 1854, in Salisbury, North Carolina, Lee Slater Overman was the son of William and Mary Overman. Overman completed his formal education in Rowan County, and he enrolled at Trinity College, the precursor to Duke University, where he graduated in 1874. After Lee graduated from college, he taught at a school in Winston-Salem for two years, eventually earning a master of arts from Trinity.

Overman first became involved in North Carolina politics when he served as secretary to both Governor Zebulon B. Vance from 1877 until 1878 and Thomas J. Jarvis in 1979. During his time as Vance’s secretary, Lee studied law and in 1878, he was admitted to the North Carolina bar. In 1880, Overman opened a law firm in his hometown, but he soon reentered politics as a candidate for North Carolina’s House of Representatives.

Elected in 1882, Lee S. Overman won reelection four subsequent times – in 1885, 1887, 1893, and 1899. In 1893, Overman was the Speaker of the House and a year later, Overman became president of the North Carolina Railroad Company. His other nonpolitical accomplishments include his service as the Salisbury Saving Banks president and his service on the board of trustees of the University of North Carolina, a position he held for almost a decade.

After several years in the North Carolina General Assembly, Lee S. Overman tried his hand at the national political arena in a 1903 Senate race with Locke Craig. Overman defeated future governor Craig, starting his near three decade senatorial service. Upon his reelection in 1914, Senator Overman “became the first U.S. senator from North Carolina to be elected by popular vote” (Tolbert).

Senator Overman was a faithful Democrat during his tenure and some of his primary accomplishments resulted from his support of President Woodrow Wilson. Overman bolstered the executive power of Wilson’s administration when he proposed the Overman Act of 1918. The act supplied the president with additional economic and war power during World War I. Additional achievements of Overman’s career include his aid in forming the Department of Labor, supporting the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, and in giving the crucial Senate vote in approving Louis Brandeis for the Supreme Court.

Lee S. Overman remained a devout Methodist his entire life and he earned the distinction as a public education supporter during his time in the U.S. Senate. Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Davidson presented Overman honorary degrees. The N.C. Senator married Mary Paxton Merrimon, daughter of Augustus S. Merrimon, in 1878, and they had three daughters. Overman passed away in Washington, D.C., on December 12, 1930, and his remains were interred at Chestnut Hill Cemetery in Rowan County, North Carolina.