Thomas Nelms Downing (1 February 1919–23 October 2001), member of the House of Representatives, was born in Newport News and was the son of Samuel Downing, a physician, and Margaret Lucille Nelms Downing. He graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1940 with a B.S. in chemistry. Downing entered the medical school at the University of Virginia in 1940, but he decided not to pursue a career in medicine and switched to the law school in 1941. After the United States entered World War II, he joined the army in 1942. He served as a captain in a reconnaissance squadron of the Third Cavalry (Mechanized) and earned the Silver Star for gallantry in France. After the war, Downing returned to Virginia and resumed his studies at the University of Virginia. He received his law degree in October 1947 and practiced in Newport News with a succession of firms. He also served as a substitute municipal judge in the nearby city of Warwick. Downing married Virginia Dickerson Martin in Philadelphia on 18 February 1947. They had one son and one daughter.

Following the footsteps of his grandfather Thomas Joseph Downing who had served in the Senate of Virginia, Downing pursed a career in politics. In the 1958 Democratic Party primary to represent the First Congressional District in the House of Representatives he defeated the incumbent, Edward John Robeson, who had fallen out of favor with the party's leaders. Downing was elected without opposition in November to represent the district that included the counties of Accomack, Charles City, Essex, Gloucester, James City, King and Queen, Mathews, Middlesex, New Kent, Northampton, Princess Anne, and York and the cities of Hampton, Newport News, Virginia Beach, and Williamsburg. He won reelection without opposition or with more than 70 percent of the vote in eight consecutive elections and served until 1977. The boundaries of his district changed significantly in response to rapid population growth in the southeastern jurisdictions. In 1965 the district lost its western and northern counties of Charles City, Essex, King and Queen, and New Kent. In 1971 the district lost the increasingly populous southeastern city of Virginia Beach (which had merged with Princess Anne County), regained the largely rural Charles City, Essex, King and Queen, and New Kent Counties, and it acquired King George, King William, Lancaster, Northumberland, Richmond, and Westmoreland Counties in the Northern Neck.

During his entire tenure Downing served on the Committee on Merchant Marine, which he considered one of the best ways to serve his constituents in coastal Virginia. He also sat on the Committee on Science and Astronautics (later Science and Technology) from 1962 until 1977. He returned to his district from Washington frequently, usually every week, to meet with his constituents and was described as the most accessible congressman ever to serve the district. In 1968 Downing worked to extend provisions of the Commercial Fisheries Research and Development Act, which increased the time and federal funding for research and development projects for commercial fisheries. He used his congressional influence to help the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company procure contracts to construct nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines. He also smoothed the way with government regulators to expand the shipyard, which became the only builder of the navy's aircraft carriers.

During the 1960 election, Downing supported the Democratic presidential ticket of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson but openly pledged to oppose changes to the minimum wage law that Kennedy proposed to expand its coverage to include more workers. Downing voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act (also known as the Fair Housing Act) of 1968. Opposed to desegregating public schools, he voted against using federal money to bus students to achieve racial balances in school districts and led an unsuccessful effort in 1971 to pass a constitutional amendment to prohibit busing orders. In 1966 Downing removed himself from the list of possible candidates for the United States Senate. Rather than run against the incumbent, Absalom Willis Robertson, Downing endorsed him, but Robertson lost in the primary.

Initially a supporter of the war in Vietnam, as some of his constituents began to question the war late in the 1960s, so did he. Downing called for a pause in the bombing in 1967 and urged the withdrawal of American troops from South Vietnam in 1971. Two years later he was one of only two Virginia congressmen who voted for the War Powers Resolution that Congress passed in 1973 over the president's veto. The controversial resolution established procedures regarding the president's use of American troops abroad when Congress had not made a declaration of war. During the 1970s, Downing became a harsh critic of the work of the commission chaired by Chief Justice Earl Warren that investigated the assassination of Kennedy, and he remained convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the only shooter. Downing believed that Cuban exiles played a large role in Kennedy's death as retribution for his policies. He proposed the creation of a congressional committee to reinvestigate, and in September 1976 the House of Representatives created the Select Committee on Assassinations to investigate those of Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. The Speaker of the House named Downing the chair, even though he planned to retire at the end of the term. The Committee on Assassinations came under intense scrutiny because of its large budget and the sweeping authority Downing had promised the chief counsel, who authorized use of surveillance recording and wiretapping.

After retiring from Congress in 1977, Downing resumed his law practice. He had received an honorary doctor of laws from the College of William and Mary in 1975. In 1972 the Peninsula Chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (later Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities) had honored Downing with its Humanitarian Award, and in 1989 the Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce recognized him with its Distinguished Citizen Award. Appointed to the board of the Virginia Military Institute in 1985, Downing served until 1993 and received the VMI Foundation's Distinguished Service Award in 1994. He also served as president of the board of directors for the Mariners' Museum, in Newport News.

Downing's wife died on 25 March 1995. He married Elizabeth Healy Cutler, a widow, on 21 February 1997. She died on 15 January 2001. Thomas Nelms Downing suffered from emphysema and died at a Newport News hospital on 23 October 2001. He was buried at the city's Peninsula Memorial Park Cemetery.


Sources Consulted:
Biography in Rogers Dey Whichard, The History of Lower Tidewater Virginia (1959), 3:186–187; birth date in Social Security application, Social Security Administration, Office of Earnings Operations, Baltimore, Md.; Thomas Nelms Downing Papers, Accession 29773, Library of Virginia; first marriage reported in Virginia Military Institute Alumni Review 23 (1947): 25; second marriage in Bureau of Vital Statistics, Virginia Department of Health (available online at Ancestry.com); Gregory L. Diskant, Thomas N. Downing: Democratic Representative from Virginia (1972); Richmond News Leader, 16 July 1958; feature articles in Virginia Military Institute Alumni Review 52 (spring 1976): 12–14 (with portraits) and Mariners' Museum Journal 14 (summer 1987): 16; obituaries in Newport News Daily Press, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, Richmond Times-Dispatch, all 25 Oct. 2001, and New York Times, 26 Oct. 2001; editorial tribute in Newport News Daily Press, 27 Oct. 2001.


Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Knox R. Colby.

How to cite this page:
Knox R. Colby,"Thomas Nelms Downing (1919–2001)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2015 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Downing_Thomas_Nelms, accessed [today's date]).


Return to the Dictionary of Virginia Biography Search page.

facebook twitter youtube instagram view more