Michael C. Kerr: Leading the Democrats Back

The War of the Rebellion proved a political boon for Republicans and a bane for the Democrats. There was the taint of disloyalty and with black men having suffrage and ex-Confederates being denied it until after the 1868 election, the South was solid Republican territory. Indeed, the 1868 election was won by Grant due to the black vote! However, the Grant Administration had numerous problems surrounding corruption, voters were tiring of Reconstruction, the full extent of the Credit Mobilier scandal was exposed after the 1872 election, and the deep recession produced by the Panic of 1873 all resulted in the Democrats winning the House for the first time since the Buchanan Administration. It also helped that Congress had in 1872 passed a blanket amnesty for Confederates. This was also a comeback in the Senate for former President Andrew Johnson, but he died only months after being seated. The leader of this comeback was Indiana’s Michael C. Kerr (1827-1876), a four-term representative who had just won back his seat.

First elected in 1864, Kerr was a staunch loyalist, both to the United States and his party, making him an ideal figure to lead the Democrats back to a majority. He was a War Democrat who had won praise from Indiana Republican Governor Oliver Morton for cracking down on conspiracies against the Union by Copperheads. Kerr was a strong debater who did his homework and was universally admired in his own party. He in turn was despised by the staunchest Republicans. Kerr was, like all Democrats of the time, opposed to the 14th and 15th Amendments as intrusions upon states but differed with some on his support of hard currency. He also made no bones about expressing anti-black sentiments. Kerr narrowly lost reelection in 1872, and in February 1873 he decided to return the salary increase he received from the widely condemned pay increase that Congress voted for itself (Garraty & Carnes, 308). This new Congress under Kerr opposed subsidies for business, supported patronage regardless of prior affiliation with the Confederacy, opposed Reconstruction as did all Democratic officeholders, pushed anti-Grant measures (prevent ex-presidents from serving again), and admitted Colorado to the Union. Historian William Smith wrote in 1897 on him, “If not a great man, Michael Crawford Kerr was an honest, faithful and useful public servant. He was a man of pure conscience, strict integrity and large ability” (Glass).

Kerr didn’t have long to go; in 1870 he had contracted tuberculosis and despite numerous efforts to cure himself, including travel to warmer climates, it continued to develop, and he often proved too ill to perform his regular duties as speaker (Garraty & Carnes, 308). He died four days after Congress adjourned its first session on August 19, 1876. His fellow Hoosier, William Holman, eulogized him thusly, “Michael C. Kerr is dead. The record of a good life is complete. May that record perpetuate his virtues and services he has rendered to his country as long as time shall endure” (Beam). He was succeeded by Samuel J. Randall of Pennsylvania, who would play a major role in negotiating the compromise that resulted in Rutherford B. Hayes being found to be president.


Beam, A. (2013, June 11). New Albany Bicentennial: Michael C. Kerr. New Albany News and Tribune.

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Garraty, J.A., & Carnes, M.C. (ed.). (2005). American National Biography. Oxford University Press.

Glass, A. (2013, March 15). Future Speaker Michael C. Kerr born, March 15, 1827. Politico.

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The Worst Election Year for Democrats

2022 is looking like a bad election year for Democrats, quite contrary to 100 years ago, when in the 1922 elections they had a significant bounce back from the disastrous 1920 election. However, this wasn’t their worst, and this year I’m sure, for all the liabilities the Democrats have, will not exceed the very worst for them since the development of the modern two-party system. That year was 1894, and it changed the Democratic Party as we know it.

A Crisis Strikes the Presidency

Grover Cleveland suffered a beleaguered second term.

Although the 1892 election sustains the Democratic majority in Congress (214 Democrats vs. 123 Republicans) and Grover Cleveland triumphantly returns as the only president elected to two non-consecutive terms, after only two months in office he is faced with a major crisis. The economy is not doing so well at the start of Cleveland’s presidency and while there were some international factors, there were two proximate causes. The first was the bankruptcy of Philadelphia & Reading Railroad on February 20, 1893 due to being financially overextended and losing the financial support of J.P. Morgan (Fulfer). The railroad had for some time been in decline, and this failure spreads doubt among investors about the viability of other railroads. The second was on May 4, 1893, when the straw breaks the camel’s back as the National Cordage Company, a near-monopoly conglomerate of rope manufacturers, declares bankruptcy (Reed). The following day, the stock market crashes with investors proceeding to sell off numerous stocks, particularly railroads. The National Cordage Company’s stock, which had before the bankruptcy announcement been a highly thought of stock, selling at $70 a share, was now selling for $12 a share (Reed). This had an enormous impact on the market, particularly on unemployment. Numerous runs on the banks occurred and unemployment at most increased nationwide from an estimated 3% in 1892 to 11.7% in 1893 and 18.4% in 1894 (Saylor, 1). This crisis is a tremendous test on the Cleveland presidency, and he responds with the Sherman Silver Purchase Act repeal, which ends the policy requiring the United States government to purchase silver. Cleveland largely blames the Sherman Silver Purchase Act for the economic depression. Indeed, banks responded to the increasingly low supplies of gold in the Treasury as well as their own as a result of the act by reducing the supply of credit (Reed). This proposal wins the votes of conservatives of both parties, including Senator Sherman himself. This law, however, didn’t stop the draining of gold, so he managed to get Wall Street bankers, led by J.P. Morgan, to buy discounted gold bonds in exchange for their help in stopping the withdrawal of gold. By the end of the downturn, 156 railroads are bankrupted. Several disturbances occur as well, including the march on Washington by Coxey’s Army, a group of unemployed laborers who call for public works projects for the purpose of increasing employment, and the Pullman Strike of July 1894. In the latter case, much of the nation’s transportation is shut down and Cleveland intervenes on the side of the railroad with troops to end the strike, citing the transport of U.S. mail as a justification (Saylor, 2). The strike, along with opposition to how it was ended, further taxes the approval of Cleveland’s presidency.

Despite some blame falling on Republicans for the Panic of 1893 given the Sherman Silver Purchase Act signed by President Harrison and possibly the McKinley Tariff as well, Cleveland and the Democrats get the political fallout. Western and Southern Democrats saw Cleveland as being essentially a Democrat-in-Name Only for his support for gold and his making a deal with J.P. Morgan. Republicans saw Cleveland and Democrats as to blame, and the 1894 election resulted in Republicans having a majority of 240 with Democrats down to 104 by the start of the next Congress. This constituted a horrific loss of 110 seats. There were also a whopping 32 election challenges brought before the House. After election challenges were resolved, the Democrats lost 10 more and Republicans gained 12 more seats. By contrast, the Tea Party midterms of 2010, considered a “shellacking” by President Obama, lost the Democrats 63 seats in the House. Future Speaker of the House Champ Clark (D-Mo.), who himself lost reelection that year, lamented on the results, “It was the greatest slaughter of innocents since the days of Herod” (U.S. House). Some other people who were major names in the Democratic Party or would become big names lost reelection. Among them were William S. Holman of Indiana and Richard “Silver Dick” Bland of Missouri. The Senate was far from as dramatic given that only a third of senators are up for reelection in any given election year and that state legislatures at the time voted for senators. There a small Democratic majority became a small Republican majority.

Dramatic Implications for Politics

This loss ended the hyper-competitive and relatively politically even period of 1875 to 1895. The Democratic Party essentially disowned Grover Cleveland by the end of his term and embraced as their 1896 nominee William Jennings Bryan, a man who supported unions, opposed gold, opposed big business interests, and supported a consistent greater role of government in the welfare of the people. The Democratic Party had moved to the left, and Republicans would control the House until 1911 and the Senate until 1913.

As I wrote before, I doubt the election will reach 1894 proportions as Republicans are not free of highly publicized political liabilities and are having a more challenging slate of candidates than they’d hoped for the Senate. The picture for the House looks really good for them as of writing, especially given the recent win of Republican Mayra Flores in a strongly Latino district in Texas. If the numbers shift in ways that Republicans hope they will for Latinos and certain other ethnic groups this year, it may even herald a new age in ethnic group voting in America.


Fulfer, J. (2020, August 12). The Reading Railroad and the Panic of 1893. The Economic Historian.

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Graff, H.F. Grover Cleveland: Domestic Affairs. Miller Center.

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Macri, B. (2000). The ‘Morgan Bonds’. Vassar.

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Panic of 1893. Saylor.

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Reed, L.W. (1978, June 1). The Silver Panic. Foundation for Economic Education.

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The Historic 54th Congress. United States House of Representatives.

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The Panic of 1893. The Life and Times of Florence Kelley.

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Texas Legends #19: Bill Archer

This is it, the final Texas Legend. This one is unique in two ways. First, he is the only Republican, and second, he is as of writing, still alive!

In 1970, Congressman George H.W. Bush, heeding the advice of former President Johnson to run for the Senate (he compared the House and the Senate to “chicken shit” and “chicken salad” respectively), threw his hat in the ring for the second time. The first time, 1964, had been tough for Bush as it was a bad year for Republicans. This time seemed promising as Democratic Senator Ralph Yarborough, the leader of the liberal wing of the Texas Democratic Party, was increasingly unpopular. Unfortunately for Bush, he proved even too unpopular for his fellow Democrats and they voted him out in favor of moderate Lloyd Bentsen, who proved far more difficult to campaign against, and Bush lost. However, Bush’s plan did work out well for his successor to Congress, William Reynolds “Bill” Archer Jr. (1928- ). Archer, a businessman and local politician, had been a Democrat until 1969, and had served in the Texas State Legislature from 1967 to 1971.

While Bush was more amenable to compromise, Bill Archer, while resembling Bush in terms of personality, was more of an ideologue and quickly proved one of the most conservative members of Congress. His Americans for Constitutional Action scores were regularly quite high, and in his first four years he only got a single vote wrong by them, which involved the Vietnam War. Although he was a staunch conservative, he was also regarded as one of the more effective members of the Texas delegation. Archer’s specialty was taxation, and he proved a productive member of the House Ways and Means Committee. Texas Monthly noted in 1976, “Archer does his best work on the Ways and Means Committee, where he is one of the more energetic members on the Republican side. Says one regular observer of Ways and Means: “Archer reads the bills, and he knows precisely what’s in them that will affect his constituency, and he knows how to change it or get it out. He’s terribly knowledgeable and effective for his point of view.” Says another: “He’s a bulldog; he studies his stuff. Archer is the only Republican on Ways and Means who understands the whole Social Security mess” (Burka & Smith). Being both a conservative and from Texas, he was a natural fit to represent the interests of the oil industry on the committee. The late Pierre Rinfret, an economist who didn’t share conservatism to Archer’s degree and delivered harsh criticisms to more prominent conservatives, thought highly of him as a man of honesty and integrity. This view is backed by a Texas Monthly article that reported, “Archer’s integrity is unquestioned. A Texas reporter on Capitol Hill who pays close attention to the financial interests of congressmen calls Archer “one of the most personally honest guys I’ve ever covered in politics.” His attitude toward campaign contributions and personal finance disclosure goes far beyond minimum legal requirements. He will not accept contributions from organized groups nor will he take cash from anyone. His annual disclosure statements are finely detailed” (Burka & Smith). Despite good work, Texas Monthly regarded him as Fair to Middlin’ and there were two reasons for this. First, he was in the minority party in the House and thus not able to be as influential as he otherwise might be, and second, that he was a conservative ideologue who could let his ideology get in the way of his effectiveness and persuasiveness. Indeed, although Texas was conservative, many of its voters opted to stick with moderate to conservative Democrats, so Archer was a staunch conservative outlier in the state for much of his career. As might be expected, he was a strong supporter of the tax reduction policies of Ronald Reagan, and in 1982 voted against the 1981 cut’s partial rollback. Archer was also a supporter of trade agreements, including NAFTA, and backed deregulation efforts.

He often opposed civil rights legislation as a burden to business or to state governments. Archer voted against the 1975 Voting Rights Act Amendments, which extended coverage to Texas, and voted against the 1982 extension. Archer also voted against the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. He initially supported the Equal Rights Amendment in 1971 before opposing it over abortion concerns. Archer was also socially conservative in the traditional ways to be so, including opposing restrictions on school prayer and opposing gay adoptions.

In 1994, the midterms produced Republican majorities, and Archer succeeded the disgraced Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. As chair, he supported a considerably different course than his predecessor. Archer saw the leadership of the Ways and Means Committee under Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.) as a positive example and sought bipartisan approaches to achieving passage of major legislation. This approach was successful in producing legislation in 1997 that provided for a balanced budget as well as for tax reduction. Archer also spearheaded the 1996 welfare reform legislation, stating that it, “turns today’s welfare trap for the needy into a trampoline to self-sufficiency…With this bill, we fulfill our promise to replace the failed welfare state so that America’s poor can achieve independence and enjoy successes that come from work” (Miller). He, unsuccessfully, tried to find a way to make Social Security sustainable in the long-term, a problem that to this day faces the United States. In 1999, Archer worked with the Clinton Administration to secure “most favored nation” status for China. Republicans have six-year term limits on chairmanships, and by 2000, his was up, so he decided to retire as at 72 years old he had reached the height of his career. Archer’s lifetime MC-Index score was a 98%. In 2002, President Bush considered him as a replacement for Paul O’Neill as Secretary of the Treasury. He afterwards consulted for PriceWaterhouseCoopers and most recently in 2017 he testified in favor of the Republican tax reduction bill.

Now that Texas Legends is over, I am mulling over my next series. I am strongly considering an American Radicals series which will focus on the far left. These are historical figures of the far left and include prominent academics, activists, and criminals. Some gradually adopted radicalism, others abandoned their radicalism later in their lives, and others remained radicals until their dying day. Like in the Texas Legends series, I anticipate most or all people I will cover will be dead. Unlike Texas Legends, however, I plan on no legislators being listed even though there were and are undoubtedly radical legislators (Sanders, Warren, & the Squad are some of the biggest contemporary examples).


Burka, P. & Smith, G. (1976, May). The Best, the Worst, and the Fair-To-Middlin’. Texas Monthly.

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Diaz, K. (2017, July 19). Ex Houston Congressman Bill Archer Testifies for GOP tax reform plan. Houston Chronicle.

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Miller, J.Y. (1995, December 21). Welfare Reform Bill Passes House. South Florida Sun Sentinel.

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Rinfret, P. William (Bill) Archer; Chairman, House Ways and Means Committee: A Man of Integrity, Honor, and Service. Parida.

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Texas Legends #18: Kika de la Garza

In 1964, Congressman Joe Kilgore of the 15th district sought to run a primary challenge against Senator Ralph Yarborough. Yarborough was the leader of the liberal wing of the Texas Democrats, and Kilgore was one of the more conservative Democrats. However, President Johnson put the kibosh on it, and he then decided to retire. Kilgore’s district was strongly Latino and a change was rather overdue in the district that elected “Cactus Jack” Garner and Lloyd Bentsen. This change came with Eligio “Kika” de la Garza (1927-2017).

Although liberals had hoped that de la Garza as a Mexican-American would be a change from the district’s business-as-usual politics and side with them, he proved to be something of a disappointment for them. While less conservative and more supportive of civil rights than his predecessor, de la Garza still cast numerous votes that met the disapproval of liberals and proved highly favorable to business interests in the district. Americans for Democratic Action’s ratings would sure suggest this was the case. In 1965, he scored a 21%, while in 1975, he scored an 11%. Conservative organizations didn’t think him that conservative, but liberals thought him conservative beyond justification for his district. As Burka & Smith (1976) put it, “Liberals and radical Chicano groups detest him with an antipathy bordering on the irrational. His record is far more balanced than they would have you believe – he supported the Voting Rights Act, for example – but it does reflect a dismal opposition to social programs which would ease the poverty of his constituents: against a child nutrition program, against an agency for consumer protection, against supplying food stamps to households of striking workers, and for crippling amendments to a bill providing legal services to the poor”. The voters didn’t agree, continually reelecting him by wide margins. Indeed, de la Garza did back some key anti-poverty programs and was more supportive of the Great Society than he got credit for. As a member of the House Agriculture Committee, agriculture became his specialty.

Texas Monthly considered him to be one of the worst of the Texas delegation, crediting whatever success he has had to the district’s longtime administrative assistant, Cecelia Hare Martin, who worked previously for predecessors Lloyd Bentsen and Joe Kilgore. It also identified him as a conservative Democrat, although his lifetime record was moderate, scoring a 41% on the MC-Index. In 1978, de la Garza was invited by Representative Leo J. Ryan to accompany him on his visit to Jonestown, which he fortunately declined. Although the chairmanship of the House Agriculture Committee had been taken from Texas in the ouster of Bob Poage, it would be back to Texas with de la Garza in 1981. He would serve in this capacity for fourteen years, making him the longest serving chairman of the House Agriculture Committee in American history. De la Garza would be crucial in the passage of omnibus farm bills in 1981, 1985, and 1990. As with many Southern Democrats, his record grew more liberal in the 1980s as more party loyalty was expected when facing off against conservative Republican President Ronald Reagan. From 1989 to 1991, he chaired the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, a group he had helped found in 1976. In 1993, de la Garza was a key player in getting NAFTA passed in Congress, and condemned colleagues who wanted to use the law to impose numerous conditions on Mexico as well as certain unnamed members for making “anti-Mexican slurs” (Cooper).

In 1994, the Democrats lost control of Congress, thus de la Garza was out as chairman. He saw no reason to run for another term given the end of his role and retired in 1997. De la Garza is another example of the sort of Democrat who was quite electable in old Texas, and indeed, the sort which is in very short supply today. The historically Democratic district he represented remains a Democratic district to this day, but only leans so now as in 2020 it went for Biden by only two points. If serving in Congress today, de la Garza would probably be the House’s most conservative Democrat despite being a moderate in his day.


Burka, P. & Smith, G. (1976, May). The Best, the Worst, and the Fair-To-Middlin’. Texas Monthly.

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Cooper, K.J. (1993, November 18). House Approves U.S.-Canada-Mexico Trade Pact on 234 to 200 Vote, Giving Clinton Big Victory. The Washington Post.

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Eligio “Kika” de la Garza II. Library of Congress.

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Garcia, E. (2017, March 14). Former Rep. Eligio ‘Kika’ de la Garza Dies at 89. Roll Call.

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The Battle of Athens: When Veterans Took Up Arms to Oust a Corrupt Government

The year is 1946 and change is in the air. This is true in a particularly unique way in McMinn County, Tennessee. Although the county had historically been Republican, being in Eastern Tennessee between Chattanooga and Knoxville, the Great Depression resulted in substantial gains for Democrats. One of these was the election of Sheriff Paul Cantrell in 1936, who ran on FDR’s coattails. He proceeded to create a Democratic machine in the county that in order to keep power relied on, as Lones Seiber (1985) put it, “intimidation and violence” (1). Previous sheriffs had not used their position to create such a machine. There was also a suspicion that ballot stuffing had been used to win this election, but at the time there was no proof. Evidence of corruption in Cantrell’s rule became apparent in the following years.

The Cantrell-Mansfield Machine: Mind-Blowing Corruption

To call the Cantrell-Machine “corrupt” seems to fall short of accurately conveying the scale of what was happening in McMinn County. The law in Tennessee provided incentives for arrests and short-term jailing. As Lones Seiber (1985) writes, “The sheriff and his deputies received a fee for every person they booked, incarcerated, and released; the more human transactions, the more money they got. A voucher signed by the sheriff was all that was needed to collect the money from the courthouse. Deputies routinely boarded buses passing through and dragged sleepy-eyed passengers to the jail to pay their $16.50 fine for drunkenness, whether they were guilty or not. Arrests ran as high as 115 per weekend” (1). The machine also squeezed protection money from numerous illegal establishments, such as casinos and brothels.

Cantrell would be reelected in 1938 and 1940, and in 1942 he would be elected to the Tennessee Senate where he would continue to run the machine and was a delegate to the 1944 Democratic National Convention. Under his replacement as sheriff, Pat Mansfield, things got much worse. The sheriff’s department employed some as deputies who had been known criminals. The worst case was perhaps the employment of a deputy who had murdered his own father and would later murder his pregnant sister-in-law (Kumar). There was also the employment of “siren bandits”. These were men in uniform who would pull over and outright rob passing motorists (Kumar). This contributed to the lavish salaries Cantrell, Mansfield, and other major machine men got. Cantrell himself over his time as sheriff commanded an annual salary of almost $60,000, the equivalent of over $1 million in today’s money (Kumar). Mansfield himself commanded a salary higher than that of the Vice President of the United States. The conditions of the Athens jail, where people would go for charges real and fabricated for the profit of the machine, were dreadful and not maintained as the money appropriated to maintain it and properly feed inmates had been pocketed by Sheriff Mansfield (Kumar). In one incident, after Cantrell double-crossed one of his cronies, he decided to spill the beans. This resulted in his father being robbed and arrested and his brother-in-law being subjected to an assassination attempt by a deputy in broad daylight (Kumar).

Curbing the Republican Opposition

Eastern Tennessee, as I wrote before, was typically and is today a Republican place, and overtime there was a growing risk of McMinn County reverting to its old ways. The Cantrell-Mansfield machine sought to prevent such an eventuality by both means illegal and legal. The illegal ways would be fraud and intimidation through stuffing ballot boxes as well as telling seniors that their pensions may be held up if they didn’t vote the correct way. On the legal side, Cantrell got the help of his crony in the state legislature George Woods. In 1941, Woods proposed legislation to restrict McMinn County’s voting precincts from 23 to 12 and justices of the peace from 14 to 7, making the justices of the peace majority Cantrell men (Seiber, 1). This was signed into law by Governor Prentice Cooper. The Cantrell machine had other tricks to limit Republican opposition as well; after the Republican dominated McMinn County Court instructed the county to purchase voting machines, Woods got Governor Cooper to sign another bill into law, which abolished the court, with the machines sold under the guise of economy (Seiber, 1).

The Citizens Attempt Lawful Recourse

The residents did not complain to the local or state authorities as they knew they would side with the machine, so they wrote complaints to the Justice Department on the abuses of the Cantrell-Mansfield machine. One letter from a hardware store owner read, “The good people of this county are sacrificing for the cause of America’s freedom but have lost their freedom at home. Both parties have lost the freedom of the ballot box, a dictatorship has been set up, the county treasury is being raided at the expense of the taxpayers, and the good people of this county would like to sell their property and move away. Your department is our last line of defense. Please, for God’s sake come to the rescue of a helpless people” (Kumar). The Department hadn’t written off these complaints as from cranks either. The Justice Department investigated complaints of electoral fraud in McMinn County in 1940, 1942, and 1944 and found in a report that “the alleged violations in McMinn County were the worst ever brought to the attention of the Department of Justice” (Kumar). However, no action was taken. Many of the citizens who remained in McMinn County were older and not in a position to fight back against the machine. What’s more, so many jobs in the county were dependent on support of the machine or at minimum, not opposing the machine. The residents spoke amongst themselves that change would come once the GIs returned. They had no idea how right they’d be.

The Veterans Return

The veterans of McMinn County came back from fighting tyranny abroad only to find it at home under the Cantrell-Mansfield machine. While places like Knoxville and Chattanooga were undergoing a postwar boom, Athens, the heart of the county, was languishing. The GIs noticed the tyranny as they were subjected to shakedowns, arrests, and beatings for a litany of reasons. One early instance was the murder of Navy Seabee Earl Ford in September 1944 by George Spurling, a man with a lengthy criminal record who had been deputized by Deputy Minus Wilburn to arrest GIs (Kumar). Deputy Wilburn quickly worked to reframe this event. He planted some of his son’s pocketknives on Ford to make the incident appear to be self-defense (Watson). Sheriff Mansfield would then claim that Ford had charged Spurling with a knife, despite eyewitnesses attesting to Ford having no knife on him during the incident. There would be another murder of a GI by a deputy as well, which poured further fuel onto the fire of discontent.

The 1946 Election

The GI slate was headed up by respected veteran Knox Henry, who was running for sheriff. The ticket itself was bipartisan to gain maximum appeal, with three Republicans and two Democrats running on it. Since the county Republican Party had long been on the outs with the Cantrell-Mansfield machine, they backed the GI ticket as the best way to get back into office with their man Otto Kennedy advising the GIs to post poll watchers at every station. The ticket was also backed by numerous local businessmen, ensuring it was well-funded. The machine had Cantrell running as sheriff again and Mansfield being elevated to the Tennessee Senate. Bill White motivated the veterans to take whatever action was necessary, “Listen, do you think they’re going to let you win this election? Those people have been taking these elections for years with a bunch of armed thugs. If you never got the guts enough to stand up and fight fire with fire, you ain’t gonna win” (Kumar).

The Cantrell-Mansfield machine was at the ready against the good government veterans, and they had their guards out on the polls. Kennedy advised the veterans to have the GIs as poll watchers, which they would. Election Day was August 1st, and the machine had a strategy: if they could control the ballot boxes at the 1st, 11th, and 12th precincts in Athens along with the Etowah polling station the election would be won (Seiber, 3). Etowah was a simple matter as it was on Cantrell’s hometown and he was there personally to supervise, but the Athens places would require a bit more attention. Several events occurred that day which heated tensions to the boiling point. At 3:00 PM at the 11th precinct, Deputy Windy Wise was supervising and in walks Tom Gillespie. He is an old black farmer and had long been allowed to vote, as black people could do so in Eastern Tennessee, provided they had paid the poll tax. Gillespie presents his poll tax receipt, but Deputy Wise tells him “Nigger, you can’t vote here” (Seiber, 3). After Gillespie inquires why, Wise slugs him with brass knuckles. As he tries to escape from the scene, Wise shoots him in the back and he with Deputy Karl Neil takes him as well as the two GI poll watchers present, Ed Vestal and Charles Scott, to jail.

Meanwhile, at the 12th precinct polling place GIs Bob Hairrell and Leslie Dooley were assigned as poll watchers and observed throughout the day Deputy Minus Wilburn allowing minors to vote and bribing adult voters. It was finally too much for Hairrell when at 3:45 PM he saw Wilburn attempt to permit a woman to vote without proof she had paid her poll tax and was not on the registration list, so he grabbed his hand as he attempted to deposit the ballot, to which Wilburn clubbed Hairell and kicked him in the face, and hauled the GIs to the Athens jail with the ballot box (Seiber, 3). The veterans, who at this time were unarmed, were becoming enraged at the abuses and protested at the outside of the jail, taunting the deputies. While they are distracted by the crowd, Vestal and Scott jump out through the glass jail windows and run, bleeding, to the safety of the veterans. The veterans head back to the GI headquarters, with two deputies trailing them, intending to arrest anyone they could identify. However, instead of making arrests, they were promptly disarmed and captured. Three more deputies were then sent to see what happened to the first two and were disarmed and captured, rinse and repeat on two more deputies. Although some in the crowd assembled outside of the GI headquarters were calling for the killing of the deputies, the GIs opted instead to take the seven of them ten miles into the woods, beat them, and tie them to trees (Seiber, 3). The tables had turned on the previously indisputably powerful deputies.

The End…Or Is It?

By 6:00 PM it looked like the machine had succeeded in stealing another election and many veterans were feeling defeated. However, one of the leading veterans, Bill White, wasn’t having it. He had been growing angrier throughout the day over the obvious fraudulent practices of the Cantrell-Mansfield machine. He delivered a rousing speech:

“Well! Here you are! After three or four years of fighting for your country. You survived it all. You came back. And what did you come back to? A free country? You came back to Athens, Tennessee, in McMinn County, that’s run by a bunch of outlaws. They’ve got hired gunmen all over this county right now at this minute. What for? One purpose. To scare you so bad you won’t dare stand up for the rights you’ve been bleeding and dying for. Some of your mothers and some of your sisters are afraid to walk down the streets to the polling places. Lots of men, too! Because they know what happens. A car drives by in the night and shoots out your windows. If that doesn’t scare you enough, they’ll set fire to your house or your barn. They’ll beat up members of your family and put them in jail. For no reason! Is that the kind of freedom you were supposed to be fighting for? Do you know what your rights are supposed to be? How many rights have you got left? None! Not even the right to vote in a free election. When you lose that, you’ve lost everything. And you are damned well going to lose it unless you fight and fight the only way they understand. Fire with fire! We’ve got to make this an honest election because we promised the people that if they voted it would be an honest election. And it’s going to be. But only if we see that it is. We are going to have to run these organized criminals out of town, and we can do it if we stick together. Are you afraid of them? Why, I could take a banana stalk and run every one of these potbellied draft dodgers across Depot Hill. Get the hell out of here and get something to shoot with. And come back as fast as you can” (Kumar).

White and other veterans proceeded to raid the National Guard armory for weapons and ammunition. He would state in a 1969 interview about their activities that he “broke down the armory doors and took all the rifles, two Thompson sub-machine guns, and all the ammunition we could carry, loaded it up in the two-ton truck and went back to GI headquarters and passed out seventy high-powered rifles and two bandoleers of ammunition with each one” (Seiber, 4). That night, Cantrell, Mansfield, Woods, and fifty deputies were holed up in the Athens jail to “count” the ballots. What they didn’t know was that armed veterans were advancing on their position.

The Battle

The veterans, led by Bill White, issued the demand for them to bring the ballot boxes out. White recalls that he shouted, “Would you damn bastards bring those damn ballot boxes out here or we are going to set siege against the jail and blow it down!” (Seiber, 4) They refused, and a gunfight proceeded between the veterans and the deputies, with veterans throwing Molotov cocktails and gas bombs. White reported that he fired the first shot in the conflict, but historian C. Stephen Bynum reports that the first shot was a shotgun blast that had come from the jail (Kumar). They were having trouble blasting through the jail doors, and the veterans knew they had to get those ballot boxes by morning or else their efforts would have been for naught, and they would face imprisonment. The tide turned in the veterans’ favor at 2:30 AM when they were able to procure dynamite. By this time, George Woods had already fled the jail and an ambulance arrived, presumably for the evacuation of wounded men. The ambulance, it turned out, was the getaway vehicle for Cantrell and Mansfield. At 2:48 AM, the jail was dynamited, and the surrendering deputies handed over the ballot boxes.

After the deputies were defeated, the emboldened townspeople took their vengeance. As Lones Seiber (1985) writes, “The townspeople set upon the captured deputies and, but for the GIs, probably would have killed them all. Minus Wilburn, a particularly unpopular deputy, had his throat slashed; Biscuit Farris, Cantrell’s prison superintendent, had his jaw shattered by a bullet; and Windy Wise was kicked and beaten senseless” (5). However, despite all the tensions and violence, miraculously no one was killed. In the morning the veterans delivered a joint statement over the radio proclaiming their victory, “The GI election officials went to the polls unarmed to have a fair election, as Pat Mansfield promised. They were met with blackjacks and pistols. Several GI officials were beaten and the ballot boxes were moved to the jail. The GI supporters went to the jail to get these ballot boxes and were met by gunfire. The GI candidates had promised that the votes would be counted as cast. They had no choice but to meet fire with fire. In the precincts where the GI candidates were allowed watchers, they led by three-to-one majorities. The GIs are elected and will serve as your county officials beginning September 1, 1946″ (Kumar). George Woods would return to Athens under GI protection to certify the election of the veterans slate and Sheriff Mansfield would depart office early. Of all the people involved in the battle, only Wise was prosecuted, being sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for his shooting of Gillespie (who made a full recovery), being paroled after serving a year. In the immediate aftermath, the national press was unified in condemning the revolt, probably not being aware of the full story of what had been happening in McMinn County and the Feds’ inaction to citizen requests for aid.

Although this incident had brought an end to the Cantrell-Mansfield machine and the new deputies proceeded to raid the illegal establishments previously protected, many socioeconomic problems persisted despite the efforts of the reform government. Numerous GIs were having trouble adjusting to civilian life, with numerous violent incidents surrounding them. Bill White, one of the leaders of the veterans in the Battle of Athens, served as a deputy and had to beat down numerous veterans who were getting into fights. The reform government would eventually collapse, with machine politics returning, albeit absent the gross corruption of the Cantrell-Mansfield machine. Sheriff Henry would serve two terms, afterwards being succeeded by Otto Kennedy. This is one of my favorite stories surrounding the exercise of the Second Amendment, as it was a time in which it was employed to fight tyranny.


Brooks, J.E. (2017, October 8). Battle of Athens. Tennessee Encyclopedia.

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Kumar, N. (2020, September 3). The Battle of Athens, Tennessee. Abbeville Institute.

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Seiber, L. (1985). The Battle of Athens. American Heritage, 36(2).

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Watson, M. (2008, September 21). Wilburn recalls long ago ‘battle’. Dalton Daily Citizen.

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The Case of Congressman Stringfellow

In 1952, Republicans made numerous gains in Congress. One of these was Utah’s 1st district, with Douglas Stringfellow trouncing the Democratic nominee in a seat that had been held by the Democratic Party for twenty years. Stringfellow had campaigned as a war hero with a deeply compelling story: that he had been an agent of the OSS who had parachuted into Germany to rescue a German nuclear scientist Otto Hahn and bring him to Britain, been captured by the SS, and tortured in the Belsen concentration camp, resulting in him being a paraplegic. Stringfellow was rescued by the anti-Nazi resistance and had been awarded the Silver Star for his service. More compelling yet, he was the only survivor of his team.
During his term, he voted a solidly conservative line, getting an MC-Index score of 96%. His career seemed to have nowhere to move but up, and in fall 1954 he appeared on the TV show This Is Your Life, where he told his story to a national audience. This attention resulted in Hollywood directors bidding for the film rights to his story, but there were doubts.

After holes and inconsistencies were found in his story by Democratic opposition, Senators Wallace Bennett and Arthur Watkins questioned him and under their questioning he admitted the story was false. The Mormon church ordered him to confess his false story on television. Stringfellow did just that on October 16th, admitting that he walked with a cane due to being injured by a French land mine as a GI rather than being tortured as an OSS agent, and offered to withdraw from the race. With the election just weeks away, the GOP accepted his offer and promptly replaced him with respected Professor Henry A. Dixon of Utah State Agricultural College, who won the election. Stringfellow resumed a career in broadcasting under a pseudonym after his dropping out from politics. In his personal writings, he held that he suffered a delusion about himself from the time he was injured in 1944 until he was running for office in 1952, only realizing this story was false by the time he had been elected once people had started questioning the story (Davidson). Since mental illness was deeply stigmatized in 1952, he thought it was preferable for him to have been seen as a liar. Stringfellow suffered a fatal heart attack on October 20, 1966, only 44 years old.


Davidson, L. (2013, December 30). Scandalized Utah congressman believed his false war stories. The Salt Lake Tribune.

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Douglas R. Stringfellow. Museum of Hoaxes.

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The Controversial Career of Representative Douglas Stringfellow of Utah. U.S. House of Representatives.

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The House Select Committee on Assassinations: Pouring Fuel on the JFK Conspiracy Fire

The 1970s were a decade of disillusionment for the people of the United States. America lacked the political will to prevent South Vietnam from being invaded and North Vietnam and the Viet Cong knew it, the booming 60s had declined to the stagflation 70s, and faith in the American presidency was shaken with Watergate. There was also bad news when it came to American intelligence agencies; in 1975, the Church Committee uncovered the existence of numerous secret programs under the CIA, FBI, NSA, and IRS that regularly abused power and violated the law. One of these was the CIA’s Family Jewels, a program that provided for CIA participation in assassinations of foreign leaders. This led to questions as to whether any American intelligence agencies were involved in the assassinations of JFK and MLK. What’s more, conspiracy theories on these assassinations were on the rise. In 1966, Mark Lane, a former New York state legislator, published Rush to Judgment, an indictment of the Warren Commission largely using the commission’s report. Among its critiques of the commission include that there were witnesses who claimed to hear gunshots coming from the grassy knoll of Dealey Plaza rather than the Texas School Book Depository and that Warren Commission firearms experts were unable to replicate Oswald’s alleged three shots (Bugliosi). Warren ultimately won unanimous approval for the commission’s findings despite doubts on its conclusions from some of its members, such as Senators Richard Russell (D-Ga.), in the hopes it would easily resolve the issue. He had tried unanimity with Brown v. Board of Education (1954), in which he swayed Justice Stanley Forman Reed, who wasn’t convinced segregation was discrimination, to vote for to avoid being the only dissenter. However, like with Brown, the Warren Commission itself wouldn’t stop significant opposition. Lane’s book popularized conspiracy theories regarding the Kennedy Assassination, with 81% of the public according to a 1976 Gallup poll believing that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone (Swift). Doubts about the Warren Commission were not without some reason; there were numerous eyewitnesses the commission did not interview, the FBI and CIA downplayed their foreknowledge of who Oswald was to dodge potential blame for failing to prevent the assassination, and most damning of all was that the decision had been made ahead of time by President Johnson, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach that Oswald and only Oswald was the perpetrator. The Warren Commission’s investigation was motivated by a political need to bring closure to the American public and in a way that would not cause complications for the US government. Representative Thomas Downing (D-Va.) became the chief advocate for the creation of a House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), with Representative Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.) and Delegate Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.) joining in. The House voted to establish this committee in 1976, making Downing chair.

The Committee

In addition to Downing as chairman, Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.), Louis Stokes (D-Ohio), L. Richardson Preyer (D-N.C.), Yvonne Burke (D-Calif.), Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), Harold Ford (D-Tenn.), Floyd Fithian (D-Ind.), Robert Edgar (D-Penn.), Samuel Devine (R-Ohio), Stewart McKinney (R-Conn.), Charles Thone (R-Neb.), and Harold Sawyer (R-Mich.) sat on the committee. Preyer headed the JFK assassination subcommittee while Fauntroy headed the MLK assassination subcommittee. The committee would be troubled and had three chairmen. Downing didn’t run for reelection in 1976 and was replaced with Gonzalez, whose relationship with the head counsel was so acrimonious it resulted in the resignations of both men from the committee. The next and final chairman was Louis Stokes (D-Ohio).

Hot New Evidence: The Dictabelt Recording

A major new piece of evidence reviewed by the JFK subcommittee was from the discovery that an officer who was said to have been near the motorcade, H.B. McLain, had an open mic. The resulting Dictabelt recording was the basis by which the committee concluded that four, not two to three shots as reported by the Warren Commission, were fired. Analysis of the recording by acoustics experts revealed that with 95% confidence the fourth shot came from…the grassy knoll! However, the experts also concluded that this fourth shot didn’t hit Kennedy. This seemed to change the whole narrative of the Kennedy assassination. If this recording was accurate, it meant that the first two shots came from Oswald in the Texas Book Depository, a third from the grassy knoll by an unknown actor that missed, and the fourth again from Oswald. In 2001, Dr. Donald B. Thomas wrote in the journal Science & Justice an article that reaffirmed the HSCA findings. But was this all it was cracked up to be?

Not So Hot? Problems with the Dictabelt Recording

Acceptance of this Dictabelt recording was not unanimous. Representatives Devine, Edgar, Sawyer, and Thone dissented and based their dissent on skepticism over the validity of the recording. They highlighted the fact that of the people on the scene who were interviewed, 90% had reported two to three shots heard. Representatives Devine and Edgar in their views pointed out that less than 12% of witnesses claimed to hear a shot from the grassy knoll, over 27% heard the shot from the Texas Book Depository, and 17% heard the shot from another building (National Archives, 492). They dismissed the idea of conspiracy with Kennedy while regarding an MLK conspiracy as more plausible albeit inconclusive based on evidence. Devine and Edgar also noted, “There is another reason to doubt the open-microphone evidence. Officer H.B. McLain of the Dallas Police Department was identified by the acoustics experts as being the operator of a motorcycle with an open mike to the left rear of the President’s limousine. But, apparently the officer himself rejects the assumption, which led to the test and reenactments. He asks a very simple, but important question, “If it was my radio on my motorcycle, why did it not record the revving up at high speed plus my siren when we immediately took off to Parkland Hospital?”” (National Archives, 492-93)

Skepticism of the recording only grew with time. A 1980 report from the FBI Technical Services Division found that it could not be proven that gunshots were heard on the Dictabelt and a separate Justice Department investigation ruled out a conspiracy. In 2003, Peter Jennings of ABC News conducted his own investigation into the recording and found that the recording could not have originated from McLain and what’s more could not have come from Dealey Plaza (Cunningham). In 2013, this recording would be conclusively debunked at the conclusion of Professor Larry Sabato’s five-year study into the JFK assassination. This study used more advanced acoustics technology to analyze the recording. It turns out the recording had been two miles from Dealey Plaza, and that what was interpreted as gunshots were the sounds of the motorcycle and a stuck microphone. As Professor Sabato noted, “By no means were the sins of the HSCA equivalent to the Warren Commission, however, the HSCA, like the Warren Commission did not succeed….Our analysis shows that no gunshots were recorded on the dictabelt” (Rossoll).

JFK Committee Conclusion

The committee concluded that Kennedy was probably assassinated as the result of a conspiracy, while ruling that the Soviets, the Cubans, the CIA and FBI, anti-Castro Cubans, and organized crime were not involved in the assassination. However, it didn’t rule out that individuals among anti-Castro Cubans and organized crime were involved. The Committee also reaffirmed the Warren Commission’s conclusions that Oswald was the assassin and that a single bullet had traveled through Kennedy and Connally. Some members, such as Floyd Fithian (D-Ind.), believed that members of the mob were implicated. The sole evidence that the committee had for the belief that there was a second shooter was the recording. The story the HSCA presented on this was that the first, second, and fourth shots had come from Oswald at the Texas School Book Depository while the third shot that missed came from the grassy knoll. This conclusion gave conspiracy theorists ammunition. Although the committee’s conspiracy finding was not nearly as comprehensive as might be suggested and ruled out numerous favorite targets of conspiracy theorists, this did not deter them.

The MLK Assassination Panel

The MLK assassination panel reached some more conventional conclusions, albeit with the conclusion that “there is a likelihood” that his assassination was the result of a conspiracy. They concluded that it was highly probable that James Earl Ray had stalked Dr. King for days and then shot him. They found his alibi of “Raoul” to be false and ruled out other exculpatory evidence. The committee also ruled out FBI involvement in the MLK assassination, but did criticize aspects of its investigation afterwards, such as not considering the possibility of conspiracy. They also criticized the FBI targeting him using illegal tactics through the COINTELPRO program. The conspirators the committee thought could have been involved were not government actors, rather Ray’s brothers. MLK conspiracy theories, with support from some of his family, would gain more coverage in the Loyd Jowers trial in 1999, but that is a story for a different post.


Bugliosi, V. (2007). Reclaiming history: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. New York, NY: Norton.

Summary of Findings. U.S. Archives.

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Cunningham, A. (2021). Evidence of a JFK Murder Conspiracy? The Dictabelt Recording of the Kennedy Assassination. History is Now Magazine.

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Rossoll, N. (2013, October 17). New Research Challenges JFK Death Conspiracy Theory. ABC News.

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Sabato, L.J. (2013, November 21). Is there more to JFK assassination? CNN.

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Separate Views of Hons. Samuel L. Devine and Robert W. Edgar. National Archives.

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Swift, A. (2013, November 15). Majority in U.S. Still Believe JFK Killed in a Conspiracy. Gallup.

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The Lost Promise of Jerry Litton

Presidential historians wonder with the two who died early in their term what they would have been like had they lived just a bit longer through it. William Henry Harrison lived merely a month after delivering one of the longest inaugural addresses in the cold rain, while James A. Garfield was only able to get his appointments confirmed before he was shot by deranged office seeker Charles J. Guiteau. Today I have a lesser-known example of lost potential, Jerry Lon Litton.

In 1956, Litton, the 19-year old national secretary of Future Farmers of America, visits former President Truman to invite him to speak at the FFA convention. What is supposed to be a 15 minute conversation between them extends to two hours (Mertens). Truman is deeply impressed with the young man. He advises him to start his own business and run for public office (Jolley).

Litton joins the family’s successful cattle ranch in his hometown of Chillicothe and expands upon its success, gets married, and has two children. He is a natural people person, being able to relate to them regardless of what station in life they are in. This serves him well when he seeks a seat in Congress. In 1972, President Nixon is running for reelection. In Missouri’s 6th district, moderate conservative Democrat Bill Hull has had enough. He is 66 years old, his last few elections have been quite competitive, and the direction of the Democratic Party only seems to be moving further left with the nomination of George McGovern. Running in his place is Litton, who is by contrast young and moderately liberal. He had narrowly defeated the Democratic Party establishment’s preferred candidate in the primary, and he becomes immensely popular after winning the election.

Litton as Congressman

To regularly communicate with his constituents, Litton forms the Sixth District Congressional Club, which in 1974 he expands into a TV show, Dialogue with Litton. On this program he discusses the concerns of constituents, answers their unscripted questions, and has various guests and makes a great effort to restore people’s faith in the American system of government during a decade marked by disappointment and disillusionment. His guests include future President Jimmy Carter, Senators Hubert Humphrey and Thomas Eagleton, and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. Political leaders who meet Litton walk away impressed. Future Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) offered this praise, “I’ve been in Congress 22 years and I have never yet met a freshman member of Congress that could equal Jerry Litton” (Historic Missourians). Jimmy Carter expresses his belief that he would one day be president. He is a hard worker and a good listener, and his voters know it.

Although Litton won by less than ten points in 1972, in 1974 he wins reelection with a whopping 79% of the vote. This is a much higher margin than his predecessor had ever won and is the highest margin of any Missouri incumbent that year despite him representing a district that on paper is Republican. Litton has a moderately liberal record (MC-Index: 26%) and a populist streak, which shows when he opposes a pay raise for members of Congress while the public struggles with high inflation. He is also a strong advocate for farmers. Reporter Robert Macy, who covered his Senate race, recalled, “You had to be told, or you read someplace, that he was a Democrat. He wasn’t this type of person that wore the party label on their vest. He was the type of politician and the type of person that fit in well with presidents or the farmer down the road. And equally liked by both of them” (Newton).

In 1976, he wants to expand the scope of his service, so he runs for the Senate. However, the competition for the primary is formidable; one of the candidates is Jim Symington, a member of Congress who has been in office longer and also happens to be the retiring senator’s son. Another is Warren Hearnes, who had served as Missouri’s governor from 1965 to 1973. Litton runs a hands-on, constituent focused campaign; he tours the state, hosting small “Dialogue with Litton” sessions. On the day of the primary, he prevails with 45%, winning by almost 20 points over Hearnes, who took second.

Jerry Litton seems too good to be true, and fate cruelly ensured this to be so. On the night of his primary victory, he and his family board a plane to attend the victory party. However, the plane’s engine fails and only nineteen seconds after takeoff, the plane crashes into a soybean field in a blazing inferno with all on board killed. He was only 39. Also on board was Litton’s pilot friend Paul Rupp and his son, Rupp Jr. The tragedy for the people of Chillicothe is immeasurable…their favorite son and his family are gone in an instant.


Litton is replaced on the ticket with Hearnes, who goes on to lose the election to Republican John Danforth, who himself is a figure who reaches across the aisle. The deaths of Litton and his family were a great loss for Chillicothe, a great loss for Missouri, and a great loss for America. His “Dialogue with Litton” reminds me a bit of conversational podcasts as opposed to partisan news, acerbic opinion shows, and the acrimonious point-counterpoint format. Tragically, Litton would not be the last Democratic Senate nominee from Missouri to die in a plane crash; in 2000, Mel Carnahan would meet the same fate right before the election and strangely, he wins. Fortunately, his wife, Jean, was not on board and served temporarily in his place.


Jolley, L.R. Jerry L. Litton. Historic Missourians.

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Jerry L. Litton

Mertens, R. (2012, October 3). Remembering Jerry Litton. College of Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources.

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Remembering Jerry Litton

Newton, K. (2016, August 1). Jerry Litton, and what might have been. News-Press Now.

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Rep. Litton dies in plane crash, as he wins voting. (1976, August 5). St. Petersburg Times.
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Texas Legends #17: Jake Pickle

On July 9, 1963, President John F. Kennedy nominates Congressman Homer Thornberry of Austin, to a federal judgeship. Thornberry is a protégé of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was his predecessor to the seat. His successor, elected shortly before Christmas, is James Jarrell (“J.J” or “Jake”) Pickle (1913-2005). Pickle was another protégé of Lyndon B. Johnson from the New Deal days when he worked as an area director for the National Youth Administration and straddled between the liberal and conservative wings of the party. In 1954, he worked for the campaign to reelect conservative Governor Allan Shivers over liberal Ralph Yarborough, and his advertising firm released an ad called “The Port Arthur Story”, which told in a slanted manner the story of the 10-month strike by the left-wing Congress of Industrial Organizations in Port Arthur, Texas, which brought about the deterioration of the livelihood of town. It held that Shivers was the hero defending the town while Yarborough was, although not a communist, “in bed” with them. Pickle denied direct involvement with the ad and found it distasteful. While in Congress, he supported most of the Great Society such as the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, but he was not 100%, most notably voting against Medicare in 1965. Pickle made a splash early in his career when he was one of only four Texas House Democrats to vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although this was an act of courage for a representative of Texas at the time and what he regarded as his most difficult vote, his record on civil rights would not always be consistently positive. Pickle voted for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 but did not support fair housing legislation. HIs record during the Johnson years could be characterized as moderately liberal.

A Pickle for Nixon

While Jake Pickle’s record shifted somewhat rightward during the Nixon years, he nonetheless challenged Nixon on multiple fronts. He challenged abusive practices by the IRS and fought his extensive and arguably abusive use of the power of impoundment, which led to Congress crippling that power in 1974. Pickle also was known as a great investigator. According to Burka and Smith (1976), he doggedly pursued investigations into “the 1972 Russian wheat deal boxcar shortage and the Dita Beard ITT scandal”.

The Pickle Brand and Saving Social Security

Pickle gives Coretta Scott King his trademark squeaky toy pickle.

Pickle would establish his own brand in politics, having distributed since he ran for student body president in college “pickle pins”, small pickle-shaped lapel pins (Cox). After being elected to Congress, he would add squeaky rubber toy pickles that he would hand out during campaign season and his Texas Independence Day (March 2) chili was a favorite among colleagues. Indeed, his colleagues found him likeable and enduring. In 1975, Pickle joined the House Ways and Means Committee at the behest of the Texas Congressional delegation, which wanted to block the spot from going to Texas’ most liberal Democrat, Bob Eckhardt, who they considered unfriendly to the oil industry. Four years later became head of its Social Security subcommittee. There, he regarded himself as a foremost defender of Social Security. In 1983, he played his greatest role in Congress when he closely worked with the Reagan Administration to save Social Security from insolvency through raising the payroll tax and increasing the eligibility age for full benefits from 65 to 67, the process starting in 2000. The latter was Pickle’s proposal and saving Social Security he would consider his greatest achievement.

One of Pickle’s “pickle pins”.

The 1980s would see Pickle’s record shift in a bit of a more liberal direction, indicative of the start of the age of increasing partisanship, which we still live in today. His departure from Congress was well-timed; he chose to retire in 1994, the midterm year in which Republicans swept back into the House and Senate. Pickle was overall a moderate, with a lifetime MC-Index score of 40%. His moderate record reflected the character of his district at the time, which although it was staunchly Democratic, there were a lot of liberal voters in Austin and significant enough pockets of conservative voters outside of the city. In 1997, Pickle published with his wife Jake, a recollection of stories from his life and career, with a forward penned by former Governor Ann Richards.


Bartlett, B. (2009, October 9). It’s Time For Deficit Reduction. Forbes.

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Burka, P. & Smith, G. (1976, May). The Best, the Worst, and the Fair-To-Middlin’. Texas Monthly.

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Cox, P.L. (2005, July 14). Pickle, James Jarrell [Jake]. Texas Historical Association.

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Holley, J. (2005, June 20). Texas Rep. J.J.. Pickle Dies. The Washington Post.

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The Port Arthur Story. The Dallas Morning News.

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The Man Who Saved the GOP

I have opted to republish my original post on this on my newer blog as well, mikeholme.substack.com. It is a lengthy read because I read the man’s autobiography in full, and I thought there were a lot of good quotes.

On January 31, 1961, Congress is considering Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas’ resolution to expand the House Rules Committee by two Democrats and one Republican for the 87th Congress. This committee, chaired by Rep. Howard W. Smith of Virginia since 1955, has time and again buried liberal legislation. Although Smith is a Democrat, he has been out of step with the national party for decades and has even collaborated in the demise of liberal legislation with Republican Minority Leader Charles Halleck of Indiana. President Kennedy openly supports Rayburn’s plan, as his agenda will have a better chance of passing Congress. However, the support of Kennedy and Rayburn isn’t enough. Despite Southern Democrats having tremendous respect and admiration for Rayburn, they tend to agree with Smith more. Kennedy and Rayburn need some Republican votes to make this happen. Coming to their rescue is, on his face, an unlikely source: an elderly backbencher from Massachusetts named Joe Martin (1884-1968). He expresses his belief that Republicans should give his fellow Bay Stater a chance, and his support for this resolution carries the day…the resolution passes by five votes, with twenty-two Republicans contributing to the margin, many from the Northeast (Kenneally, 285). Kennedy’s agenda now has a sufficient chance of passing the 87th Congress. It turns out Martin is no ordinary backbencher. He had once been the leader of the House Republicans and was twice Speaker of the House. Martin, however, had been ousted from his role after the disastrous 1958 midterms in favor of his former deputy, Halleck, and he took the chance to get even on the side. He had also been more cooperative with Rayburn than Halleck was. According to Martin’s biographer James J. Kenneally (2003), “Halleck and Smith, by changing the Republican approach on Rules, hoped to lead a coalition by which they could control the House” (274). Martin, on the other hand, would find ways to get legislation out of the Rules Committee through moderate Republicans. Although he denied a motive of payback, he also said that “I would not, of course, care to see either Mr. Smith or Mr. Halleck with too much power” (Kenneally, 285). Martin helping make it possible for Kennedy’s agenda to have a chance in the 87th Congress was quite a turnaround for a man who had opposed Rules Committee reform under President Truman and had been the most important factor in stopping JFK’s grandfather from being elected to the Senate. Today’s story is about Joe Martin, a powerhouse of 20th century American politics.

I have always scoffed at the prediction of the death of either the Republican or Democratic Party. One way or another, one of them will eventually screw up bad enough for the other to come back into power. The ultimate time in which the former seemed to be on the verge of death was during the Great Depression, and Martin was the man to bring it back. Congressman Joe Martin is today a forgotten man, even though he often served as his (the taxpayer) spokesman during the New Deal years. He was a short, dumpy fellow who was raised in a working-class family (his father was a blacksmith) yet he managed to save up the money he made as a paper boy to buy the newspaper and ultimately made his way to Speaker of the House. Martin delivered no memorable speeches and no laws bear his name, yet he is more responsible than anyone else for the resuscitation of the Republican Party as its House leader from 1939 to 1959.

The Beginning

His political start began in his hometown of North Attleboro, Massachusetts. As he said about his political affiliation, “There has never been any question about my Republicanism. I grew up a Republican simply because my family and practically all my neighbors were Republicans. The very air I breathed in North Attleboro was Republican, and it had never occurred to me to be a Democrat” (Martin, 27). He had first participated in politics when he marched in a torchlight parade for William McKinley in 1896, a youth of 11. When he was elected to the state House, serving from 1912 to 1914. Martin identified with the conservative wing of the party, backing Taft for reelection, which ran contrary to the mood of his state district, which was for Theodore Roosevelt. According to him, he was saved for reelection only by his personal popularity. Martin held in his autobiography that “It has been my observation that in politics a man who has the courage of his convictions survives longer than the man who shrinks from them” (Martin, 35). He was next elected to the state Senate, where he served from 1914 to 1917. During his time in state politics, he started as an opponent of women’s suffrage, voting against it in 1912 and 1913, but in 1917 and 1918 he voted for it and endorsed the 19th Amendment as a reward for women’s war work (Kenneally, 38). In 1922, Martin ran Senator Henry Cabot Lodge’s reelection campaign, who was facing the most difficult election of his career against Democrat John F. Fitzgerald, JFK’s maternal grandfather. His efforts ultimately saved Lodge by 7,000 votes. In 1924, he ran in the Republican primary against Congressman William S. Greene, an octogenarian who had voted against the 19th Amendment. Martin used Greene’s age against him but the incumbent narrowly prevailed. However, Greene died shortly after the primary, leaving Martin free to run for and win the seat.

Early Years in Congress

Martin was a personal friend and protégé of President Calvin Coolidge and supported his policies. Recalling back, he remarked on his friend that he was “A frugal man, who would have been horrified at today’s free spending…” and that “Outwardly Coolidge was shy and taciturn. Toward his friends, however, he could be surprisingly warm even sentimental. He had a strong sense of loyalty. He was able. He possessed sound judgment. His word was good. He was well liked. He was a strong governor” (Martin, 40). Martin’s judgment of Coolidge’s presidency was, as you might expect, quite positive. He said of him, “As a President, Coolidge was not brilliant by any means, but he exercised good, hard common sense and did not try to stir up trouble. He was content to try to give the people the kind of administration they wanted and was not forever worrying them with alarums from Washington. He was the man for his time and made an excellent President” (Martin, 41).

A Glimpse Into 1920s Congress

Martin’s view of Congress in the 1920s provides a dramatic contrast to today. When he entered there was no air conditioning, no microphones, and the lighting was such that people who read for a long time got eyestrain. Circumstances forced Congress to wrap up business more efficiently. He lamented a decline in quality oratory, holding that “In older days, I was told, a member would not wish to make more than two speeches a session. The country might be better off if we returned to that custom. During my own time in Congress I have witnessed a deterioration in political oratory. Speakers are less eloquent nowadays. More personal effort used to go into the writing of speeches” (Martin, 48). Martin also observed that air conditioning lengthened the time business would go on in the House, that foreign policy was of little concern. The 1920s were marked by “the absence then of the immense pressures that came with the Depression, World War II, Korea, and the cold war” (Martin, 49). In the House, he built up vital relations with people, including ones he had many disagreements with, and some of these, particularly Southerners, would prove valuable in the future when he would do battle against the New Deal. Martin recalls Rep. Fiorello La Guardia (R-N.Y.), and says of him, “He once said to me, “I wish you were a liberal. If you were, you’d be a great leader for us.” Although we were poles apart politically, I liked and admired La Guardia. Many people complained that he was a radical; perhaps he was. That does not alter the fact that he did a great deal of good” (Martin, 50).

Leading Resistance to the New Deal

Martin tended to identify with the Republican Party’s Old Guard but could be pragmatic and embrace the occasional social reform, particularly if it helped workers. Martin’s biographer, James J. Kenneally, labeled him a “compassionate conservative”. His politics combined with his people skills and the defeats of many Republican incumbents during the Great Depression, made him an ideal choice for the fast track to leadership: staunchly conservative Minority Leader Bert Snell (R-N.Y.) certainly thought and acted so. Martin (1960) was supportive of President Herbert Hoover and his 1932 bid for reelection, but reached the conclusion in his autobiography that if Hoover had only embraced legalization of beer and wine he could have won another term (67). This might sound a bit of a limited analysis, but consider that of all of Roosevelt’s campaign proposals, repeal of Prohibition was easily his most popular and Roosevelt ran a much more conservative line than he ultimately governed. This was backed by internal polling from the Hoover campaign as well as the greater press coverage for Roosvelt repealing Prohibition rather than the proposed New Deal (Lewis). Martin opposed most of the New Deal and criticized elements of it as fascist and socialist. He voted against the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. With the latter two he did so partly on the grounds that they advantaged the South over New England. Martin also supported alternatives to work relief that placed the distribution in state instead of federal hands and opposed FDR’s tax increases. The tax increases he regarded as so objectionable as they were “…using the power of taxation to underwrite pet theories and impose a new philosophy of government on the country socialism. By collecting and spending huge sums the New Deal was causing centralization of power in Washington. When government money is being spent, the government is going to run the show. Moreover, the New Dealers were being utterly inconsistent. On the one hand they were denouncing industry for failing to provide jobs; on the other they were levying punitive taxes that penalized thrifty and cautious companies. Business was prevented from accumulating adequate surpluses with which to expand its plant and provide the very jobs the government was howling for…Heavy federal spending and increasing centralization of government in an expanding bureaucracy in Washington were other aspects of the New Deal that I fought in a great many instances because they were repulsive to Republican traditions” (Martin, 76-77). However, Martin also voted for Social Security and a federal minimum wage, seeing them as benefits to the elderly and to workers. Martin (1960) assessed Roosevelt himself thusly, “When he became President, I liked Roosevelt personally and admired ruefully at times his dynamic political skill. Of all our Presidents, he has been the shrewdest politician. Politically, he was much smarter than his party. He was a superb judge of public opinion and was wonderfully adept at creating a personal following” (68). He also found him a great conversationalist, but that he would also be very cunning. The old Congressman recalled, “He was a crafty speaker, who might devote two thirds of the time to matters far removed from Washington only to weave into the other third a skillful pitch for something he wanted from Congress” (Martin, 71).

In 1938, Snell decided to retire and Martin was the clear choice for his successor. That year’s midterms were a triumph for the GOP, regaining much lost ground, but not near enough to be a majority. Martin was now Minority Leader. As he reflected on this period, “Through the violent years of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal my role of leader put me in the forefront of the opposition not only to many of Roosevelt’s domestic spending programs, but also to measures, such as the lifting of the arms embargo, that threatened to drag us into war abroad long before Pearl Harbor did it for us” (Martin, 2). He was a man devoted to his work…his hobbies were politics, politics, politics, and collecting little elephant figurines. His lifestyle was not what people would think of as normal…he was a bachelor and didn’t smoke, drink, or dance, and lived with his mother (she had a bad case of varicose veins) right up until her death in 1957. Martin also became known for his delightful malapropisms, including “gilded muscles” instead of guided missiles and “headlights” instead of highlights for Republican programs (Time, 1968).

With this devotion to politics and his amiable demeanor, Martin was able to cultivate ties with Southern Democrats, particularly his friend on the Rules Committee, Eugene Cox of Georgia, and they were key players in the newly formed Conservative Coalition. This alliance of Republicans and Southern Democrats aimed to block further New Deal measures and proved quite successful in these endeavors, leaving FDR to focus mostly on foreign policy. By World War II’s end, gone were the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Youth Administration among other agencies. He reflected on his opposition, “Now, with the battles of the Thirties far behind us and the reforms forged in those controversies accepted as a normal part of our life, one cannot so easily understand what a wrench many of the innovations of the New Deal caused Republicans of my bent and background. American society as it had existed for a generation or so before the Depression was certainly not a perfect society, as anyone knew who had, like myself, lived close to the hardships of New England mill towns. Nevertheless, it was a good society, and, at its own peculiar pace, a progressive society. Above all, in a world that was flying faster than anyone realized into the clutches of regimentation it was a society that cherished the individual and fostered his enterprise” (Martin, 65). He ultimately had no regrets about his role in opposition to the New Deal. Martin (1960) said on the matter, “Looking back now on the huge spending of that period, I am convinced that I was right. It never did bring us the prosperity we groped for” (78).

On foreign policy, he supported preparation for war including the peacetime draft but opposed measures he thought would bring the United States closer to war, including Lend-Lease and the repeal of the arms embargo. His stances on foreign policy along with those of Reps. Hamilton Fish (R-N.Y.) and Joe Barton (R-N.Y.) led President Roosevelt to include them in a rollicking taunt of “Martin, Barton, and Fish” in 1940. Martin (1960) reflected on his foreign policy, “I despised Hitler and Mussolini and certainly hoped that the Allies would defeat them once the battle was joined. On the other hand, I thought it was alarmist nonsense and interventionist propaganda to say that a Germany victorious in Western Europe could leap across thousands of miles of ocean successfully to invade the United States through Canada or Latin America. While I was alarmed by the menace of Hitler, I did not think that a German victory would put the United States in peril of its life. I did believe that the United States must make itself strong” (89). Such esteem Martin had from his colleagues in his leadership that he was made chairman of the Republican National Convention in 1940, 1944, 1948, 1952, and 1956, a record.

World War II and the Truman Years

He supported the war effort of course but also supported tax relief and the Smith-Connally Act over President Roosevelt’s veto. Politics did not come to a screeching halt because there was a world war. The Republican Party maintained under his leadership during wartime the status of loyal opposition. Martin was even one of the few legislators in the know about the Manhattan Project and helped allocate funding for it in the military budget (Ford, 4). During the Truman years, Martin maintained his stance as leader of the opposition and he reflected on the nature of that time, “The years of his presidency were a period of dizzying surprises. They were crammed with drama and suspense, wisdom and folly, greatness and smallness, comedy and tragedy. The Truman era was an incredible kaleidoscope, alternately dazzling, bewildering, and distressing” (Martin, 175). He also thought at the time that Truman’s dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan to have been a mistake. However, similar to FDR, on a personal level they got along quite well. Martin was a personal friend of Truman’s, but remarked “Politically, because of the leading roles we played in our opposing parties, we often carried on like cobra and mongoose” (Martin, 175). In 1946, shortages, particularly on meat, wore on the American public and the GOP put out a successful campaign slogan in “Had Enough?”, which catapulted the Republican Party into Congressional majorities for the first time since the Hoover Administration.

Under Martin’s leadership, the 80th Congress pushed a conservative agenda on domestic policy and an internationalist agenda on foreign policy. The Congress passed over President Truman’s veto the Taft-Hartley Labor Act, tax cuts, and a bill loosening anti-trust regulations on railroads. On foreign policy, they passed the Marshall Plan and aid to Greece and Turkey, both measures President Truman championed. Martin had come to the conclusion that foreign aid was a highly necessary tool in prosecuting the Cold War, as America needed to compete for influence in Africa and Asia. This Congress also conducted the House Committee on Un-American Activities Hollywood hearings, resulting in contempt citations for the “Hollywood Ten”, members of the American Communist Party, that landed the men in jail. Truman nonetheless derided the 80th Congress as the “do-nothing Congress” in the sense that they did nothing he wanted on domestic policy. Martin (1960) said on his oppositional Congress, “…as Speaker of the Eightieth Congress in 1947-48, I led the Republicans in what looks in retrospect like the last stand against heavy federal spending, high taxes, centralization, and extravagance” (177). It was also his view that the Speaker of the House, despite the reforms against Joe Cannon in 1910, was still a highly powerful figure in that they have the ultimate say who goes on what committee in Congress and they decide who rises in the ranks. Despite such power, Martin (1960) understood that it should be used judiciously, “In order to maintain his effectiveness a Speaker has to be fair. He is no longer a Reed or a Cannon. His rulings can be overturned by the House” (181). Truman successfully ran against the 80th Congress, resulting in the loss of GOP majorities as well as presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey’s (who wouldn’t defend the Congress) loss. When Dewey had campaigned in North Attleboro, Martin’s mother, as he wrote, “admonished him with more wisdom than any of us realized at the time “Don’t take it so easy” (Martin, 19). Out as Speaker, he early and often opposed President Truman’s proposed successor to the New Deal, the Fair Deal. Except this time, the Conservative Coalition was mostly successful in stopping it. Martin (1960) believed that Dewey’s 1948 loss was a disaster for political stability, stating “Instead of two healthy parties, we had one party bloated with a too-long tenure and aother party reduced to dark frustration. In this unwholesome state some Republicans turned to extremism because, as the Dewey defeat seemed to prove, the course of moderation had failed us once again. The nation sank into division and bitterness it need not have known, nor would have, under anything like normal circumstances. If Dewey had been elected in 1948, we never would have experienced the McCarthy era because Republican energies would have been working in a different direction, discharging the responsibilities of administering the government” (197-198).

On April 6, 1951, Martin sparked drama when he read a letter from General Douglas MacArthur to him into the Congressional Record, which criticized President Truman and his allies’ conduct of the Korean War. MacArthur was promptly fired, resulting in a tremendous controversy. He regretted his exposure of the letter, as he hoped it would further MacArthur’s cause instead of getting him fired. He arranged for MacArthur to deliver his famous “Old Soldiers Never Die” address to Congress on April 19th (Patriot’s Day in New England), a speech that moved many Republican members to tears. Representative Dewey Short (R-Mo.), himself a masterful orator, praised the speech, “We saw a great hunk of God in the flesh. We heard the voice of God” (Kenneally, 188). Not everyone saw it that way. President Truman, for instance, read the speech and in an interview after his presidency remarked that “It was nothing but a bunch of damn bullshit” (Weintraub). Martin continued to attack the administration on foreign policy, blaming the loss of China on George Marshall and attempting to deny Secretary of State Dean Acheson his salary. Martin reflected on his attack, “We believed that Secretary Acheson was largely to blame for the administration’s course…There was no personal vindictiveness on my part. Acheson was simply in the line of fire as I had been in Roosevelt’s when he delivered his ‘Martin, Barton and Fish speeches'” (Kenneally, 188).

President Martin?

There had in the past been talk of Joe Martin as either president or vice president, and it wasn’t talk he pushed hard to entertain. In 1952, he thought MacArthur would be the prime choice for president and early on surreptitiously was helping Taft. Indeed, reports from people familiar with Taft on the subject of who he would pick as vice president, the top two were MacArthur and Martin, with Taft’s Massachusetts campaign manager Basil Brewer reporting his pick would have been Martin (Kenneally, 191). If Taft had clinched the nomination, picked Martin, and won the presidency, he would have been the 35th president as Taft would die the next year of cancer. Once it was clear Eisenhower was going to win, Martin suppressed dissent and proclaimed him the victor. Journalist William Allen White had said of a possible dark horse Martin candidacy in 1940, “He will make…if the dice roll right, a liberty-loving president” (Ford).

The Eisenhower Years: Martin as an Eisenhower Republican

After the 1952 election, Joe Martin was back as Speaker and dedicated to pushing the Republican Party agenda and regarded the president’s agenda as synonymous. Therefore, he moved to support measures that bore similarity to measures that Martin and other Republicans had staunchly opposed under President Truman. This included substantive foreign aid packages, federal aid to education, and the construction of some public housing. The only issue Martin could not back Eisenhower on in his first term was on the St. Lawrence Seaway, as one of its impacts would direct commercial traffic away from New England. However, he also did not try to obstruct the project. Martin also saw Senator Joseph McCarthy as useful up until the point he started attacking the Eisenhower Administration with the same fury he had the Truman Administration (Martin, 237).

The more hardline conservatives in the party were unhappy with the moderate course of Eisenhower, such as Hamer Budge of Idaho and Noah Mason of Illinois, who would later play roles in challenging Martin’s leadership. However, Martin stood firm, thinking of these measures as for the good of the party and the country. He recounts Senator Richard Russell (D-Ga.) telling him, “Joe, we’ve got to make the Eisenhower administration a success. We’ve all got to cooperate to this end, because if it fails, the next administration will be a radical one” and that he would impart this point to his reluctant colleagues (Martin, 232). His perspective also reflected the reality that Republican control of the 83rd Congress was slight and he needed Democratic votes to pass President Eisenhower’s programs. He also maintained a close personal friendship with the Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, who he referred to as “the gentleman from Rayburn, Mr. Texas” (Time, 1968). This led to accusations that Martin gave in too much. He disputed this in his autobiography, holding that “Another thing that my young Republican associates forgot was that my friendship with Rayburn enabled me to obtain for our side a good deal more patronage, such as jobs around the Capitol, than we, as the minority, ever would have got otherwise. Ironically, some of the men who had benefited most from this unexpected patronage were to vote against me” (Martin, 9). Rayburn himself would not campaign against Martin. When once he was asked to do so once he responded, “Speak against Joe? Hell, if I lived up there, I’d vote for him” (Time, 1968).

Although the Republicans had gained Congress in 1952 only to lose it in 1954, they did maintain fairly healthy numbers until Martin’s argument wore thin in 1958. The 1958 midterms were a disaster for the Republican Party and many Republicans placed the blame on him. While in 1956, President Eisenhower had publicly supported him staying leader, this time he maintained silence as did Vice President Nixon, leaving the door open for Charles Halleck of Indiana, Martin’s more conservative deputy, to make a credible challenge. However, the stance from the White House was only on its face neutral. As Martin (1960) recounted, “The President said that he was neutral. It was, however, a strange state of neutrality in which Eisenhower took no sides while his legislative liaison officials egged Halleck on. I was the President’s leader in the House; I had made enemies in pushing legislation that he wanted passed. If the President was going to remain impartial, he should have required the same impartiality of his subordinates. This is particularly true since the attitude of those presidential assistants who shuttle back and forth between the Capitol and the White House is regarded in Congress as reflecting the sentiments of the President himself” (5). It was also of note that it was Rep. Bob Wilson of California who initiated the challenge against Martin, as Wilson was a close ally of Vice President Nixon. Eisenhower and Nixon in other words had fully approved of Halleck’s push for leadership. Many party conservatives agreed and backed him, and Martin narrowly lost the leadership contest, 74-70, the first time a party’s leader had been defeated in Congressional history. He was bitter over his defeat. Martin reflected on his loss in his 1960 autobiography, “I lived in a false sense of security in my established position as the leader. I had every reason to feel I was secure. I had served my party honorably for a very long time. For twenty years in the House I had guided the party’s course, often through perilous sessions” (Martin, 3). Unlike many leaders of today would after such a blow, he didn’t retire and join a lobbying firm.

Independence and Instruction as a Backbencher

Now that he was out of leadership and relegated to the status of backbencher, Martin charted his own course. His record had grown more moderate during the Eisenhower years, and this trend accelerated. Martin thought highly of Nelson Rockefeller as a future presidential candidate, but he still seemed to maintain some of his traditional anti-New Deal stances. In his autobiography, My First Fifty Years in Politics, he stated, “Many of the experiments of the New Deal seemed to us to undermine and destroy this society” (Patterson, 306). Although out of the halls of power, his service to the party continued as he would sit next to Republican freshmen and mentor them on where and when to speak, how to move up the ladder in committees of the House, and giving them tips on how to deal with the various other aspects of being a member of Congress, including addressing constituent issues (Kenneally, 285). The freshmen were grateful for Martin’s sage advice, and he helped make better representatives for the Republican Party. One of these nuggets of sage advice, which he got himself as a young representative, is one that frankly many could use today, which is “…don’t talk too much. The fellows that talk, talk their way out of Congress” (Martin, 236).

In 1960, Massachusetts strongly voted for Kennedy; the state gave him his third best margin in the nation. The Bay State was moving in an increasingly Democratic direction and that included Martin’s district, one of the more Republican in the state. However, he was able to be reelected, even in this era of Democratic ascendency, at least in part because of his long history of top-notch constituent service. Democrat Patrick Harrington, who would run for Martin’s seat in 1966, held that his district was ripe to be won by a Democrat, but only if Martin wasn’t the incumbent as “he gets the votes of Democrats on the basis of personal favors he has done for them over a period of 40 years in Congress” (Hill). Martin said much the same in his autobiography. He stated, “It has been a personal rather than a strictly political following that has kept me in office despite the rising Democratic tide. Over the years I established a reputation as a fighter for New England, and the voters have kept reelecting me because I have given them service. Every year that I have been in Congress it has been my practice to visit each post office in my district at stated times to make myself available to discuss their problems with the people” (Martin, 55). To hammer it in once more, constituent service is important! His new independence as a legislator also didn’t hurt. In 1961, upon only recently hearing of the John Birch Society, Martin offered a nuanced opinion that “if done right” its goal of stopping Communism would be helpful, but months later he regarded them as extremists “whom we can control” and warned that if it stuck to “ultra conservatism” it could do well but if it was just a hate group (which he believed it was) that it had no future (Kenneally, 288).

The most repeated instance of Martin exercising independence during the 1960s was on raising the debt limit. He would support raising the debt limit even when no other Republicans in the House would, and this got him some praise in the press as a bipartisan gesture. Martin’s reception to the New Frontier and Great Society was considerably friendlier than his responses to the New Deal and the Fair Deal, as he supported making the Rules Committee permanently larger in 1963, federal aid to education, federal aid to mass transit, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (reluctantly), Medicare, selling wheat to the USSR, higher foreign aid spending, and the creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Martin had not gone full liberal, however: he opposed the 21-day rule to expedite the exit of legislation from the Rules Committee, he maintained his traditional opposition to public works spending for job creation, opposed rent subsidies, maintained his opposition to government encroachment into the field of power generation, opposed expansion of the food stamp program, and opposed the repeal of the “right to work” section of the Taft-Hartley Act. He also often supported Republican alternatives to Democratic domestic plans, including on Medicare and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Martin and Civil Rights: An Advocate

Although Martin closely worked with Southern Democrats, his record on civil rights was mostly favorable. He had consistently supported anti-lynching and anti-poll tax legislation since 1937 and had worked to attract black support for the GOP. However, Martin stopped short at endorsing a mandatory Fair Employment Practices Committee and in 1950 backed a voluntary substitute. During the Eisenhower Administration, he worked hard for strong civil rights legislation in 1956 and 1957, and on one occasion chewed out Republican Russell Keeney of Illinois in front of fellow colleagues for helping Southern Democrats by sponsoring a weakening jury trial amendment. Martin would also vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and supported fair housing legislation.

The Twilight Years

In 1964, Martin cast his vote for Gerald Ford over Charles Halleck as Minority Leader, a post the future president won, thereby Halleck suffered the same fate as Martin. Despite that year being difficult for the Republican Party and especially so in the Northeast, he still won reelection with 63% of the vote. He would continue to vote as a moderate in the Great Society Congress. In 1965, Ford delivered a tribute to Martin, in which he praised his long party service and gave an example of his devotion: when the Republican National Committee was evicted from its building after it came under ownership of the CIO, Martin, although not personally wealthy, bought another building and obligated himself as a personal liability for the $33,000 lease (Ford, 3). By 1966, however, he was noticeably in decline; he was an octogenarian like his predecessor Greene and his health issues had over the last several years been causing increasingly long absences from Congress. Nonetheless, Martin felt up for just one more term and promised that this would be his last election. Complicating his plan was a 35-year-old attractive woman named Margaret Heckler, who ran in the GOP primary against him to his left. He fought the challenge, but Heckler brought up his old campaign against Greene on age in 1924 and won the primary with 56% of the vote. Politics was Martin’s life, and with his career finally at an end, he lived only a little over a year after leaving office, dying on March 6, 1968, of “peritonitis, secondary to acute gangrenous appendicitis, ruptured” apparently with no antibiotics or other drugs (Time, 1968). It seems like Martin was done and just allowed himself to die.


Martin’s MC-Index scores over his time in Congress.

In the end, Joe Martin was consistently interested in what he thought was best for the Republican Party and the nation, be that a Coolidge conservatism in the 1920s, a resistance to the New Deal and the Fair Deal, or Rockefeller Republicanism. This is reflected in his lifetime MC-Index score of 76%, with his score between 1925 and 1953 being an 86%, while it was a 54% between 1955 and 1967, with his highest Congress being the 73rd at 97% and the lowest being the 88th at 24%. Martin’s Americans for Democratic Action scores ranged from 0% in 1949 to 78% in 1957, and his ACA-Index scores ranged from 22% in 1964 to 92% in 1959. It could be said in the end that he was a Republican with a big “R” and a conservative with a small “c”, although he might have disputed the latter part of that characterization. Robert J. Donovan, the journalist who interviewed Martin for his autobiography, walked away impressed with the character of the man and frankly so do I. Joe Martin couldn’t make it in politics today…he’d be insufficiently partisan and too conservative for Massachusetts. Indeed, in his autobiography he wrote, “In the 1920s, when automobiles and roads were crude by modern standards, campaigning by car held more hazards than it does now. In the 1926 campaign my Democratic opponent was a woman named Minerva Kepple. Like myself, she used to drive from town to town making speeches. One day when I was spinning along near Somerset I came upon a car that had broken down. As I pulled alongside, I saw Minerva sitting at the wheel bewildered and dejected. She was due at a rally in Somerset, where she was to deliver a speech that would no doubt beat my brains in. I suppose if I had had brains worth beating in, I would have left her there and gone on to have Somerset to myself. But I said, “Come on Minerva, I’ll get you there,” and I whisked her into town in time for her speech. I defeated her without any trouble on election day. I have heard that in later years she always voted for me for Congress. I believe that has been true also of others I have defeated. If so, it is one good fruit of the rule that I have always followed never to wage a vicious campaign. I have always tried not to hurt an opponent personally” (Ubertaccio). Martin is proof that good people can succeed too in politics and the GOP owes a great debt to him for their continued survival. He dedicated his autobiography to “The millions of Republicans and to the many Democrats and Independents as well who fought with me through the years to maintain the two-party system of government in the United States” (Martin).


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