The Purge – FDR Edition

By 1938, the Democratic Party had gained so much power and its tent had grown so large that it included far leftists, centrists, and rightists alike. Although at the height of his political power, FDR also had increasing trouble with recalcitrant Democrats, particularly those in the Senate, who would often vote with Republicans on opposing the New Deal. These included Carter Glass and Harry Byrd of Virginia, Millard Tydings of Maryland, and to a lesser extent Walter George of Georgia, “Cotton Ed” Smith of South Carolina, Pat McCarran of Nevada, and Guy Gillette of Iowa. These politicians had broken with Roosevelt on two issues that he used to define party loyalty: his 1937 court-packing plan, which was an epic political miscalculation, and a controversial government reorganization plan that its opponents had denounced as the “Dictator Bill” for its centralizing of power. Both measures got zero Republican support and very publicly split Democrats. Roosevelt was frustrated by these losses, and sought more political unity.

Roosevelt ultimately sought to remake this large, ideological patchwork party into a distinctly New Deal party that embraced a large federal government for purposes great and small for the public. Among those who had crossed him, he couldn’t target Byrd or Glass of Virginia, as Byrd’s political machine ran the state and Glass was an institution in of himself. However, there were five prime Senate targets: Tydings, George, Smith, McCarran, and Gillette. All five of these men had opposed court packing and the reorganization plan.

Millard Tydings was easily the worst offender of the five. He had voted against most New Deal legislation, including signature measures such as the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the National Industrial Recovery Act. He had complained on the Senate floor about the Administration moving towards dictatorship. Tydings and Roosevelt not only politically disagreed, they also personally disliked each other. Roosevelt was quoted as having said to Harold Ickes to “Take Tydings’ hide off and rub salt in it” (Dunn, 191). Roosevelt wanted him replaced with Rep. David J. Lewis, who had been a major drafter of the Social Security Act and was an Administration loyalist.

Walter George had supported much of the early New Deal legislation, but he had dissented on a few critical occasions, such as when he voted against the Public Utilities Holding Company Act, which had the impact of abolishing holding companies. Roosevelt had appeared in Georgia on a campaign stop in 1938 and in his speech basically read George out of the party, supporting a young challenger named Lawrence Camp.

Ellison DuRant “Cotton Ed” Smith had been a fixture of South Carolina politics since 1907. He was an utterly provincial politician, with his two primary planks being keeping the price of cotton high and maintaining white supremacy. A die-hard racist, Smith had walked out of the 1936 Democratic National Convention when he saw that a black minister was going to deliver the invocation. He had once been described by Time Magazine as a “conscientious objector to the 20th Century”, and he did nothing to dissuade people from this impression (Smith, 2016). Like George, he had supported much early New Deal legislation but had dissented on the Public Utilities bill. Roosevelt had a strong challenger in mind in Governor Olin Johnston, a New Deal supporter who had backed the Fair Labor Standards Act.

If the name McCarran sounds familiar to you, it is because Las Vegas’s airport is named after Pat McCarran for his legislative contributions to the development of aviation. He was something of a political wild card and not favored by the state Democratic establishment. The state party had permitted him to run for the Senate in 1932 with the belief that he wouldn’t win against the popular Republican Senator Tasker Oddie. He surprised everyone not only by doing so, but also forming his own political machine, which he used to great effect. McCarran had made a speech on the Senate floor in 1937 that while not his best speech, it was his most famous one, called the “Death Battalion Speech”. In frail health, he denounced the “court packing plan” as a danger to separation of powers, and had delivered this speech against doctor’s orders. This speech was widely covered in the press, and the headline for the Nevada State Journal read, “McCarran in Death Battalion – Senator Ready to Give Life to Defend Constitution” (Edwards, 79). This had given him significant political support to say the least, considering that most Nevadans opposed the plan.

Guy Gillette had only been in the Senate since 1936 when FDR targeted him for defeat. He was not really a conservative, just unpredictable in his views. Although he had cast his votes against the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act, he supported many other New Deal measures.

None of the five men were defeated in the primaries, and all of them won reelection. It turns out, Democratic voters at the time resented presidential interference in their primaries. The only scalp Roosevelt got was the chair of the House Rules Committee, John J. O’Connor, who was reportedly difficult to work with. Roosevelt never attempted a party purge again. The Democrats also lost 71 House seats and 6 Senate seats in the midterms. Although this was not enough to roll back the New Deal, it was enough to stop additional measures.

Tydings would be reelected one more time in 1944, but would run into political trouble after butting heads with Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), dismissing his charges of government subversion as a hoax. He lost reelection to McCarthy-backed candidate John Marshall Butler in 1950.

After prevailing over Camp, George would find himself increasingly opposed to FDR’s domestic policies while backing his foreign policy. He became a respected statesman in the Senate, particularly on foreign policy. George was also notable for having introduced the Southern Manifesto on the floor of the Senate on March 12, 1956, possibly serving in this role to head off a primary challenge from the significantly more vocal segregationist Herman Talmadge. However, he subsequently realized he would probably lose to him and opted not to run for reelection that year.

Roosevelt had in the case of Smith probably done him a favor, as in all his bids for renomination he never won overwhelmingly and was vulnerable. By 1944, he was 80, in poor health, and had become a full-blown opponent of Roosevelt. Not having the fortune of Roosevelt’s interference in a rematch against Governor Johnston, he lost renomination and died three months later.

McCarran’s opposition to the court packing plan earned him political immortality, as he gained significant Republican support. He would continue to serve in the Senate, irritating Democratic liberals with his pre-war isolationism, his support for Francisco Franco, and for sponsoring two major laws regarding his favorite subjects: immigration restriction (Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, aka McCarran-Walter) and anti-communism (Internal Security Act of 1950, aka McCarran Act). He died in office in 1954 shortly after making a speech calling for Democratic Party unity.

By winning reelection in 1938, Gillette had done what no Democrat had done before in the state of Iowa. He subsequently voted against Roosevelt’s policies with greater frequency, often opposing his foreign policy. Gillette would not be so fortunate in 1944, as he would be defeated by Republican Governor Bourke Hickenlooper. Gillette would make a comeback, serving one more term from 1949 to 1955 before again being defeated for reelection.


Dunn, S. (2010). Roosevelt’s purge: How FDR fought to change the Democratic Party. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Edwards, J.E. (1982). Pat McCarran: Political boss of Nevada. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press

Jurdem, L.R. (21 July 2017). Fighting his party in Congress didn’t work for FDR. It won’t work for Trump. The Washington Post.

Retrieved from

Pou, C. (29 January 2008). Walter F. George (1878-1957). New Georgia Encyclopedia.

Retrieved from

Smith, J.E. (2007). FDR. New York, NY: Random House.

Smith, S.K. (1 August 2016). Smith, Ellison Durant. South Carolina Encyclopedia.

Retrieved from

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s