How The South Became Republican, Part II: Tennessee & North Carolina

Before I continue with this series, I should make clear that when I refer to the South, I am referring to former Confederate states, thus not including Kentucky and Oklahoma.


Howard Baker Jr., R-Tenn., 1967-85, the state’s first popularly elected Republican senator.

The state of Tennessee has been historically odd as far as former Confederate states go. For instance, there was a substantial political difference between East Tennessee and the rest of the state. East Tennessee had a history of supporting Whig Party candidates and the rest of the state tended to like Democrats. This transferred over to the post-Civil War period, in which Democrats took back their portion of the state while Republicans ruled East Tennessee. However, East Tennessee only consisted of the 1st and 2nd congressional districts, which are centered in Johnson City and Knoxville respectively. The 1st district has remained in Republican hands continuously since 1881 and the 2nd has been represented by a member of the Republican Party since 1859. This area was much different from the rest of Tennessee on civil rights as well: in 1922 the sole “yea” votes from the state on the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill came from the representatives of East Tennessee. From 1875 to 1967 with only one brief exception all the state’s senators were Democrats. A senator emblematic of Tennessee’s political state after Reconstruction was Isham G. Harris, a former slave owner who as the state’s governor had led the state out of the union and had been wanted after the Civil War for treason. The state would remain solidly in Democratic hands but in 1920 the state voted for Republican Warren G. Harding, the first time the state had voted Republican since 1868. Republicans were also elected to Congress from three districts that were usually solidly Democrat. Democrats would win all three back in the 1922 midterms.

The state would again vote Republican in 1928 as Herbert Hoover managed to pull off the first “Southern Strategy”. However, the Great Depression delayed a Republican shift, and Franklin D. Roosevelt managed to win over 60% of the vote every election. However, like with many other former Confederate states, the start of change was in 1948. That year, although Harry S. Truman won the state, he won with less than 50% of the vote because of his embrace of a civil rights program. Eisenhower barely won the state in 1952 and 1956 but Nixon managed to pull off an over 7-point win in 1960. Although 1964 was a setback for the GOP on the presidential level as Goldwater lost the state partly due to his stating that he wanted to sell the Tennessee Valley Authority, there were promising signs for the party. Democrats held both Senate seats in the elections that year, but the elections were much closer than in the past: Albert Gore Sr. had been reelected in 1958 by 60 points, but this year he won by 7 points. The next four years would be rough for the Democrats, as Tennessee voters strongly disapproved of the Johnson Administration on multiple fronts, including on civil rights, its handling of the Vietnam War, and the Great Society. In 1966, the state’s voters elected Republican Howard Baker Jr. to the Senate, who proved to be pro-civil rights and moderately conservative. He would eventually lead his party in the Senate from 1977 to 1985, with him being Majority Leader for the last four years. The 1968 election itself constituted an immense backlash against the Johnson Administration as Democrat Hubert Humphrey came in third in the state with only 28% of the vote, with Republican Richard Nixon edging American Independent George Wallace by three points. This was Humphrey’s fifth worst performance in the nation.

Although the GOP had a longer historical presence in the state, it was slower to be a solid state than Virginia on a national level. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won the state by over 10 points and Democrat Jim Sasser defeated Republican incumbent Senator William Brock for reelection. The following election year, Reagan barely won the state, but in 1984 and 1988 Republicans won the state by over 57%. In 1992 and 1996, Democrat Bill Clinton managed to win the state, both times with a plurality. In 2000, the state voted for Bush by about 4 points despite it being Al Gore’s home state and the state has been voting with greater margins for Republicans on the presidential level since. In 2016, Trump won over 60% of the vote and Clinton got less than 35%, the worst Democratic performance in the state since McGovern in 1972. As was the case in many southern states, the Congressional delegation and the state legislature was slow to shift party allegiance. From 1875 to 1995 with the exception of the 67th and 93rd Congresses, Democrats dominated the House delegation, and from 1995 to 2011, the delegation was divided, but after the 2010 midterms, Republicans have held 7 of 9 of the state’s House seats. The state has also been represented in the Senate by two Republicans since 1995. In 2005, the voters elected a Republican majority to the State Senate, which after Reconstruction they had done only once before. In 2008, the voters elected a Republican majority to the State Assembly, which they had only held once before after Reconstruction. Today, the state legislature is overwhelmingly Republican: of the 28 of 33 of the State Senate’s members are Republican, as are 73 of the 99 members of the General Assembly. In twenty years, the state went from competitive to solidly Republican. Tennessee is now even more of a Republican state than Massachusetts is a Democratic state according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, with Democrats only maintaining strongholds in Nashville and Memphis.

North Carolina

Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), 1973-2003, the state’s first popularly elected Republican senator.

Republicans never were completely absent from politics in North Carolina even after Reconstruction, as they were sometimes able to win an election here and there and they even had a brief resurgence in the 1890s. The Republicans and the Populists worked together to take down Democratic rule, which they managed to do for a few years. In 1896, Republican Daniel Lindsay Russell was elected governor and reduced property requirements for voting. Populist Marion Butler and Republican Jeter Pritchard were also elected to the Senate. The Republican-Populist fusion fell out of power since the 1898 midterm elections, which were a referendum on race, produced a Democratic majority in the state legislature. The following year they voted to ratify a Jim Crow constitution that disenfranchised most blacks and many poor whites. A horrific incident that symbolized the entrenchment of white supremacy in the state (as well as the South as a whole) was the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, the only coup d’état in American history and the most severe race riot in the state’s history led by former Democratic Congressman Alfred Waddell. The result was the forced resignation of the entire Fusionist board of aldermen and Wilmington’s Republican mayor, the deaths of anywhere between 8 and 100 black residents and the fleeing of hundreds more from the city. A new board of aldermen took over and Waddell became the mayor. The cause of the only coup d’état in American history was the incendiary reaction of Democratic “red shirts” to an editorial in the city’s black newspaper that asserted that sexual relations between black men and white women were consensual. Russell, who had unsuccessfully tried to stop the riot with the State Guard (which sided with the rioters) didn’t run for reelection and Butler and Pritchard were defeated for reelection. The last black Congressman of the 19th century, Republican George White of the state’s 2nd district, didn’t run for reelection in 1900 as he knew that he wouldn’t win. The state’s GOP was crippled and subsequently put up white candidates and didn’t aim to court the black vote, which was now negligible due to Jim Crow voting laws.

The state’s delegation to Congress was far more often than not entirely Democratic but in 1928, the state voted for Herbert Hoover by almost 10 points, the first time it had voted Republican since black voters gave Ulysses S. Grant the win in 1872. Progress for the GOP in the state, however, was stalled by the Great Depression but its two senators were not exactly ideal for progressives: Josiah W. Bailey was one of the authors of the anti-New Deal “Conservative Manifesto” and Robert R. Reynolds was a staunch non-interventionist who turned against the New Deal in the 1940s. By the end of World War II, its elected officials tended to be moderate to conservative Democrats. However, the state didn’t bolt the Democratic fold for the 1948 election despite Harry S. Truman’s support of civil rights, and State’s Rights candidate Strom Thurmond got just under 9% of the vote. Although the state didn’t vote for Eisenhower in 1952 or 1956, it elected its first Republican Congressman who would be regularly reelected, Charles R. Jonas.

The voters of the state and their elected officials in the 1960s opposed civil rights legislation, but it was not as vehement as in Deep South states. The state stayed Democratic in 1964 and voted for Nixon rather than Wallace in 1968. After 1968, North Carolina would only vote Democrat twice: for Carter in 1976 and Obama in 2008 as the voters opposed the national party’s increasingly liberal platform and its stance on the Vietnam War. In 1972, the state elected its first Republican to the Senate by popular vote: Jesse Helms. Helms proved to be one of the most conservative people to ever serve in the chamber and gained the moniker “Senator No” for his frequent obstruction of liberal legislation and State Department nominees (of both parties) which was aided by his mastery of the Senate rules. Despite his penchant for divisiveness, his consistent opposition to civil rights legislation, and strong Democratic efforts to oust him, he won reelection four times often with the support of people we know as “Reagan Democrats”. Helms also proved crucial in keeping Ronald Reagan’s political career alive: in 1976, he was one of only two senators supporting him for the GOP nomination and his influence won him the North Carolina primary, which resulted in more primary victories and kept the nominee in doubt until the Republican National Convention. Although Reagan didn’t win the nomination, Helms’s influence ensured he would be the presumptive favorite for the 1980 election. The 1980 election resulted in the state having two Republican senators in Helms and his ideological twin John Porter East. Despite regular voter support for Republican candidates in presidential elections, the GOP was slow to win state, local, and congressional elections on a similar scale and Democrats managed to win Senate races in 1986, 1998, and 2008. Democrats dominated the House delegation until after the 1994 midterms and a Republican majority in the delegation wasn’t cemented until the 2012 election with the assistance of redistricting. The state has also since the start of the 20th century only elected three Republican governors, and the current one is Democrat Roy Cooper. The state legislature was also quite slow to become majority Republican: in 2010, the state’s voters for the first time since 1870 elected a Republican majority for both state legislative chambers and they have been in control since. Although North Carolina leans Republican and the GOP currently holds both Senate seats as well as 9 of the state’s 13 House districts, it isn’t necessarily out of reach for Democrats and a bad presidential election year for the Republican Party could swing the vote of the state to the Democrats.

How The South Became Republican, Part I: Virginia (1952-2012)

Image result for Virginia state flag

I had previously done a series called “How the Northeast Became Democrat” and now I am starting a new one, “How The South Became Republican”. I will cover roughly in the order the states shifted to the Republican Party. I am covering Virginia first as it was one of the first southern states to move into the GOP column and now it appears to be the first to move away from it. Virginia is currently the “black sheep” of the South, so to speak. This was the only state in the South to vote for Hillary Clinton in a reversal of the 1976 election and one of the states the GOP sustained some of the worst losses in the 2018 midterms, with their congressional delegation almost being halved. Incumbent members of Congress Scott Taylor, Dave Brat, and Barbara Comstock lost reelection, bringing the GOP’s representation in the state down from 7 to 4. On a congressional level, only New Jersey and California produced worse losses for Republicans. Both its senators are Democrats, which is the case in no other southern state. However, Virginia had a long period of Republicanism and conservatism: from 1952 to 2004, the state voted Democrat only once for president, in 1964. How did this period of Republicanism come about?

The state of Virginia, having been a former Confederate state and the home of Robert E. Lee, had voters resentful to the GOP for a long time. The state had been consistently Democrat since Reconstruction save for a minor interruption in the 1880s from the Readjuster Party. The victories Republicans had in the state during this time tended to be in the Appalachian region, with Virginia’s 9th district being held for all but four years by Republicans from 1895 to 1923. However, in the early 20th century the Democratic leadership started growing more conservative, with the most notable of them being Senator Carter Glass and Governor Harry F. Byrd. Contrary to popular belief, the president who started the “Southern Strategy” on the GOP side wasn’t Richard Nixon in 1968, but Herbert Hoover forty years earlier. Hoover focused on cultivating white voters for the Republican Party and emphasized moral stands, such as strengthening enforcement of prohibition and emphasizing “family values”, making sure to differentiate himself as much as possible from anti-Prohibition Catholic Democrat Al Smith. Hoover’s efforts at appealing to the South in the 1928 election paid dividends: for the first time since Reconstruction, Florida, Texas, and Virginia were won by a Republican and Virginia elected three Republicans to the House that year as well. He even almost won Alabama. However, Hoover’s “Southern Strategy” didn’t last, as the Great Depression and World War II postponed any significant efforts at moving the GOP to the South until the 1950s. However, Virginia’s political climate, even before the 1950s, was becoming ripe for the GOP.

During the Great Depression and World War II, the state’s senators were Byrd and Glass. Despite the two men being Democrats, they proved staunch opponents of FDR’s New Deal and many of Virginia’s representatives proved to be so as well, the most notable examples being Howard W. Smith (who would become an infamously obstructive Rules Committee chair) and future senator Willis Robertson. Combine this political climate with an increasing level of suburbanization and new Republican voters moving into the state strongly influenced the results of the 1952 election, in which the state not only voted for Eisenhower, but also elected three Republicans to the House, two of whom were reelected. One of them, Richard Poff, became part of the GOP House leadership and was even considered by President Nixon for the Supreme Court. In 1966, the state’s conservative Democrat machine, the Byrd Organization, fell apart: Byrd Sr. died of brain cancer and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 resulted in black voters making an impact on the Democratic primary with the defeat of Senator Robertson and Representative Smith for renomination. The Republicans stepped in for the conservative Democrats, as the state gained two Republican representatives and would gain another in the 1968 election. The increasingly liberal policies of the national Democratic Party pushed the state to the Republicans and did so at a faster rate than any other former Confederate state. In 1972, the state elected its first Republican Senator since Reconstruction, Congressman William Scott. Scott would be succeeded after one term by Republican John Warner, who held the seat for thirty years. By 1981, the state had reached its apex in Republican representation: only one of its senators and one of its representatives wasn’t a Republican, and they voted like Republicans. Although the Democrats regained some ground and had some statewide successes in the 1980s, such as the elections of three consecutive governors and Senator Chuck Robb, the state could still be counted on for presidential elections by Republicans. However, the State Legislature was more resistant to this trend. The GOP didn’t win the State Senate until the 1996 election, and have held it since for all but four years. The Republicans didn’t get a majority in the House of Delegates until the 2000 elections, which they have held since.

Finally, in 2008, Virginia voted for Democrat Barack Obama. Although the 2009 gubernatorial election and the 2010 midterms were a turnaround for the state’s GOP, since 2012 their fortunes have been falling. Despite the state’s previously conservative reputation, time and time again Republicans struggled in statewide races and were unable to win either of the Senate seats, or, since Bob McDonnell’s departure in 2013, a governor’s race. While suburbanization had helped the GOP in the past, it is now harming them: the state’s Democratic trend can be largely attributed to the growth of the Washington D.C. suburbs, of which many of its residents are employees of the federal government. These voters are largely acting in their own interests as a Democrats tend to be supportive of expanding the federal government while Republicans tend to oppose it. This can be observed with the recent voting behavior of the D.C. suburb congressional districts, the 10th and 11th. From 1995 to 2009, Virginia’s 11th district was represented by moderate conservative Tom Davis. After he called it quits, the district elected national Democrat Gerry Connolly, and since 2012 Republicans haven’t given the district serious attention for a takeover. In 2018, Democrat Jennifer Wexton defeated Republican Barbara Comstock in the 10th district, the first time a Democrat has won the seat in forty years. Worse yet for Republicans, in 2008 the state not only voted for Barack Obama, but also for Democrat Mark Warner for the Senate with 65% of the vote, with Republican Jim Gilmore winning only a third of the vote.

The Democratic name brand, despite recent controversies surrounding Governor Ralph Northam, seems to sell for the majority of Virginia voters. This marketability has been assisted by them having had some strong candidates such as Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, and Jim Webb, while Republicans have had some weak ones like Jim Gilmore and Corey Stewart. The ethics issues of former Republican Governor Bob McDonnell haven’t helped the state’s GOP either. Although a Democratic takeover like in the 7th district seems unlikely to stay in their hands, the trends with the D.C. suburbs represent a longer trend of an increasing number of moderately liberal voters in the state. Similarly ominous for Republicans was the 2017 election, which left Republicans with only a one member majority in both chambers. The Democrats are gunning for the majority in 2019 election, and the likelihood of them getting it increased with a recent victory in court for them in a gerrymandering Supreme Court case, which overturned 11 House of Delegates districts that had at least 55% black residents of voting age.

Mississippi’s Duo: James Eastland and John Stennis


Since former Vice President Joe Biden recently recounted his experiences with old arch-segregationists James Eastland and Herman Talmadge as examples of civility in the Senate, I think Eastland would be a good subject to cover now. He also positively spoke of the late Mississippi Senator John Stennis. I already covered Talmadge in a previous post about him and his father, so I will cover Eastland and Stennis, Mississippi’s senators during the civil rights era who served alongside each other for over thirty years.

James Eastland and John Stennis, 1973.

James Eastland (1904-1986)

James Eastland grew up in the overwhelmingly black and impoverished area of Mississippi known as Sunflower County. Eastland’s father, Woods, was a cotton plantation owner and had a domineering influence over his life, pushing him towards a career in politics. The environment Eastland grew up in gave him no reason to object to the South’s societal order, and the racial violence in this area could be particularly brutal as the minority whites were more desperate to hold power than elsewhere in the state. In 1941, Senator Pat Harrison succumbed to cancer and Governor Paul Johnson appointed Eastland to fill the seat and with only one brief interruption in his service he served in the Senate until 1978. He accumulated political power in the state through strong organization, excellent constituent service, and his ability to unify the Hill and Delta regions of the state, which were often at ideological odds with each other. Eastland spoke out early and often for cotton and Jim Crow. In 1944, he spoke out against the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) and accused black soldiers of being cowardly, disobedient, and deserters and had “disgraced the flag of this country” (Zwiers, 25). Although in the white southern press his stance on the FEPC was well received, his rhetoric on black soldiers was widely condemned as an appeal to prejudice. On other issues, he often voted with the Conservative Coalition, particularly on labor issues and anti-communist legislation. Although Eastland often voted for conservative domestic legislation, he proved a staunch supporter of the foreign policy of President Truman. In 1955, he became the chair of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, a post which had been previously held by Joseph McCarthy, who he had voted to censure the previous year. Eastland became vigorous in his investigations of the Communist Party and later regretted his censure vote.

Eastland was one of the leading voices in the Senate against Brown v. Board of Education (1954), desegregation, and black suffrage. While some of his colleagues from below the Mason-Dixon line couched their arguments in non-racial terms such as Sam Ervin, Eastland was unabashed in his use of racist rhetoric. He was also in a unique position to combat civil rights legislation, as he was chair of the powerful Judiciary Committee, which under him was known as the “graveyard” such legislation. This led the NAACP’s chief lobbyist Clarence Mitchell to call him a “stinking albatross around the neck of the Democratic Party” (Atkins). Although his reputation nationally was as an arch foe of civil rights and a bigot, in the Senate he was known as trustworthy and courteous.  This was noted by John Averill of the Los Angeles Times, who wrote “Even those liberals who disagree most violently with Eastland paradoxically regard him with great respect and perhaps even a degree of affection” (Zwiers, 237).

During the 1960s, Eastland voted as a conservative, opposing most of the New Frontier and Great Society programs. On foreign policy, he voted against foreign aid and was one of 19 senators to vote against the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. In 1964, Eastland expressed his opinion to President Johnson that the disappearance of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner was a publicity stunt, but they were subsequently found to have been murdered. The national outrage over the killings played a part in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a law that Eastland and other segregationists fought tooth and nail against. Eastland was a major critic of the Warren Court and not just for its civil rights decisions: he voted for two constitutional amendments aimed at overturning Warren Court rulings on legislative apportionment and school prayer. Eastland also supported Nixon’s most controversial (and unsuccessful) Supreme Court nominees, Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell, men who Nixon believed would oppose the judicial activism of the Warren Court.

In 1966, Republican Congressman Prentiss Walker challenged Eastland for reelection and charged that he was not a true conservative, but a dealmaker with unpopular Democratic presidents. He attempted to link Eastland with the Great Society, but this approach didn’t work as he was one of the Democratic Party’s most visible opponents of the Great Society and he won reelection easily. In 1972, Eastland sort of got a free ride to reelection as President Nixon wasn’t interested in backing Republican candidates who challenged conservative Democrat incumbents. In 1976, Eastland along with his colleague John Stennis pushed voters to back Jimmy Carter, and in the first time since 1956 the state voted for a national Democrat for president. Eastland and other southern senators continued to exert influence during the Carter Administration and got President Carter to fully back the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. However, 1978 would mark the end for Eastland. Although he wanted another term, it was clear that by this time the black vote had become far more influential in the state and they weren’t inclined to vote for someone who had so vociferously opposed their political participation. Despite having developed a genuine friendship with Mississippi NAACP chair Aaron Henry and secured both his and President Carter’s support for another term, at 74 he was not up for a tough primary and eventually called it quits.

Although Eastland had no regrets about his career in retirement, he nonetheless made contributions to the Mississippi NAACP, likely out of his friendship with Henry. Although this isn’t much, it isn’t nothing.

John Stennis (1901-1995)

Stennis was a contrast to his predecessor, Theodore Bilbo, in that he wasn’t a demagogue. He was inclined, like Senator Sam Ervin, to couch his arguments in legalism as opposed to overt appeals to racial prejudice. This reflected his background in the legal profession, yet there is a dark story in this past. Before he was a senator, Stennis was a district attorney and in 1934 sought the death penalty for three black sharecroppers accused of murdering a prominent white farmer despite knowing their confessions had been extracted through torture. The prime evidence used against them was the confessions that prosecution witnesses admitted were extracted through brutal whippings and they were convicted. The verdict was appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled in Brown v. Mississippi (1936) that an involuntary confession extracted through police violence is inadmissible in court. The three men ended up pleading no contest to manslaughter and received prison sentences instead of risk another trial.

As a senator, Stennis was known as a major advocate of naval expansion and routinely favored expanding the military’s budget. Like all other Mississippi politicians, he signed the Southern Manifesto. Although on domestic issues he was often conservative, he staunchly opposed President Eisenhower’s efforts to enact free market reforms to agriculture, a stance common to the South. In 1960, he urged Mississippi electors to vote for John F. Kennedy, but they instead voted for conservative Democratic Senator Harry F. Byrd, who hadn’t even announced a run for president.

Stennis often opposed the initiatives of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and voted against key programs of the Great Society, such as the Economic Opportunity Act and Medicare. He also opposed every civil rights bill that came before him at this time. Stennis was quite hawkish on foreign policy, and in 1963 he was one of 19 senators to vote against the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. In 1965, the Senate adopted its first ethics code that was drafted by Stennis and he served as the first chair of the chamber’s Ethics Committee. In 1966, he voted for two constitutional amendments, one for permitting legislative districts to be based on factors other than population, and the other for permitting voluntary prayer in schools. In contrast to his stances on the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, Stennis often supported the stances of President Richard Nixon. A staunch hawk on Vietnam, he supported Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia in 1970 and his approach to the war in general. That same year, he stated in response to a Supreme Court decision on integration he would challenge candidates of the next presidential election to tell voters outside the South that “I’ll do to your schools what we’ve done to the schools in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana if I’m elected President”, predicting defeat for whoever said so (Illson). In 1972, he joined his colleague Eastland in opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, which he had opposed even in its 1953 watered-down form. In 1973, President Nixon proposed the so-called “Stennis Compromise” to special prosecutor Archibald Cox, in which instead of the Watergate tapes being publicly released, Stennis (who was known to be hard of hearing) would listen to the tapes and report a summary of what he heard. Cox’s refusal to accept prompted Nixon to order his firing, which resulted in the “Saturday Night Massacre”.

Stennis maintained a conservative record until the Carter Administration, when his record started to moderate. Despite this, he was even later in starting to vote for civil rights legislation: in 1979 and 1980 he was one of a handful of senators to oppose funding the Civil Rights Commission. Stennis finally voted for extending the Voting Rights Act in 1982, which happened to be just in time for his final reelection bid, which he won handily. It was easier for blacks to vote for him as opposed to Eastland, as he had not been a demagogue and was less vocal in his previous civil rights opposition. The following year, Stennis was one of four Senate Democrats to vote against MLK Day. On defense, he mostly supported President Reagan’s initiatives, as he backed increased spending on missiles and voted for aid to the Contras. In 1986, the Democrats won back the Senate, and Stennis served as Senate pro tempore.

Unlike his colleague James Eastland, Stennis got to serve throughout the entirety of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Although Reagan was the ultimate conservative politician, Stennis was far from on board with the agenda of him and his Republican supporters despite his conservative record during the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon Administrations. His record on domestic issues became more palatable to the Democratic leadership and his overall political record in this period could be regarded as moderate as opposed to conservative and in his final two years it could even be regarded as moderately liberal. Some examples of liberal votes include his 1986 vote to defeat Jesse Helms’s (R-N.C.) amendment killing Washington D.C.’s law prohibiting insurers from denying coverage to people with AIDS, his 1987 vote against confirming Robert Bork to the Supreme Court despite his prior support of conservative justices, and his 1988 votes against exempting religious institutions from Washington D.C.’s anti-discrimination laws for gays and lesbians, against a bill permitting the death penalty for drug lords who order murders, and against a workfare proposal for welfare. He didn’t run for reelection, having served over forty years in the Senate.


Atkins, J. Book review: ‘Big Jim Eastland’. Clarion Ledger.

Illson, M. (1970, January 16). Southern White Leaders Voice Anger and Dismay Over Integration Ruling. The New York Times.

Retrieved from

Zwiers, M. (2015). Senator James Eastland: Mississippi’s Jim Crow Democrat. Baton Rouge: Louisiana University State Press.

Ezra Taft Benson: Religious and Political Leader

Image result for Ezra Taft Benson

When we think of the Eisenhower era, we think of a time of conformity, prosperity, but also of moderation. What you probably didn’t know is that Eisenhower had a member of his cabinet who was a religious leader. This would be Ezra Taft Benson (1899-1994), his Secretary of Agriculture. Benson was in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, a governing body second only to the office of the president. He was eminently qualified for this position as his master’s degree was in agricultural economics and he had an extensive career in the field. As Secretary of Agriculture, Benson was possibly the most conservative member of the cabinet and pursued free market policies. It was Benson’s aim to end price supports and farm subsidies, instead supporting flexible supports. He regarded strong supports and farm subsidies as a manifestation of “creeping socialism”. Benson was staunchly anti-communist and opposed Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the United States in 1959. He stated his views on politics thusly, “I am for freedom and against slavery. I am for social progress and against socialism. I am for dynamic economy and against waste. I am for the private competitive market and against unnecessary government intervention. I am for national security and against appeasement and capitulation to an obvious enemy” (Godfrey). Despite being a staunch conservative in a moderate administration, Benson held his post for the entire presidency and Eisenhower concurred in his farm policies. He subsequently became supportive of the John Birch Society and in 1966 published a pamphlet that reflected the organization’s views on civil rights titled, “Civil Rights, Tool of Communist Deception”. Benson called the JBS “The most effective non-church organization in our fight against creeping socialism and godless Communism” (Quinn, 5). Although he was never a member (probably because of his position in the Mormon church), his wife and sons joined, one of them becoming the organization’s coordinator in Utah. His support for the John Birch Society was a change from his anti-McCarthy views in 1954, and he later came to regard Joseph McCarthy as having performed a service for the United States.

Benson’s affiliation with the organization and his power in the church led fellow members to criticize him for using his post to spread these ideas, and in March 1963 he was ordered to publish a statement that clarified that his support was “my personal opinion only” and that the LDS president opposed the use of the Church for increasing membership in anti-communist organizations (Quinn, 19). Benson’s support for the John Birch Society and its leader, Robert Welch, also got him into conflict with former President Eisenhower, as Welch in his book The Politician accused Ike of consciously serving the communist conspiracy. To reduce his influence in America, LDS President David O. McKay sent him on a mission to Europe in 1963. In 1967, Benson permitted the use of one of his talks, Trade and Treason, as a foreword to an overtly racist book, “Black Hammer”, which had an illustration of a decapitated head of a black man on its cover. In 1968, Benson discussed being Vice President on George Wallace’s Independent Party ticket, but LDS Church President David O. McKay nixed the idea. While speaking at a Church General Conference in 1972, he recommended the book None Dare Call it Conspiracy, a conspiracy theory book by Bircher author Gary Allen. In 1973, he became President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and in 1985, became President of the Church of Latter Day Saints. By this point, he had become less outspoken politically but increased the distribution of the Book of Mormon. Benson also contributed $10 million to President Ronald Reagan for the purposes of feeding the hungry people of the world.  In 1989, President George H.W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Citizens Medal. In his last years, Benson suffered from various health problems including heart failure, strokes, and dementia. By the end, he could barely communicate and his duties were basically taken over by counselors Gordon B. Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson. Benson died on May 30, 1994.


Godfrey, K.W. Benson, Ezra Taft. Utah History Encyclopedia.

Quinn, M. Ezra Taft Benson and Mormon Political Conflicts. Mormon Chronicle.

Retrieved from

A link to the cover of “Black Hammer”, the racist book for which Benson authorized one of his talks as its foreword:






A Monumental Issue

Instead of profiling a historic event or some obscure historical figures, I’d like to discuss something today that I have been meaning to discuss for a while now: the status of monuments, statues, and structures celebrating historical figures. The United States over the past fifty years has grown more and more culturally and racially diverse. As diversity increases the political power of these new voices is bound to rise as well in a free society. One of the consequences of this I think has been to a certain extent inevitable: the taking down of monuments and statues that can be interpreted negatively based on the history surrounding who is being commemorated. Before I dive deeper, I have to state that every historical figure has done something that today we would regard as objectionable. Even Abraham Lincoln, the man who saved our nation and whose efforts resulted in the abolition of slavery, would be regarded by today’s standards as a racist, as would almost every American living in his time.

The purpose of this post is not to say that no monuments, statues, flags, or symbols should be taken down. To freeze the status of all monuments, naming, and likewise in time would be foolish. After all, there are people now and in the future we may want to celebrate over those in the past who have become less relevant to who we are now. I think, for instance, that any displays or flags that were put up as a reaction against the civil rights movement should best be taken down and this gets to my point: we should think of the purpose behind monuments, what they celebrate. Monuments, for instance, to Thomas Jefferson do not celebrate the fact that he was a hypocritical slaveowner. They represent his contributions to the foundation of the United States, such as the Declaration of Independence and his eight years as president. Or, for a more obscure example, take the Vinson Massif in Antarctica. This mountain is named after Democratic Congressman Carl Vinson of Georgia for his advocacy for Antarctic expedition. He also happened to be a segregationist who on no occasion in his over fifty years in office voted for a civil rights measure. While this name is not likely to be subjected to change simply because people aren’t going to see this mountain daily if at all, if it were people may agitate for its name change with the justification that as a society we don’t want to value the contribution of a man who was a segregationist. A man, however, is not merely the sum of all his objectionable parts. A monument to Roger B. Taney, a figure recently targeted, is a bit more disputable. Taney was the fifth chief justice of the Supreme Court and although he was appointed by President Jackson, he built upon what John Marshall had done and made great contributions of his own to the court, including clarification of what constitutes “interstate commerce” and expanding the court’s power of judicial review. The problem is that he was most responsible for the worst decision in Supreme Court history: Dred Scott v. Sandford, which not only ruled against Dred Scott’s claim to freedom, but also held that black people were not, could not be, and had never been, citizens of the United States. Thus, we must ask ourselves what Taney is being celebrated: the one who made great contributions to the institution or to the staunch defender of slavery? Perhaps the greatest lightning rod here is Robert E. Lee. Yes, you can argue that his role in the Civil War is a part of Southern history, that Lee was an honorable man and a great general, and you can argue that slavery was not the only reason people fought for the Confederacy. Indeed, a lot of people were drafted! A fundamental question was also whether you identified more with your state or with the idea of a “united states”. Nonetheless, we must confront the reality that by far the primary reason for the Civil War was slavery. This brings us to the most infamous event surrounding monument removal: Charlottesville.

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On June 17, 2015, a deranged 21-year old white supremacist whose name does not deserve mention, gunned down nine black attendees at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and wounded three others. Although he currently sits on death row, his posing with a Confederate flag before committing this massacre motivated a new wave of calls for the removal not only of Confederate flags but also of Confederate monuments, names, and sculptures from public places.  In March 2016, Charlottesville vice mayor Wes Bellamy called for the City Council to remove the Robert Edward Lee sculpture as to him it constituted disrespect for black residents and that it stood for racism. Local NAACP leader Rick Turner also supported the removal and called Lee a “terrorist”. Another sculpture on the chopping block was of General “Stonewall” Jackson in Court Square. Ultimately, the proposal to remove Jackson was dropped but the Lee proposal moved forward, with the City Council voting 3 to 2 in favor of its removal.

On August 11, 2017, in response to this vote, alt-righters Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer organized the “Unite the Right” rally, which mostly consisted of various factions of the alt-right, including neo-Nazis. Counter-protestors, including members of Antifa, showed up to confront them. The result was a string of violence that ultimately resulted in the vehicular homicide of counter protester Heather Heyer and the injuring of 19 others. The event was ended the following day and the perpetrator of this act who was part of the “Unite the Right” group and does not deserve name recognition, was given a life sentence. Given the historical context, though, should the Lee sculpture actually be removed?

The origin of the sculpture as well as the park’s naming was neither an immediate reaction to the Civil War nor the civil rights movement. The land for the park was purchased by stockbroker and philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire in 1917, and the sculpture itself was completed in 1924. This was, however, a time in which the KKK was at the height of its national prominence and Lee statues were going up in many places throughout the South. Yet, Virginia’s Jim Crow constitution had been adopted in 1902, so whether this sculpture speaks to a celebration of racial oppression is debatable. The argument against it is that absent of it being a direct commemoration of the Civil War, its presence is offensive. However, I see that racism is not the only potential reason to leave the sculpture up. Lee is one of the most famous Virginians, is regarded as a great general (but overrated thanks to the incompetence of his union counterpart George McClellan), is admired for character, and the heroic mythos behind him remains tremendous, at least among white Virginians. However, although he regarded slavery as a “moral & political evil”, he seemed to know this from personal experience as he was known to resort to cruel measures to maintain control of the slaves on his plantation, including severe beatings for escaped slaves and breaking up slave families. I’m not a Lee expert, but it seems to me that the enthusiasm for him that is best backed by history is that he sided with his state of Virginia despite his disagreement with the decision to secede and his correct belief that secession would be disastrous. That was his “honor”, his loyalty to the decision of the people of Virginia. I am ultimately conflicted on the question of Lee’s sculpture.

Overall, on the question of monuments, I am extremely wary of continued pushes for monument removal and I am staunchly opposed to any removals in which the complaint is about views a historical figure held that do not relate to what the monument is commemorating. I see the possibility in the future of all historical figures who ever owned slaves being up for removal from public commemoration, but this would be a tremendously difficult undertaking considering half the presidents on Mount Rushmore owned slaves. I understand that some removals are inevitable in a changing society, but I fear the dismissal of national achievement. For instance, I staunchly oppose the removal of Senator Pat McCarran’s name from Las Vegas International Airport because he is being honored for his contributions to the growth of aviation as well as that of the state of Nevada, not for his prejudiced views on immigrants and Jews. I believe people should be honored for their achievements, even if they held unrelated views that today are at best regarded as antiquated and at worst bigoted.

The Communist Fellow-Traveler, The Fascist Dupe, and The Peacenik: Six Tumultuous Years in Montana

As I have written before, the Great Depression produced many political characters and leaders. In times of trouble, Georgia turned to rightist demagogue Eugene Talmadge and Louisiana turned to populist demagogue Huey Long. The voters of Montana’s 1st congressional district in a span of six years turned to a communist fellow-traveler, a fascist dupe, and a peacenik to represent them.

Jerry J. O’Connell: Communist Fellow-Traveler

In 1936, Congressman Joseph Monaghan thought after two terms that the time was ripe for him to run for the Senate. He challenged incumbent James E. Murray in the Democratic primary, but fell to defeat, ending his political career at the age of 30. His departure from Congress opened the door for another young man, 27-year old Jerry J. O’Connell (1909-1956).

A staunch supporter of the New Deal, Jerry J. O’Connell proved to be even further leftward in his thinking after his election.  He, along with Congressman John T. Bernard, were the only members to visit the International Brigades, the Comintern units fighting in the Spanish Civil War against Franco. Bernard himself would be identified by Communist Party attorney John Abt in his autobiography as one of the two secret communists he was aware of in Congress. O’Connell denied that he was a member of the Communist Party, but Professor Denis Janz in his book World Christianity and Marxism identifies him as an active supporter of the Communist Party. The Catholic Church, which backed Franco, thought so as well, and condemned him for his sympathies. Senator Burton K. Wheeler, although a fellow Democrat, also thought of him as supportive of communism and thus surreptitiously supported his opponent in the 1938 Congressional election, Jacob Thorkelson. During the 1938 campaign, Thorkelson focused on non-interventionism and attacking O’Connell as a “stooge for communism”, while O’Connell attacked him for having run a nudist colony (Johnson, 226). He lost reelection that year.

In 1948, O’Connell became the executive secretary of the Progressive Party in Washington. Bear in mind that the Progressive Party of 1948 was being run and staffed by the Communist Party, which was itself was subsidized by and under the direction of Moscow. Henry Wallace, who didn’t manage the day-to-day running of his campaign, served as their dupe. O’Connell would also lobby strongly against the Mundt-Nixon Communist Registration Bill. Although this effort was successful in 1948, many of the proposed bill’s provisions would be in the McCarran Internal Security Act in 1950. In 1955, he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but the hearing produced no new information for the committee. He died of a heart attack the next year, only 46 years old. Although O’Connell officially being a communist was never proven, his support of their goals and interests as well as his official role in the Progressive Party of 1948 make him at minimum a fellow traveler, or a philosophical sympathizer with communism.

Jacob Thorkelson: Fascist Dupe

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When Dr. Jacob “Thorky” Thorkelson (1876-1945) won the 1938 election, the majority of voters felt relief that their far left Congressman was gone, but the relief was temporary. Soon he was spamming material into the Congressional Record that included banking conspiracies, the Rothschilds, and anti-Semitic and anti-British diatribes. The sources “Thorky” quoted from in the Congressional Record included the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (infamous anti-Semitic forgery), The World Hoax (anti-Semitic book that focuses on connecting Jews to Communism), Action (British fascist Oswald Moseley’s publication), and the Christian Free Press (Nazi publication). He also defended Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews on the floor of the House, stating, “I question the truthfulness of many of the statements published in our newspapers, for I find upon investigation that German-Hebrews are in a better position in Germany than many of our people in the United States” (Johnson, 228).  An embarrassment to Congress and his party, he was defeated for renomination in 1940 by the first female member of Congress, Jeannette Rankin. He tried in 1942 and 1944 to make comebacks but lost overwhelmingly. Thorkelson died two months after the end of World War II at the age of 69. Historian Jon Axline wrote of him, “It is difficult to determine if ‘Thorky’ actually believed the gibberish he had presented in the Congressional Record. Time after time he was unable to respond to questions about those insertions. Congressman Thorkelson probably was neither a true fascist nor a Nazi, but he was definitely clueless” (Johnson, 229).

Jeannette Rankin: The Peacenik

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Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973) has a unique place in American history. In 1916, she became the first woman ever elected to Congress and she was one of the fifty members of the House to vote against America’s entry into World War I. It is also no surprise that she was a suffragette. Her return in 1940 was a relief to the Montana voters who tired of members of Congress who represented radical ideologies more than the people of the district. Indeed, Rankin voted as a moderate Republican. However, there was a matter in which she was no moderate: peace. She was an uncompromising non-interventionist and even after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, she was the sole vote against America declaring war on Japan. Rankin knew her political career was over with this vote, but she felt she couldn’t compromise on the question of peace. She lived long enough to participate in anti-Vietnam War marches and died in 1973, less than a month shy of her 93rd birthday.

The Voters of the 1st Get Their Political Star

In 1942, the voters of the 1st elected Democrat Mike Mansfield, who was very much unlike his three predecessors in his political longevity and leadership: he served his constituency for ten years before winning election to the Senate, and served as the Senate’s Majority Leader from 1961 to 1977. He was subsequently appointed ambassador to Japan in 1977 and was so highly regarded in this role the Reagan Administration kept him on until he opted to retire in 1988.


Janz, D.R. (1998). World Christianity and Marxism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johnson, M.C. (2019). Political hell-raiser: The life and times of Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana. Norman, OK: The University of Oklahoma Press.

The Roots of the Debate on Immigration and a Border Wall

The subject of immigration has been at the forefront of national discussion, especially since the results of the 2016 election. The current debate we are having and the advocacy for a border wall from the Trump Administration stems from over three quarters of a century of history.

The Bracero Program and Illegal Immigration

In 1942, the bracero program was established through the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement between the United States and Mexico. This program legally imported laborers from Mexico and provided for decent living conditions with a 30-cent minimum wage (also the minimum for U.S. workers at the time), which served to reduce the cost of food but also cheapen the value of domestic agricultural labor. In 1951, the program was formally extended with regulations by Congress. These laborers tended to work either on farms or for railroads and because they were assigned to one employer, this employer had a lot more power over them than they would in a traditional market economy. In some cases, this led to outright exploitation, resulting in many postwar strikes by the braceros. At the time, it was conservatives who largely supported the importation of these laborers while liberals opposed it as it harmed the earning capacity of domestic labor. In 1954, the issue of the presence of illegal immigrants resulted in a sweeping operation by the Eisenhower Administration called “Operation Wetback”. Although this resulted in the return of over 1 million to Mexico, illegal immigration persisted as enforcement declined starting in 1955 and this served to undermine the bracero program as farmers wanted to get around its regulations. The program received a critical blow in 1961 when President Kennedy, an opponent, signed into law legislation that while extending it for two years also required U.S. workers to have the same benefits as braceros, which resulted in their employment to drastically decline. In 1964, Congress opted not to extend the program. However, the issue of migrant labor remained and because of a loophole in the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act that permitted their employment despite illegal entry resulted in a spike in its use in the 1970s. Calls for immigration reform increased but because there were (and still are) numerous issues surrounding migrant labor, session after session of Congress kicked the can down the road as they were unable to reach an agreement.

The First Amnesty Bill

In 1986, Congress considered the Simpson-Mazzoli bill to reform immigration, and one of the major provisions of this bill was amnesty. Amnesty would be granted to any illegal alien who could prove that he or she had lived in the United States on or before January 1, 1982. In exchange, there was to be a crackdown on employers hiring them and strengthened border security. Many Republicans at the time opposed the amnesty provision, most notably Bill McCollum of Florida, who stated that legalization would “send a signal…we’ve done it once, so we would probably do it again” (Drew). He proposed striking the amnesty portion from the bill, which was narrowly killed on a 192-199 vote. 68 Democrats and 124 Republicans voted to kill amnesty while 159 Democrats and 40 Republicans opposed. Among the representatives voting on McCollum’s proposal were future Republican presidential contenders John McCain of Arizona, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, and John Kasich of Ohio, future Senate leaders Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and future Vice President Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.). McCain, Gingrich, and Schumer voted to keep amnesty while Lott, Reid, Kasich, Daschle, and Cheney voted to delete it. Had amnesty been deleted, it would have killed immigration reform for the session. The law was subsequently passed and after the employer sanctions section was weakened due to pressure from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and civil rights activists, it was signed into law.,d_placeholder_euli9k,h_1439,w_2560,x_0,y_0/dpr_1.5/c_limit,w_1044/fl_lossy,q_auto/v1492189304/articles/2014/01/31/the-anguish-of-alan-simpson-tragic-hero-of-immigration-reform/140130-clift-immigration-tease_eof2je

President Reagan signs the Simpson-Mazzoli Act into law, November 6, 1986.

Despite the intentions of the act to reduce the illegal immigrant population, by 2013 it had more than doubled from 5 million to 11.1 million. The failure of the Simpson-Mazzoli law can be attributed to several factors. First, the amnesty of 3 million came into action first despite a report released on March 1, 1981 from the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, chaired by the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, which concluded that the American border must be secured first to successfully enact immigration reform.  Second, the employer sanctions portion was weak and not strongly enforced. Third, there was about a decade of delay before increased border security. Some, such as the law’s sponsor Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), placed the blame on the failure of effective enforcement of employer sanctions for employment of illegals. According to President Reagan’s son, Michael, Reagan in retirement expressed regret for a lack of follow-through on enforcement of employer sanctions and border security.


In all, we are at this point in history because we never came up with a satisfactory legal substitute to fill in the void left by the expiration of the bracero program. To those who decry the current calls for a border wall, bear in mind that it took us a long time to get to this argument. The fact that the debate has even gotten to the point in which we have elected a president whose campaign centered on advocacy for a border wall speaks to over fifty years of policy failure on immigration and labor policy regarding the southern border. Had immigration reform in 1986 been effective at cutting down on illegal immigration, the issue would not be a focus of current politics and Donald Trump would probably not be our current president.


Congress Clears Overhaul of Immigration Law. Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 1986.

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Drew, C. (1986, October 10). House Passes Immigration Bill – With a Catch. Chicago Tribune.

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Nowicki, D. (2018, February 11). Did Ronald Reagan regret 1986 immigrant ‘amnesty’ law? Arizona Republic.

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Plumer, B. (2013, January 30). Congress tried to fix immigration back in 1986. Why did it fail? Washington Post.

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To Amend HR 3810, To Strike the Legalization Program Provisions.

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U.S. Immigration Policy and the National Interest. (1981, March 1). Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy.

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Thurgood Marshall Confirmation: How They Voted

During the confirmation hearings for Elena Kagan, several Republican senators expressed uncertainty as to whether they would have voted for Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice. This of course was on the grounds of his liberal voting record and the fact that she had clerked for him. Perhaps they failed to look at the matter from a historical perspective. Most Supreme Court confirmations throughout the nation’s history were non-partisan and some even had no record vote. As late as the Clinton Administration, liberal Supreme Court justices could be confirmed with ease: only three senators voted against Ginsburg and only nine voted against Breyer. However, Marshall had a bit more opposition.


In 1967, Justice Tom Clark announced his retirement, and LBJ, seeking to cement his name in civil rights history in yet another way, picked his Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall, who argued Brown v. Board of Education (1954) before the Supreme Court. When he had been nominated as a federal judge by JFK in 1961, it initially had to be a recess appointment due to the stringent opposition of Judiciary Committee chair James Eastland (D-Miss.). The opposition to Marshall in 1967 included Sam Ervin (D-N.C.), who opposed him as an “activist” judge. Yet, opposition to him was mostly restricted to the South, the sole exception being Robert Byrd (D-W.V.). Byrd was a former Klan organizer, foe of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and he wrote a letter to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover asking him to investigate Marshall for communist connections. The vote ended up being 69-11, with 10 Democrats and 1 Republican voting against. Now…I know what some people are going to say about the GOP of the sixties, so I included my own ideological measurements, Mike’s Conservative Index, based on a group of ideologically indicative roll calls in the 90th Congress with this vote. A 100 is most conservative, a checkmark means they paired for, and an “X” means they paired against. The vote below reflects a different time in partisanship on judicial nominations and demonstrates opposition to him was regional rather than ideological as conservatives outside the South voted for him.

Hill, Lister (D) N 65 Mansfield, Mike (D) 31
Sparkman, John (D) N 45 Metcalf, Lee (D) Y 8
Bartlett, Bob (D) Y 20 Curtis, Carl (R) Y 100
Gruening, Ernest (D) 23 Hruska, Roman (R) Y 94
Hayden, Carl (D) Y 34 Bible, Alan (D) 70
Fannin, Paul (R) ? 96 Cannon, Howard (D) Y 51
Fulbright, James (D) Y 33 McIntyre, Thomas (D) Y 20
McClellan, John (D) X 83 Cotton, Norris (R) Y 86
Kuchel, Thomas (R) Y 43 Williams, Harrison (D) Y 4
Murphy, George (R) 88 Case, Clifford (R) Y 6
Allott, Gordon (R) Y 84 Anderson, Clinton (D) Y 38
Dominick, Peter (R) Y 80 Montoya, Joseph (D) 20
Dodd, Thomas (D) Y 34 Kennedy, Robert (D) Y 0
Ribicoff, Abraham (D) Y 30 Javits, Jacob (R) Y 8
Boggs, Caleb (R) Y 60 Ervin, Samuel (D) N 90
Williams, John (R) Y 98 Jordan, Everett (D) ? 78
Holland, Spessard (D) N 68 Burdick, Quentin (D) Y 23
Smathers, George (D) X 67 Young, Milton (R) Y 88
Russell, Richard (D) X 90 Lausche, Frank (D) Y 80
Talmadge, Herman (D) N 84 Young, Stephen (D) Y 15
Inouye, Daniel (D) Y 0 Harris, Fred (D) 9
Fong, Hiram (R) Y 41 Monroney, Almer (D) Y 40
Church, Frank (D) Y 40 Morse, Wayne (D) Y 15
Jordan, Leonard (R) Y 90 Hatfield, Mark (R) Y 27
Dirksen, Everett (R) Y 79 Clark, Joseph (D) Y 8
Percy, Charles (R) Y 31 Scott, Hugh (R) Y 35
Bayh, Birch (D) Y 28 Pastore, John (D) Y 16
Hartke, Vance (D) 36 Pell, Claiborne (D) Y 4
Hickenlooper, Bourke (R) ? 89 Hollings, Fritz (D) N 83
Miller, Jack (R) Y 88 Thurmond, Strom (R) N 98
Carlson, Frank (R) Y 72 McGovern, George (D) 22
Pearson, James (R) Y 60 Mundt, Karl (R) Y 98
Cooper, John (R) Y 28 Gore, Albert (D) Y 25
Morton, Thruston (R) Y 59 Baker, Howard (R) Y 69
Ellender, Allen (D) N 63 Yarborough, Ralph (D) Y 14
Long, Russell (D) N 56 Tower, John (R) Y 92
Muskie, Edmund (D) 7 Moss, Frank (D) Y 7
Smith, Margaret (R) Y 54 Bennett, Wallace (R) Y 92
Brewster, Daniel (D) Y 22 Aiken, George (R) Y 27
Tydings, Joseph (D) Y 7 Prouty, Winston (R) Y 43
Kennedy, Ted (D) Y 0 Byrd, Harry Jr. (D) ? 86
Brooke, Edward (R) Y 20 Spong, William (D) Y 60
Hart, Philip (D) Y 0 Jackson, Henry (D) Y 12
Griffin, Robert (R) Y 45 Magnuson, Warren (D) Y 22
McCarthy, Eugene (D) 0 Byrd, Robert (D) N 64
Mondale, Walter (D) Y 0 Randolph, Jennings (D) Y 22
Eastland, James (D) N 87 Nelson, Gaylord (D) Y 11
Stennis, John (D) X 82 Proxmire, William (D) Y 26
Long, Edward (D) Y 12 McGee, Gale (D) Y 5
Symington, Stuart (D) Y 38 Hansen, Clifford (R) Y 100

The Tafts: The Most Underrated Family in American Politics?

When most people think of the most famous member of the Taft family (if they even think about a Taft), they think of President William Howard Taft and might know of the hilarious myth that he got stuck in the White House bathtub. While it is true that Taft was a below average president, this is a pretty undignified remembrance. I hold that the Taft family is the most underrated political family in American history. Profiles of the five most famous members of the family should indicate why.

Alphonso Taft

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The first Taft to make a splash in American politics was not William Howard Taft, but his father, Alphonso Taft (1810-1891). The family’s affiliation with the Republican Party existed from its first presidential campaign, as he was a delegate to the 1856 Republican Party convention and tried to win a seat in Congress from George H. Pendleton, who was an opponent of the abolition of slavery. As a prominent attorney in Cincinnati, Taft fought against the reading of the Bible in public schools, as he found it inappropriate for Protestants to impose their views upon religious minorities through public school. His successful push against Bible reading in public school arguably resulted in his loss in the Republican primary for Governor of Ohio in 1875 to Rutherford B. Hayes.

For two months he served as Secretary of War after the resignation of the scandal-ridden William Belknap and successfully instituted reforms to make the department honest and more efficient. Taft was subsequently appointed Attorney General, and in this position, he supported the use of the military to stop violence and intimidation of black voters in the South. Taft also supported the bill settling the 1876 election with an Electoral Commission. In his final roles, he served under Chester Arthur as Ambassador to Austria-Hungary and Imperial Russia.

William Howard Taft

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Taft the President

William Howard Taft (1857-1930) was a judicially-minded man who wasn’t enthusiastic about electoral politics. His positions in government before the presidency had been appointed, such as his role governing the Philippines. However, his wife and Theodore Roosevelt saw talents in him and pushed him to run for president in 1908. The voters by and large saw Taft as being a third term of Roosevelt and he was handily elected over William Jennings Bryan. However, he was different in his approach. While Roosevelt’s approach to trust-busting was to distinguish between “good” and “bad” trusts, Taft’s approach was legalistic and far less subjective. There was more trust-busting than Roosevelt and this included bringing suit against Standard Oil, the result being a Supreme Court decision that dissolved the Standard Oil Company while adopting a “rule of reason” interpretation of the Sherman Act. He also went after U.S. Steel, but the Supreme Court would rule in 1920 that U.S. Steel wasn’t a monopoly under the Sherman Act.

On foreign policy, Taft, with Secretary of State Philander C. Knox, crafted “Dollar Diplomacy”, which was basically a push for expansion of American capitalism to Latin America. This course also served as a means of protecting the Panama Canal.

Trouble Ahead

The first signs of trouble for his presidency arose in its very first year when he tackled tariff reform. The tariff rates of the US had risen to their historical peak under the Dingley Tariff of 1897 and there was a popular call for reduction. The conservative Republicans who controlled Congress at the time were not keen on major tariff reduction and produced a bill that raised some tariffs while lowering others, with the result being a mere 5% average reduction. Taft signed the bill and even went as far as to proclaim it the best legislation the GOP ever produced, despite its unpopularity. His administration took the side of the conservative wing of the party on this and other issues, including conservation. By 1910, the public was fatigued by Republican rule and voted out the Republican majority in the House. The remainder of Taft’s presidency largely consisted of him vetoing legislation. He vetoed reversals of the tariffs but also of a prohibitionist bill and a measure prohibiting illiterates from immigrating. In 1912, the voters gave him and the Republican Senate (by voting for Democratic state legislatures) the boot as well, with Taft suffering the worst defeat for an incumbent president, only winning Utah and Vermont. He had never truly wanted to president and didn’t enjoy the job, rather he dreamed of being Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Taft the Chief Justice

In 1921, Chief Justice Edward Douglass White passed away. Newly elected President Warren G. Harding had a perfect replacement in mind, the man who appointed White. Taft’s time as Chief Justice was far more successful than his time as president. He was part of the conservative wing of the court and routinely ruled to restrict the power of government to regulate business. A prime example of such a decision was Taft’s ruling in Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Company (1922), which struck down a portion of the Revenue Act of 1919 that taxed businesses employing child labor. Taft was highly effective in his running of the court: when he first became Chief Justice, the court’s backlog extended five years. He lobbied Congress to pass legislation that gave the Supreme Court significantly greater control over its caseload by the elimination of nearly all automatic rights of appeal to the court. Taft was able to substantially reduce the backlog as a result. He also managed to maintain a high level of unity on the court, as 84% of decisions during his tenure were unanimous. Some of the more contentious decisions that went on the side of business property rights were eventually overruled as public sentiment grew increasingly favorable to unionization and government regulation.

Taft was at his happiest and proudest on the court, writing “I don’t remember that I ever was President” (White House Historical Association). By Hoover’s presidency, his health was in decline. On March 4, 1929, he recited part of the oath of office to Hoover incorrectly and found that his memory was becoming increasingly unreliable. Despite being cognizant of his decline, Taft insisted on staying on the court. He feared that Hoover would pick Harlan Fiske Stone as his replacement, who he correctly believed would rule to expand federal power and to limit property rights. By January 1930, he was almost unable to speak, suffered from hallucinations, and was aware he was near death. Taft had President Hoover promise to him that he would pick Charles Evans Hughes as his replacement before he retired on February 3rd. He lived just over a month after his departure, dying on March 8th.

Although Taft was not a good fit for the presidency, he was one of the greatest chief justices for expanding the court’s power and autonomy and his reduction of the court’s backlog. He also stands as the only person in American history to lead both the Executive and Judicial branches of government.

Robert A. Taft

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On ideology, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree from father to son. While Robert Taft (1889-1953) never served in the Executive or Judicial branches, he was a leader in the Legislative branch. Before his time in national politics, he served in both Houses of the Ohio state legislature in which he opposed Prohibition and the Ku Klux Klan. Like his grandfather Alphonso Taft, he fought against the teaching of the Bible in public school, specifically opposing a Klan-backed bill that required the reading of ten verses of the Bible daily in Ohio public schools. Taft also opposed a bill banning dancing on Sundays. In 1938, he ran for the Senate on an anti-New Deal platform, defeating incumbent Robert Bulkley, who had sometimes supported the New Deal.

His intellect gained him respect and prominence and he quickly became a leader in the Conservative Coalition, a combination of Republicans and Southern Democrats who worked together to block and repeal New Deal laws. Taft denounced the New Deal as socialist and opposed most government interventions in business. He also stood as an opponent of FDR’s foreign policy and the draft, the latter he viewed as a restriction of individual freedom. When the GOP gained the majority in Congress in the 1946 election, Taft served as the de facto leader of the Republican Senate on domestic issues and pushed a conservative agenda. In 1947, he sponsored the Taft-Hartley Act, which partially rolled back the Wagner Act and permitted states to decide whether they were “closed shop” or “right-to-work”, which passed over President Truman’s veto. However, Taft was capable of compromise: he supported the Truman Doctrine and voted for the Marshall Plan after backing budget cuts. He also supported some federal assistance to education as well as public housing through the Taft-Ellender-Wagner Housing Act. Taft was a constructive conservative in that he would often propose alternative legislation to progressive proposals, a prominent example being the voluntary Fair Employment Practices Commission, which I covered in a previous post.

Although Taft had backed the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, he was an opponent of the postwar internationalist consensus. One of his most prominent dissents in this area was his opposition to the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He also prophetically warned in his last speech on May 26, 1953, that extensive involvement in foreign affairs would lead to United States into war stating, “I have never felt that we should send American soldiers to the Continent of Asia, which, of course, included China proper and Indo-China, simply because we are so outnumbered in fighting a land war on the Continent of Asia that it would bring about complete exhaustion even if we were able to win. … So today, as since 1947 in Europe and 1950 in Asia, we are really trying to arm the world against Communist Russia, or at least furnish all the assistance which can be of use to them in opposing Communism.

Is this policy of uniting the free world against Communism in time of peace going to be a practical long-term policy? I have always been a skeptic on the subject of the military practicability of NATO. … I have always felt that we should not attempt to fight Russia on the ground on the Continent of Europe any more than we should attempt to fight China on the Continent of Asia” (Rothbard, 1970).

Presidential Runs and Legacy

Although Robert Taft was popularly known as “Mr. Republican”, his party thrice declined to nominate him for president. The most crushing defeat was undoubtedly in 1952, as everyone knew it would be the last time he would make the run. His defeats were caused by a perception of Taft as cold and aloof, a self-defeating perception even among many of his supporters that “Taft can’t win”, and his opposition to the internationalist postwar consensus. Although he lost the nomination, the GOP won back the Senate in 1952 and Taft was elected Majority Leader. He managed to cooperate with President Eisenhower, but his time as leader of the Senate didn’t last: it turned out that even during the 1952 campaign he had pancreatic cancer, which was discovered in April 1953. Taft died on July 31st. The historical appraisals of him were highly positive in the years after his death. In 1956, he was included in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage for his tremendously unpopular opposition to the Nuremberg Trials as an exercise in ex post facto law, which is explicitly prohibited in the U.S. Constitution. Taft instead supported locking up the Nazi leadership for life to prevent them starting another war or executing them by court-martial. In 1957, a Senate commission named him one of the five greatest American senators in history alongside Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Calhoun, and Robert La Follette.

Robert Taft Jr.

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Robert Taft’s death in 1953 didn’t end the Taft family involvement in politics: his son, Robert Jr. (1917-1993), was elected to the House in 1962. In his first term, he voted similarly to his father by opposing most Democratic legislation, including the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Taft was also an outspoken supporter of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, that year he lost reelection in the Democratic wave. However, he regained a seat in Congress in the 1966 midterms, which were a backlash wave against LBJ, the Great Society, the Vietnam War, and race riots. Taft, like many of the new Republicans elected that year, charted a moderate course.

In 1970, he was elected to the Senate. During his time, he tended to be conservative on fiscal matters and often liberal on social issues. On organized labor, he sometimes opposed their interests (opposition to strong minimum wage increases) but sometimes supported it in ways his grandfather nor his father would have considered. Indeed, he stated “I never tried to pattern myself after my father” (Los Angeles Times). One of these departures was in his role in the drafting and enactment of a law extending the National Labor Relations Act to healthcare personnel. Another was his vote for the proposed Common Situs Picketing legislation, which would have permitted a construction union that had a grievance with one contractor on the site to picket all other contractors on the same site. This measure was vetoed by President Gerald Ford, and unlike Taft-Hartley, it never became law. Despite Taft’s centrist bent, he lost reelection in 1976 by three points to liberal Democrat Howard Metzenbaum. He never sought elected office again.

Bob Taft

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The most prominent member of the Taft family who is still around is Bob Taft (1942- ), or Robert Alphonso Taft III. Unlike his father and grandfather, Taft’s role in politics remained on the state level. Serving in the Ohio State Legislature and then being elected Secretary of State in 1990, he set up a good background for himself to be considered for governor.

In 1998, Taft was elected Governor. His mindset for the state was on economic productivity and education.  His Third Frontier program, designed to modernize Ohio’s economy through funding research into new technology, spent $681 million while playing a significant role in increasing economic activity by $6.6 billion and creating 41,300 jobs. This constituted roughly a return of $10 for every $1 spent. Taft was similarly successful on his education policy, providing $10 billion over 12 years for school construction. This program resulted in higher test scores and high school graduation rates. Although Taft temporarily raised the sales tax by 1%, he followed up a few years later with a 21% income tax cut and a 0.5% reduction in sales tax. He also reinstated the death penalty, resulting in 24 executions during his tenure.

Ethics Troubles

In 2005, a scandal emerged in the Taft Administration called Coingate. This centered around Thomas Noe, a GOP fundraiser and political operator who stole an estimated $13.7 million from the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation in an investment scheme in rare coins. Bob Taft had emphasized ethics as governor and had mandated four hours of ethics training every two years for high level political appointees and staff. However, he knew Noe and had failed to report, as required by law, gifts from him and 42 golf outings. Although Taft claimed the failure to report was unintentional, he nonetheless pleaded “no contest” and was fined $4,000 plus court costs. He was not sentenced to jail time due to having had no previous ethics issues in his career. Taft left office the most unpopular governor in Ohio’s history. In August 2007, he joined the University of Dayton as a distinguished education researcher.


These are also not the only Tafts to have served, but the most notable ones. The Taft family has given America an Attorney General, its only President AND Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, two senators, one who was one of the greatest in history, a governor. I think it is high time they are given more due than a myth about a Taft stuck in a bathtub.


Eder, S., & Drew, J. (2005, August 19). Taft declared guilty. The Blade.

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Profiles in Courage. U.S. Senate.

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Robert Taft Jr.; U.S. Senator, Scion of Political Family. (1993, December 8). Los Angeles Times.

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Rothbard, M. (1970). Swan Song of the Old Right.

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Trickey, E. (2016, December 5). Chief Justice, Not President, Was William Howard Taft’s Dream Job. Smithsonian Magazine.

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Vanac, M. (2009, September 15). Ohio Third Frontier creates $6.6 billion in economic impact, 41,300 jobs. MedCity News.

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William Howard Taft. The White House Historical Association.

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