The Fascinating Senator France…of Maryland

Joseph France, photo portrait head and shoulders.jpg

In 1916, Marylanders elected, for the first time by popular vote, a Republican senator. The Democratic nominee, Congressman David J. Lewis, was considered a bit left for the voters of the state at the time and Dr. Joseph I. France (1873-1939) narrowly prevailed. Initially, it seemed that he would simply be a member of the Republican old guard, and indeed he pretty much voted that way for his first two years, scoring a 94% on the MC-Index for the 65th Congress. France, however, was already unique in his being one of the most consistent opponents of emergency wartime measures. He was one of one of only twelve senators to vote against price controls on coal and one of only six senators to vote against the Espionage Act of 1917. France fought to preserve freedom of speech during wartime with his amendment to the Sedition Act that would have prohibited any restriction on “the liberty or impairing the right of any individual to publish or speak the truth, with good motives and justifiable ends” (Govtrack). This amendment failed by two votes and he then voted against the Sedition Act, condemning it as repressive and barbaric. He also opposed Prohibition and supported the 19th Amendment. France was so strongly opposed to the former that he went as far as to threaten to split from the party over the issue in 1920.

In the 66th Congress, he drifted a bit from his conservatism in backing measures prohibiting the use of stopwatches and bonuses for government contracted work and in his vote against the Esch-Cummins Act, which restored railroads to their private owners on net favorable terms. France’s votes on these measures won him points with organized labor. However, he was also one of the irreconcilables on the Versailles Treaty, not accepting US membership in the League of Nations under any circumstances. Although on this issue of foreign policy he aligned with conservatives, this would not be the case after the Wilson Administration. His MC-Index score for that session was 79%.

Senator France, the USSR, and the Harding Administration

After the Bolshevik Revolution, France was the first senator to visit the USSR and met and had a discussion with Premier Vladimir Lenin. In the process, he managed to secure the release of Margaret Harrison, a journalist accused of espionage. France hoped and believed that Lenin’s NEP (New Economic Program) would prove a decisive turn to capitalism, and thus pushed for diplomatic recognition and trade relations with the USSR. However, the NEP was in fact a pseudo-capitalist program to try to stimulate Russia’s economy that as history tells us, didn’t result in a capitalist system. France’s views on the subject were not looked kindly upon by the people of Maryland or most anywhere else in the United States. In his notes on their meeting, Lenin wrote that France supported an alliance between the United States, Germany, and Russia to counter French and English aggression. He had a mixed record in backing conservative proposals during the Harding Administration; while he backed a good deal of the administration’s domestic agenda including tax cuts and opposition to veterans bonuses, he voted against the Administration’s ship subsidy bill, the purpose of which was to encourage private contractors to buy over 1000 unwanted and run-down surplus ships constructed during the Wilson Administration from the government at discounted rates. France sided with progressives on foreign policy, including in their opposition to the Four Power Plan and the Japan Treaty. He was also the only senator to vote against the Washington Naval Treaty. France’s opposition to these measures was based in his view that the United States should not get into entangling alliances with Britain, France, and Japan. Many Republicans objected to his voting behavior at this point and tried to get him defeated in the primary in 1922, but he prevailed with the aid of organized labor. That year, France publicly supported the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, a change from the openly racist politicians that had often in the past been elected by the state. His overall MC-Index score for the session was 56%.

Author Paul Winchester in his 1923 book on Maryland public figures described France as an “An ultra-conservative in many of his views of public questions and a conservative radical in others” and that “He became so ultra-radical in his open views on the foreign policy of the government that practically every newspaper published in the State was opposed to him…” (Winchester, 219 & 220). His advocacy of relations with the USSR and his overall opposition to Harding-Hughes foreign policy ultimately cost him reelection in 1922 to William Cabell Bruce, an erratic conservative Democrat who had received crossover support from Republicans. In 1932, France challenged Herbert Hoover for the Republican nomination for president, but of course wasn’t successful. At the Republican National Convention, he attempted to nominate Calvin Coolidge but was denied access to the rostrum. In 1934, France attempted a return to the Senate but was defeated by Democrat George Radcliffe by over 15 points and died five years later at his home of a heart attack in his sleep.

Doctor France was one of the most principled men to have ever been elected to the Senate. His lifetime MC-Index score of 76% doesn’t seem to fully do the dramatic range of his political views justice, as he quite often took positions that were extreme in one direction or another, whereas that score indicates “moderate conservatism”. France was about as close as you can get to a pure Burkean legislator, as he practiced the “trustee model” of representation in voting for what he thought was right, not what the voters thought was right and he paid for it by losing reelection. This is also what happened to Edmund Burke in Parliament after publicly standing for this model of representation.


France Amendment to H.R. 8753 (Sedition Act). Govtrack.

Retrieved from

Winchester, P. (1923). Men of Maryland since the Civil War: Sketches of United States Senator Arthur Pue Gorman and his contemporaries and successors and their connection with public affairs, Volume I. Baltimore, MD: Maryland County Press Syndicate.



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