Charles McNary: A Steady Captain in Stormy Waters

U.S. Senate: Charles L. McNary

On April 4, 1917, Democratic Senator Harry Lane of Oregon appears on the Senate floor to cast his vote on a matter of vital importance. He is in poor health and has appeared against his doctor’s advisement but he had to take a stand of conscience. That day he was one of six senators to vote against declaring war on Germany for the nation’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. The press crucified him and the others who voted against. An editorial in The Oregonian held, “Next to being ashamed of Harry Lane for what he has done … the people of Oregon are ashamed of themselves for having sent Harry Lane to the United States Senate” (MacColl, 137-138). There was widespread talk of a recall and in a month’s time, he was dead, arguably hastened by the stress of the public campaign against him. Governor James Withycombe, a Republican, appointed Oregon Supreme Court Justice Charles Linza McNary (1874-1944) to fill the vacancy.

From day one he proved, as he had in Oregon state politics, to be a moderate who could appeal to both the progressive and conservative wings of the GOP. This was especially evident when early in his Senate career he aligned himself with the mild reservationists in the Versailles Treaty debate, those who supported the Versailles Treaty but wanted mild reservations before passage. This differed from the strong reservationist position of Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, but he respected McNary’s debating skill and made sure he got the first available opening on the Agriculture and Forestry Committee, a critical committee to be on representing Oregon, a state consisting largely of farms and forests. As a reformer, McNary backed both Prohibition and women’s suffrage. Although he backed much of the economic program of Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon he also backed measures that didn’t please the Republican Administrations, including veterans bonuses and most notably his sponsorship of the McNary-Haugen Act, in which the government would purchase crop surpluses and was twice vetoed by President Coolidge. This proposal is widely seen as a precursor for New Deal farm policies. He did, however, managed to get passed some significant legislation regarding forest management in the McSweeney-McNary Act and the Clarke-McNary Act for forest fire protection. During the 1920s, Oregon was one of the states in which the Ku Klux Klan had its most significant presence, and McNary had to wade through these politics. He sided with Republican Governor Ben Olcott in his renomination and reelection campaign in 1922, which he lost to Klan-backed Democrat Walter Pierce. He chose to run for reelection in 1924 in part to remain a force against the Klan in Oregon.

In 1932, Republicans lost both the White House and the Senate in the midst of the Great Depression, with Majority Leader James E. Watson (R-Ind.) going down as well. McNary stepped in as leader. Unlike the conservative Watson, who would have been more like his House counterpart Bertrand Snell (R-N.Y.) in opposition to the New Deal had he continued to serve, McNary embraced several core New Deal proposals, including the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Agricultural Adjustment Act. He had seen power generation as appropriate for public control and viewed the Roosevelt Administration’s agricultural policies as helping farmers by artificially raising the price of food. McNary also got along better with the charismatic FDR as opposed to the dour Herbert Hoover. Indeed, one of his greatest skills was building relationships with colleagues of all different sorts, and he was affectionately known by them as “Charley Mac”. However, McNary drew the line in other places. He opposed the inflationary Thomas Amendment to the Agricultural Adjustment Act, opposed the gold policies of the Roosevelt Administration, opposed the Public Utilities Holding Company Act of 1935, and remained a supporter of high tariffs. McNary’s cooperation with several key New Deal policies helped put him in a good position to convince Roosevelt to fund the Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams constructed on the Columbia River. Despite McNary’s moderate leadership of the Republican opposition, he came within two points to losing to the staunchly left-wing Democrat Willis Mahoney in 1936. Although Republicans were at their lowest point after this election, McNary knew how to strategize.  

Although he and the Republicans were unanimous in their opposition to FDR’s “court packing plan”, his strategy was to wisely have the Republicans on the side so the argument would be between Democratic factions. This meant the foe…the man who stood out most in opposition to the “court packing plan” was not McNary, not the House’s Republican leader Bert Snell, not former President Herbert Hoover (although he did deliver a speech on it), but Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, the former Progressive Party candidate for vice president. Roosevelt loyalists tried to make it a partisan issue but their efforts were in vain: the bill was killed on a bipartisan basis. McNary, however, didn’t want to necessarily base the GOP rise on conservatism and that same year leaked the Conservative Manifesto and announced to Republican senators, “Anyone who signs that thing is going to have a Liberty League tag put on him” (Lowndes, 14). This was a reference to the unsuccessful group that tried to rebut the New Deal based on market principles and was successfully painted in public perception as a group that was only out for the interests of the rich. This resulted in many senators, including conservative Republicans, not to admit their support for it. The Republican strategy combined with the Roosevelt recession resulted in enough Republican gains to form the informal Conservative Coalition with a group of Southern Democrats who had become increasingly opposed to the New Deal. As tensions were rising in Europe and war was approaching, McNary took a non-interventionist position and voted against lifting the arms embargo in 1939.

1940 GOP Convention -- Party Establishments Used to Matter | National Review
McNary and Willkie, 1940

In 1940, a most odd pair would be partnered against Roosevelt’s third term: Wendell Willkie and McNary. Willkie had only recently switched from Democrat to Republican, was for “aid short of war” to the Allies, and was opposed to public ownership of utilities. Indeed, it was this latter issue as the head of the holding company Commonwealth & Southern that had motivated his switch to the GOP. The Public Holding Company Act had resulted in the breakup of the company into different subsidiaries. McNary, on the other hand, was non-interventionist, had tried to stop Willkie’s nomination, and had a long record of supporting public ownership of utilities. As future Senator Richard L. Neuberger (1940) noted, “Willkie has said that it is his patriotic duty “to do what I can for the preservation of public utilities privately owned.” McNary has advocated the principle that the people come first when the ownership, development and control of the waterpower of the nation are considered.” He was one of the few Republican Senators who voted for the bond issue that TVA used to buy out the Tennessee properties of Willkie’s company” (84). Indeed, his place on the ticket was meant to balance out the interests of the East with the interests of the West. Neuberger was probably on the nose when he wrote in The Nation that McNary was “probably the most progressive individual” to be on a Republican ticket since Teddy Roosevelt (Mahoney). Indeed, his lifetime MC-Index score comes out at a mere 65%. Interestingly enough, the choice of McNary by Willkie motivated Roosevelt’s choice of his Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace to neutralize his popularity with farmers. Although the Willkie/McNary ticket lost in an electoral landslide and by nearly ten points in the popular vote, this was a substantial improvement from 1932 and 1936.  

Despite his prior non-interventionism, McNary was persuaded to support Lend Lease and helped the measure pass the Senate. The following year he won reelection by a landslide. On November 5th, 1943 he voted for the Connally Resolution, the Senate counterpart to the Fulbright Resolution in the House, which put the Senate on record as supporting the creation of a postwar peacekeeping international organization. This would prove to be his last vote, as only three days later he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. There had been symptoms earlier in the year as he had begun to slur in his speech and suffered headaches. Although it was removed, the cancer had spread throughout his body. McNary’s exit from the Senate would be like his entrance: a result of death. In this case, it was his death from brain cancer on February 25, 1944. Had Willkie been elected president in 1940 and had not selected a replacement before his death on October 8, 1944, it would have resulted in the first ever ascendancy of a Secretary of State to president per the Presidential Succession Act of 1886.

McNary is not the figure the Republicans would want leading them today as he was too moderate and his views on public power would be called “socialist”. However, he was the figure that the Senate Republicans needed to lead them during their stormiest years. Thus, I say he was the steady captain in stormy waters for the Senate Republicans.


Henry Agard Wallace, 33rd Vice President (1941-1945). United States Senate.

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Jensen, K. Harry Lane (1855-1917). Oregon Encyclopedia.

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Lowndes, J.E. (2008). From the New Deal to the new right: Race and the southern origins of modern conservatism. Yale University.

MacColl, E.K. (1979). “7: Patriotism and fear, 1917-1923”. The growth of a city. Portland, Oregon: The Georgian Press Company.

Mahoney, B. Charles L. McNary (1874-1944). Oregon Encyclopedia.

Neal, S. (1985). McNary of Oregon: A political biography. Portland, OR: Oregon Historical Society Press.

Neuberger, R. (1940, August 12). McNary of Fir Cone. TIME.

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Robbins, W.G. (2002). Charles McNary, a Republican with Progressive Credentials. The Oregon History Project.

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Revitalizing the MC-Index

Right now I am recovering from a very nasty cold and thus my mind hasn’t been at its best for writing or researching given the toll this has exacted on my sleep. However, I’m engaging in a broad undertaking and that is the revitalization of the MC-Index. The MC “Mike’s Conservative” Index is supposed to show what a theoretical national conservative interest group may grade people like in the past. While for 1947 forward I get quite a bit of assistance in determining what key votes are from looking at what votes Americans for Democratic Action, Americans for Constitutional Action, and the American Conservative Union counted as ideologically relevant. As one goes further back the greater the challenge of interpretation is and it requires some rethinking of assumptions. I have already covered one such way in which we need to rethink our assumptions when looking at political history in my August 5th, 2020 article, “When State’s Rights Was Progressive”.

In this light, I have decided to change up how my system works Instead of only determining votes by examining how the most conservative legislators (by DW-Nominate’s scaling system) voted, but also how the most liberal did as well. I have in the past criticized how poor ADA and ACU can be at distinguishing moderates and extremists on the other side in their ratings, so I want to take more precautions to avoid this. I have also become concerned about inappropriately counting or placing too much emphasis on regional issues. The system used to determine ideology will remain as sixteen of the most extreme representatives and four of the most extreme senators on a given vote, and all twenty if it is on the same question. I use this system because its possible that some legislators are not at their “peak” ideologically extreme period in a certain Congress or there are many issues in which they are extreme in that position but are less so in others. Republican H.R. Gross of Iowa, for instance, was not voting as a doctrinaire conservative during his first term, he would solidify his brand of skinflint conservatism during the Eisenhower years and only get more extreme with time. Having a bipolar approach to this also helps in weeding out votes that got both extremes to go against, thus is not a good vote for distinguishing right and left. However, it also does not make sense to have very individualistic dissents throw off a very relevant vote for inclusion. In 1947, one of the Republicans to vote “nay” on overriding President Truman’s veto of the Taft-Hartley Act was C.W. “Runt” Bishop of Illinois and he is the only one of the top conservatives of the Congress to do so. As it turns out, Bishop could be rather liberal on labor issues, but this is counterbalanced by his extreme conservatism on foreign policy and conservatism on other issues. In that same Congress, you have among the top liberals Senator Glen H. Taylor (D-Idaho) and Representatives Leo Isacson (ALP-N.Y.), Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-N.Y.), and George G. Sadowski (D-Mich.) voting against the Marshall Plan as they were subscribing to the Henry Wallace view that we should be seeking better relations with Russia. However, top conservatives by my standard are, with the sole exception of John Taber (R-N.Y.), unified against it even though they have no love for Stalin. Despite these dissents, because a majority of liberals voted for the Marshall Plan and a majority of conservatives voted against, it is eligible to be counted and is. This system can be a bit difficult in the 1920s as there seems to be the start of a major split in what is constituting liberalism on certain issues. However, these are weeds I have gotten through and hopefully soon I will complete this whole undertaking.

The America First Senators: Gerald P. Nye and Burton K. Wheeler
Gerald P. Nye

Politics can make strange bedfellows as well as strange foes. The foes of FDR’s New Deal and his foreign policy, for instance, were not always the same people. Rep. James W. Wadsworth Jr. (R-N.Y.) was one of the most extreme opponents of the New Deal but remained friends with FDR and actively cooperated with the Roosevelt Administration on foreign policy: he sponsored the first peacetime draft law in the House and defended Lend-Lease. This was also clear with the administration’s opponents of foreign policy. Although the most visible non-interventionist in the House was conservative Hamilton Fish III (R-N.Y.), in the Senate the two leading opponents were Gerald P. Nye (1892-1971) of North Dakota and Burton K. Wheeler (1882-1975) of Montana. They were hardly the beau ideal of those who had backed the anti-New Deal Liberty League in 1936: Nye was more supportive than most Republicans of the first New Deal and Wheeler’s reputation as a progressive was solid, being the running mate of Senator Robert La Follette (R-Wis.) on his 1924 Progressive Party run for president. He also as chair of the Interstate Commerce Committee sponsored a major New Deal law, the Public Utilities Holding Company Act of 1935. Nye had gained a reputation as “Gerald the Giant Killer” for his role in the investigation of the Teapot Dome Scandal and frequently criticized the tax policies of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, viewing them as favoring big business and the interests of the East rather than farmers and the interests of the Midwest. Nye supported raising taxes on the wealthy and pushed for an inheritance tax, but he also favored higher tariffs for goods that benefited his region of the country. He quickly soured the presidency of Herbert Hoover, stating that the greatest trouble “with Congress, with the Government, is that we fear new thoughts; we dread to depart from the beaten path; we withhold our support of things which are new and a departure from old ways. It is my hope that the next six months will have the effect of impressing upon Congress and the President the importance of accepting drastic means and new ways of righting wrongs of long standing” (Simkin, Nye).

TIME Magazine Cover: Burton K. Wheeler - Apr. 15, 1940 - Burton K. Wheeler  - Senators - Congress
Burton K. Wheeler

Although both men were initially friendly to President Roosevelt’s New Deal, especially Wheeler, who had pushed for his nomination in 1932, they also possessed a healthy wariness of the use of executive power. This manifested in their opposition to Roosevelt’s court-packing plan and his proposed 1938 reorganization plan. Wheeler had in fact taken a central role in both efforts to limit FDR’s power, which he resented. Nye had chaired the committee investigating the causes of World War I, the purpose of which was to push legislation to strip the profits from war. The Nye Committee found some unsavory connections between bankers and munitions makers but was unable to prove a conspiracy for getting the U.S. into war. He also accused the late President Wilson of withholding information to the American public before getting into World War I, to which Senator Carter Glass, who had been a personal friend of Wilson, denounced him for “dirtdaubing the sepulcher of Woodrow Wilson” and slammed his fist on his desk until his knuckles bled (U.S. Senate). This committee served as a prelude to the debates on foreign policy before Pearl Harbor. After FDR won a third term, Nye and Wheeler cemented themselves as opponents of the Roosevelt Administration. Their conservatism rose significantly during his third term, including newfound opposition to continuing certain New Deal programs.

Both men voted against weakening the Neutrality Acts in 1939 and 1941, against the peacetime draft in 1940, and against the Lend-Lease Act of 1941. Nye and Wheeler were also frequent speakers at America First events. On January 12, 1941, Wheeler delivered a speech against Lend-Lease on the floor of Congress, declaring, “The lend-lease-give program is the New Deal’s triple-A foreign policy; it will plow under every fourth American boy. Never before have the American people been asked or compelled to give so bounteously and so completely of their tax dollars to any foreign nation. Never before has the Congress of the United States been asked by any President to violate international law. Never before has this nation resorted to duplicity in the conduct of its foreign affairs. Never before has the United States given to one man the power to strip this nation of its defenses. Never before has a Congress coldly and flatly been asked to abdicate” (Simkin, Wheeler).

Nye and Wheeler, however, met much criticism and both were subjects of Dr. Seuss’s 1940s cartoons, with Nye being portrayed in one as a horse’s ass. Wheeler was portrayed as nursing a Roosevelt hater. They also seemed to veer into questionable territory when they went after Hollywood for “pro-war propaganda”, asserting that because many of the major studio heads were Jewish, that they had special incentive to influence the public in the direction of war. This opened them up to accusations of anti-Semitism.

The fate of both men’s political careers, however, were sealed after Pearl Harbor albeit for different reasons. Nye lost reelection to Democratic Governor John Moses in 1944; he had lost some support as the socially conservative people of North Dakota were perturbed by his quick divorce and remarriage, and he was not able to get conservatives to unify behind him given his past record. His non-interventionism, although it was at that point unpopular with the overall American public, it wasn’t unpopular in North Dakota as they continued to reelect his more extreme colleague, William Langer. Wheeler lost renomination in 1946 despite President Truman’s support based on his non-interventionist record and for being insufficiently liberal to Leif Erickson, a candidate strongly backed by New Deal Democrats and elements of the far left. However, Wheeler had headed a bipartisan machine in Montana, and this machine had one last hurrah when Erickson was defeated by the far more conservative Republican Zales Ecton. Neither had regrets for the stands they took in their time. Nye worked in business and government until his retirement in 1966. Nye, who had been a lifelong smoker, developed heart and lung problems and died in 1971. Wheeler resumed the practice of law after his defeat and declined Republican efforts to recruit him to run against Senator Mike Mansfield in 1958, by this time he was 76 years old. Given the age of our current president, this seems rather quaint now. In 1962, he published his autobiography “Yankee from the West” and outlived Nye by four years.

P.S.: My grandfather was a driver for Senator Nye on his last campaign.


Drake, R. (2019, December 27). A Forgotten Rugged Patriot For ‘America First’. The American Conservative.

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A Forgotten Rugged Patriot For ‘America First’

Hill, R. Burton K. Wheeler of Montana. (2012, December 23). Knoxville Focus.

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“Merchants of Death”. United States Senate.

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NYE, GERALD (1892-1971). Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.

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Simkin, J. Burton Wheeler. Spartacus Educational.

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Simkin, J. Gerald Nye. Spartacus Educational.

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The Interstate Highway Act a “Liberal” Achievement? Not so Fast.

President Dwight Eisenhower gets claimed by both conservatives and liberals for historical praise. The former likes the times he presided over and that he was an anti-communist and the latter likes his warning against the “military-industrial complex” and his decision to not try to overturn the New Deal. Indeed, many of them think that Eisenhower would not be a Republican today, rather a Democrat. Some in the media have promoted this line of thinking and one of the justifications is the Interstate Highway Act.

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Historian Tom Lewis favorably compared Dwight Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Act to Barack Obama’s proposals for public works programs. Mike Tokars (2015) of the Christian Science Monitor added to this view when he wrote “Also, historians would be quick to point out, one of Eisenhower’s greatest achievements as president was the creation of the Interstate Highway System – a massive civic infrastructure project that cost the equivalent of $500 billion in today’s dollars”. This was in an article giving some credence to Bernie Sanders’ quip that he was to the right of President Dwight Eisenhower in the primary debates. This argument for Eisenhower being a bit of a creature of the left sounds good on its face: after all Republicans mocked the Obama Administration’s “shovel ready” projects and have often stood against public works projects in modern times as they regard them as “make work” projects and “pork”. The opposition of the Republican Party to pork has some history, but that’s for a different post. What I want to address here, like with some of Nixon’s achievements that are lauded as “liberal”, is the idea that the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 was a “liberal” law.

President Dwight Eisenhower was, as the commander of the western theater of World War II, naturally not keen on importing policies from Nazi Germany but he made a sole exception: the Autobahn. He admired the creation of the Autobahn and thought it would be great for the United States to have such a system. The official justification, which had its base in Cold War politics, was for the need for military forces to get across the country in case of emergency. You would think that if this were a deeply ideological issue, that the breakdown of passage would be liberals for, and conservatives against. However, the roll call votes that exist on this legislation prove this is not the case. On April 19, 1956, Rep. George Fallon (D-Md.) introduced what would become the Interstate Highway Act after the unexpected defeat of a previous proposal the last year. The House bill had a remarkably easy passage, 388-19, with only fifteen Southern Democrats and four Republicans voting against. This measure even won the approval of H.R. Gross (R-Iowa), who was legendary for his opposition to high spending and pork. The measure moved on to the Senate, in which the primary source of debate was on the application of Davis-Bacon wages to these projects, requiring the paying of construction workers the local “prevailing wage”, which would add to construction costs. A conservative effort to stop the prevailing wage from applying failed, and the conference report on the act was ultimately adopted on June 22nd on a most controversial vote of…drumroll… 89-1. The one vote against was that of Democrat Russell B. Long of Louisiana, who opposed increasing the gas tax. Indeed, such conservative figures as Barry Goldwater of Arizona, John J. Williams of Delaware, and Harry F. Byrd of Virginia all saw the value of the measure and voted for, for defense and infrastructure reasons. The final product of the Highway Act provided $24.8 billion (about $247 billion in 2021 dollars) for 41,000 miles of freeways over a 13-year period and raised federal gas taxes from 2 to 3 cents a gallon with the federal government providing 90% of the funds (Glass). President Eisenhower, who was hospitalized for an intestinal illness, signed the legislation from his hospital bed on June 29th.

The credit for the Interstate Highway Act can in truth go to both liberals and conservatives as it was a consensus measure, just like the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act under President Nixon. It is some of the particulars of such measures that met with the most intense debate. Although it is true that conservatives had some major differences on the issues of the day with Eisenhower, including on foreign aid, housing, and federal aid to education, interstate highways wasn’t among them.


Glass, A. (2012, June 26). Federal-Aid Highway Act, June 26, 1956. Politico.

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HR 10660. Highway Construction Act. Amend and Supplement Federal-Aid Road Act By Authorizing Funds For Highway Construction. Amend Internal Revenue Code to Provide Additional Revenue for Highways. Govtrack.

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HR 10660. Highway Construction Act. Conference Report on Federal Highway and Highway Revenue Acts. Govtrack.

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Lewis, T. (2008, December 26). Eisenhower’s roads to prosperity. Los Angeles Times.

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Tokar, M. (2015, November 15). Was Eisenhower more of a socialist than Bernie Sanders? The Christian Science Monitor.

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Weingroff, R.F. (1996). Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956: Creating The Interstate System. Public Roads 60(1).

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Texas Legends #8: George H. Mahon

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During the Great Depression, Texas elected Democrats and only Democrats as they had done for so many years. In 1934, At-Large Congressman Joseph W. Bailey Jr. decided to run for the Senate on a platform antagonisitic to the New Deal and had he chosen to run for reelection to the House, his district would have been centered around Lubbock. His successor was George Herman Mahon (1900-1985).

Although he initially supported much of the New Deal, Mahon was placed on the Appropriations Committee and had an eye for expenditures. He was inclined to cut budgets whoever was president. Along with Appropriations chair Clarence Cannon, he was involved in the funding of the Manhattan Project. Although overtime Mahon grew more conservative, he was far from the most conservative of the Southern Democrats. Indeed, he kept party interests in mind, especially when it came to those of fellow Texas Democrats including a one Lyndon B. Johnson, who he supported despite having numerous differing views with him.

In 1956, like many Texas Democrats, Mahon did not sign the Southern Manifesto. However, he voted against a lot of civil rights legislation, including the final version of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and laws prohibiting discrimination in employment and housing. Mahon also led the opposition in the House to the Philadelphia Plan in 1969. This was one of the areas he differed from LBJ on but was a bit more moderate than some other Southerners on civil rights questions. For instance, he voted for the Senate version of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and for the Jury Selection Act of 1968. Mahon also voted to extend the Voting Rights Act in 1975, when some other Texans were voting against as the legislation was being applied to Texas for the first time.

In 1964, upon the death of Clarence Cannon of Missouri, Mahon succeeded him to the post. Although supportive of much of the Great Society, he stood considerably to the right of the typical Great Society liberal, and although he voted against Medicare as well as the House version of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he was sure to vote against Republican sponsored substitutes. Mahon’s reputation as Appropriations chairman was good as he was known for his fairness and effectiveness. This was crucial when he would face his greatest challenge: the rise of the Watergate babies. In 1974, many liberal Democrats were elected to Congress and they wanted to make it clear that seniority alone would no longer determine who chaired committees. In 1975, they succeeded in ousting House Banking and Currency Committee chair Wright Patman of Texas, Agriculture Committee chair Bob Poage of Texas, and Armed Services Committee chair Edward Hebert of Louisiana. Mahon, however, made a solid case for being kept and was. In some ways, he catered to the liberals of the Democratic Party. For instance, he could have tried to stop the New York City bailout as Appropriations chairman, but since he knew the majority of the House wanted it he let it pass through even though he voted “nay” on the measure. He also during the Carter years supported a move to cut funding for B-1 Bombers. In 1976, Texas Monthly listed him as the state’s best member of Congress for his effectiveness and fairness. Despite his good reputation, in the 1976 election Mahon won reelection by less than 10% of the vote against Republican Jim Reese, the closest race he had and a sign that times in Texas were changing.

In 1978, Mahon, like numerous other legacy Southern Democrats, opted not to run for reelection. None other than future President George W. Bush ran for Congress to succeed him, but narrowly lost to Democrat Kent Hance. Although he was vibrant and healthy as a Congressman and looked younger than his years, in his retirement he developed Parkinson’s Disease and died of a heart attack in 1985.


Becker, J. (2020, January 11). George Mahon: Greatest of West Texas Statesmen. Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

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

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Hunter, M. (1978, February 16). Federal Budget Losing a Critic In Rep. Mahon. The New York Times.

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The Senate’s Political Quartet

1896 was a year of great triumph for the Republicans. Their standard bearer, William McKinley, had won a decisive victory against the Democratic and Populist Party nominee, William Jennings Bryan. However, it would be especially a triumph for four senators: Nelson W. Aldrich of Rhode Island, William B. Allison of Iowa, Orville H. Platt of Connecticut, and John Coit Spooner of Wisconsin. This group, through their influence and chairing of major committees was able to consolidate power. All four were close political allies and good personal friends with different specialties. Aldrich was the staunchly conservative chair of the Finance Committee and highly knowledgeable on matters of economics, and he was de facto leader of the Senate Republicans. Allison was chair of the Appropriations Committee and although a conservative he was also a pragmatist known for his ability to forge compromises, most notably the Bland-Allison Act in 1878 that cemented bimetallism rather than a gold standard or free coinage of silver. Platt was the staunchly conservative chair of the Cuban Relations Committee and drafted what would become American policy towards Cuba from 1901 to 1934 with the Platt Amendment and was effective at building support for policies. John Coit Spooner was chair of the Rules Committee and although a bit more moderate than the others he was known for his strong debating ability and stood as a strong critic of the progressivism of the Republican upstart Robert La Follette.

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Platt, Spooner, Allison, and Aldrich at Aldrich’s home, 1903.

The conservative, pro-business agenda of these four men fit well with McKinley’s presidency but not as much with the reformer President Theodore Roosevelt, who they, along with Speaker of the House Joe Cannon of Illinois, kept in check. Indeed, nothing that met with the disapproval of this Senate quartet could pass. They were, however, helpful in passing modest reforms that in their final product were acceptable to business interests of the time, including the final Food and Drug Act and the Hepburn Act and were supportive of President Roosevelt’s foreign policy. However, the first crack in their rule appeared with the death of Platt in 1905 and in the following year muckraker David Graham Phillips released an expose in Cosmopolitan titled “The Treason of the Senate” commissioned by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, in which he accused Aldrich and Spooner of corruption and questionable political practices, but especially former as deeply connected to the Rockefeller family and influencing which Republicans got campaign contributions from them. After all, Aldrich’s daughter was married to John D. Rockefeller’s son! It was in response to this article that President Theodore Roosevelt coined the term “muckraker” in criticism of the article’s strong use of innuendo and exaggeration and of journalists who sensationalized the bad while ignoring the good. However, many people paid attention to this article and the power of the Republican conservatives began to slide with a growing faction of progressive Republicans challenging conservatives.

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The Senate’s four leaders, but especially Aldrich, were known for their killing of progressive legislation.

In 1907, Spooner resigned and the following year Allison, who had prevailed in a tough primary fight with the more progressive Governor Albert B. Cummins, died only two months after his victory resulting in Cummins succeeding him. Aldrich was the last among them, but he managed to get the Aldrich-Vreeland Act passed to establish a commission to investigate the causes of the Panic of 1907 and in 1910 had his final success, the Payne-Aldrich Tariff, which only marginally cut tariffs in the face of demands for significantly larger cuts. Aldrich’s scheme to defeat the adoption of the income tax, however, proved a failure after the 1910 elections, in which Aldrich opted not to run again and with his departure, the power of Senate conservatives fell as the progressives in the Democratic and Republican parties scored a smashing election victory, paving the way for the adoption of numerous reforms. These included the income tax and the direct election of senators, which was what Phillips was aiming to build public support for in “Treason of the Senate”.


Phillips, D.G. (1906, March). The Treason of the Senate: Aldrich, The Head of It All. Cosmopolitan.

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Spooner, John Coit. Wisconsin Historical Society.

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Spooner, John Coit 1843-1919 | Wisconsin Historical Society (

The Senate Four. U.S. Senate

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U.S. Senate: The Senate Four

The Technocracy Movement: Engineers Should Run Things Because…

On October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed, and in came the Great Depression. Many Americans were looking for answers and new ideas as opposed to the old laissez-faire approach, and one of these ideas was technocracy.

Edward Bellamy, circa 1889
Edward Bellamy

Proponents of technocracy held the belief that politicians and businessmen ought to be replaced with scientists and engineers, the idea being that the economy could be managed scientifically. The philosophies behind technocracy had been building up for a while and had some predecessors in thought, including journalist Edward Bellamy. Bellamy wrote in his 1888 utopian novel, Looking Backward, 2000-1887, of a society in the distant year of 2000 in which there were no more politicians, lawyers, businessmen, or soldiers, people worked only for 24 years of their life on a voluntary basis, and all industry was nationalized. People would be aided in their work through machinery. Many dreamed with Bellamy and formed Nationalist Clubs dedicated to working to bring about this idealized socialist future. Perhaps the true intellectual godfather of technocracy, however, was an economist influenced by Bellamy’s book: Thorstein Veblen.
Thorstein Veblen

Veblen was an unorthodox economist who as a critic of capitalism condemned production for profit. He is most known for coining the term “conspicuous consumption” to criticize the middle class for purchasing leisure rather than contributing more to production. However, in 1921 his compilation of papers titled The Engineers and the Price System was published, in which he proposed a “soviet of technicians”, a Bolshevik style government in which engineers would decide on pricing and production. He died in 1929, but only three years later his sort of thinking began to gain currency so to speak thanks to a man who had attended several of his lectures on the subject during the 1920s: Howard Scott.

In 1932, Walter Rautenstrauch and Howard Scott, with M. King Hubbert and Dal Hitchcock, formed the Committee on Technocracy. They adopted the yin-yang symbol to represent their group, representing production and consumption, and the organization publicized facts and statistics to emphasize how technological efficiency could produce stunning results. Among them were “On the basis of 1830 methods, six million men would have been needed to cultivate the soil for the 1929 U.S. wheat crop. With the best existent equipment 4,000 men could have planted the whole crop” and “A new machine for making light bulbs produces 442 bulbs a minute, replaces 10,000 men” (TIME). They also wanted a superstate of the North American continent with the leadership being called the “Technate”. Both men were of the left, as Rautenstrauch later in life would work for the communist-dominated Progressive Party in the 1948 election and Scott had held previous employment as a research director with the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Although both men stood for a much stronger presence of scientists and engineers in government, their backgrounds and views significantly differed on how far they wanted to go.

The Technocracy Movement
Howard Scott, in uniform.

Rautenstrauch was a professor of industrial engineering at Columbia University while Scott had portrayed himself as a “distinguished engineer”. However, upon further examination the press discovered that Scott was lacking in academic credentials with his experience being working in construction. Ironically, after he had worked as an engineer at the Muscle Shoals nitrates project during World War I, a government investigation afterwards had accused him of “gross waste, inefficiency, and shoddy workmanship” (Baker). Rautenstrauch had wanted engineers in charge of industrial and economic decisions but maintaining a democratic structure, while Scott called for what amounted to a dictatorship of scientists and engineers with police being used for enforcement.  Evidence that the latter approach was on the minds of many technocrats was apparent in how their organization functioned: they wore gray double-breasted suit uniforms with yin-yang lapels, painted their cars gray, and saluted Scott in person (Finley). This bore an eerie resemblance to other totalitarian groups of the time and it had at one point up to half a million members in California. The technocracy movement of the early 1930s also tried to demonstrate that the current price system was dysfunctional and should be replaced with a system that had a currency of energy. As TIME Magazine wrote about the movement, “Technocracy presumes that all the wealth and functions of Society can be calculated in terms of energy unity—British Thermal Units, kilogramme calories, joules, ergs, footpounds, horsepower” (TIME). However, Scott never made it clear how this transition would happen. As he put it, “Technocracy proposes no solution” (TIME). An opportunity to explain technocracy fully to the public came the following year.

On January 13, 1933, Scott delivered a speech on technocracy in front of an audience of 400 at Hotel Pierre in New York City and it was broadcast live over the radio. There had been a lot of speculation on what technocracy was about, and this was a chance to articulate a clear platform for the Committee on Technocracy. He was untrained at public speaking, and he started his speech with, “We are not attempting to say, as some of our critics have said, that there is going to be chaos or there is going to be doom” (Baker). However, Scott proceeded to predict chaos and doom if technocracy was not adopted. The speech was widely regarded as a disaster as he had contradicted himself and once again not effectively outlined how technocracy would work. As Howard P. Segal (2005) notes, “Technocracy’s heyday lasted only from June 16, 1932, when the New York Times became the first influential press organ to report its activities, until January 13, 1933, when Scott, attempting to silence his critics, delivered what some critics called a confusing, and uninspiring address on a well-publicized nationwide radio hookup” (123). Scott had blown an opportunity and he and Technocracy were widely mocked. The organization split in two, with one group, the “Continental Committee on Technocracy” being under writer Harold Loeb while Scott led “Technocracy Incorporated”. It was also rather ironic that Scott was asserting that government by engineers would be best when President Hoover, who was being widely blamed for the Great Depression at the time, had himself been an engineer by trade. The public instead turned their attentions to FDR and his New Deal.

Technocracy, although it made a brief splash and Scott’s organization still exists today, it has limited influence and never has been seriously considered by either the Republican or Democratic Party. For one thing, it would put them out of a job!


Baker, K. The Engineered Society. (2000, April). American Heritage Magazine, 51(2).

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Finley, K. (2015, June 5). Techies Have Been Trying to Replace Politicians for Decades. Wired.

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Science: Technocrat. (1932, December 26). TIME.

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Segal, H.P. (2005). Technological utopianism in American culture. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Thorstein Veblen, 1857-1929. The Library of Economics and Liberty.

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Tilman, R. (1985). The Utopian Vision of Edward Bellamy and Thorstein Veblen. Journal of Economic Issues, 19(4).

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The Wadsworth-Garrett Amendment: Standing Athwart Amending the Constitution, Yelling “Stop!”

James Wolcott Wadsworth Jr. - Wikipedia
James W. Wadsworth Jr., R-N.Y.

From 1913 to 1920, the Constitution was amended a whopping four times. These weren’t minor changes either, the direct election of senators helped Democrats become increasingly competitive in New England, the income tax’s introduction resulted in it ultimately becoming a leading source of revenue for the U.S. government and thus made Prohibition possible, and the other two were Prohibition and women’s suffrage. This was the most rapid adoption of constitutional amendments since the creation of the Bill of Rights, and there was pushback. This came in the form of the proposed Wadsworth-Garrett Amendment. Senator James W. Wadsworth Jr. (R-N.Y.) had been a leading opponent of both Prohibition and women’s suffrage and believed that these amendments had been adopted over the will of the voters. Indeed, several states had held referendums on women’s suffrage prior to the adoption of the 19th Amendment. In the five years that preceded the suffrage amendment the states of Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Iowa, West Virginia, Maine, Louisiana, and Texas had voted down women’s suffrage. Wadsworth thought Congress was acting against the will of the people of these states and thus wanted to change the amending process to get the public more involved. Wadsworth got in a cosponsor House Minority Leader Finis J. Garrett (D-Tenn.), who had voted for Prohibition but against women’s suffrage. Neither of these men were keen on further amendments to the Constitution. The amendment would make the following changes:

“1. At least one house of the legislatures which may ratify future constitutional amendments shall be elected after the submission of the amendment by Congress to the States.

2. Any State may require that the ratification of an amendment by its legislature be subject to confirmation by popular vote.

3. Until three fourths of the States have ratified or more than one fourth of the States have rejected an amendment any State may reverse its previous action.” (CQ Researcher)

Finis J. Garrett - Wikipedia
Finis J. Garrett, D-Tenn.

This proposal would simultaneously get the people more involved in the amending process and make it more difficult for the Constitution to be amended, thus it was controversially known as the “back to the people amendment”. This amendment was considered in the Senate, but Senator Thomas Walsh (D-Mont.), a progressive, added an amendment excluding State legislatures from the process of ratification, instead automatically leaving it to popular vote. Numerous different factions and opinions formed on the amendment and the Walsh amendment displeased Wadsworth. The Senate adopted in response the Jones Amendment, which required amendments to first go to the legislatures and then the legislatures decide whether the people vote for. The Jones Amendment was struck out the very next day, and the Senate sent the altered Wadsworth-Garrett amendment back to committee, with Wadsworth voting for. Both Wadsworth and Garrett would subsequently vote against the Child Labor Amendment, which would grant Congress the power to regulate and abolish child labor, directly overriding the Supreme Court cases Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918) and Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co. (1922), which struck down laws passed by Congress governing the use of child labor. In the next session of Congress, Wadsworth tried again but to no avail. He lost reelection in 1926 on account of his opposition to Prohibition and women’s suffrage but made a comeback in the House in the 1932 elections. There was one constitutional amendment that would come to pass within the next ten years that Senator Wadsworth was pleased with, however, the repeal of Prohibition. To make matters better, it was done in a sort of manner that certainly satisfied him: a constitutional convention.


Miller, J. (1926, February). Amendment of the Federal Constitution: Should it Be Made More Difficult? Minnesota Law Review, 10(3).

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State women’s suffrage ballot measures. Ballotpedia.

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The Wadsworth-Garrett Amendment. CQ Researcher.

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Texas Legends #7: Wright Patman

In 1928, Congressman Eugene Black was facing a tough primary. Black was one of the more conservative Texas Democrats in his day and his challenger, John William Wright Patman (1893-1976), was running on a populist platform that he was too friendly with business. This accusation stuck, and Patman prevailed. He quickly became a vocal critic of the Hoover Administration and especially Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. His efforts to impeach Mellon contributed to his resignation, accepting a post of Ambassador to Britain for the remainder of the Hoover presidency.

Patman was eager to shake things up in his early years and did so as one of the few representatives to join Louis T. McFadden’s (R-Penn.) push to impeach President Hoover and pushed strongly for his bill to promptly pay veterans their war bonuses, the Patman Bonus Bill. Although it was vetoed by both Hoover and Roosevelt, a compromise version managed to be passed over Roosevelt’s 1936 veto. Unlike many of his fellow Texans, Wright Patman mostly remained faithful to the New Deal after Roosevelt’s first two terms. He was an old-time populist at heart and his underlying belief that there was too much economic power concentrated in an evil combine of big banks, big business, and government and was downright Jacksonian. In 1936, he co-authored and sponsored with Sen. Joseph Robinson (D-Ark.) the Robinson-Patman Act, which was aimed at preventing big box retailers from pricing out mom and pop stores. In 1946, Patman succeeded in getting the Employment Act into law, which created the Council of Economic Advisers and the Congressional Joint Economic Committee and “maximum employment, production and purchasing power” became a permanent objective of national policy, cementing the government’s role in regulating the economy (Shanahan).  He also succeeded in the creation of the Federal credit union system and the establishment of the Small Business Administration.

In 1952 and 1953 Patman voted for committees to investigate tax-exempt institutions, the Cox and Reece Committees respectively. Although the Cox Committee yielded nothing of note, the Reece Committee dug deeper and uncovered an effort by these institutions to influence education in a more internationalist and left-wing direction. Although the Reece Committee’s report had terrible timing as its 1954 release coincided with the McCarthy censure and thus it was lumped in with this in the public perception, Patman wanted to give such investigations a third try. This he did in 1962, and the political context was a bit different as it wasn’t at the height of the so-called Second Red Scare and unlike Reps. Edward E. Cox and B. Carroll Reece, Patman was not a creature of the right. His report in 1963 assailed the growth of tax-exempt institutions as new monopolies that were effectively being subsidized by taxpayers and uncovered the funneling of money from the CIA to groups with no seeming connection to the government (Shanahan). He called for further regulation and oversight of these institutions. In 1963, Patman became head of the House Banking and Currency Committee and proved a headache for financial institutions and his critics held that his methods were dictatorial and that he would start investigations without the approval of anyone else on the committee.

On civil rights, Patman’s record was mostly negative. In 1956, he signed the Southern Manifesto and he voted against efforts at combating employment and housing discrimination. Patman did, however, vote for the final versions of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (possibly as a show of support for LBJ) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Patman was, however, supportive of New Frontier and Great Society legislation. His record shifted a bit more rightward in the Nixon years out of his support for the Vietnam War and his lack of enthusiasm for social liberalism, but Patman was still at heart a New Dealer, especially on economics. He was an abrasive foe of Nixon who he had long despised, and once asked Federal Reserve chairman Arthur Burns when testifying before Congress, “Can you give me any reason why you should not be in the penitentiary?” (Stoller, 2016) In 1970, he managed to block a bailout of the Penn Central Railroad and in 1972 he succeeded in getting price control legislation passed. However, Patman never succeeded in revolutionizing the Federal Reserve or commercial banking system. He in 1972 tried to investigate the Watergate break-in but didn’t get enough support to move forward before the election. Although Patman led efforts to elect Democrats in the 1974 midterms, by the start of 1975 he was eighty-one years old, and his effectiveness was perceived to have declined. Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen regarded him as “Not senile, but not in command. He had done his thing. He had had his day” (Stoller, 2019, 344). Patman’s anti-bank politics and sentiments, while consistent with those of traditional Democratic Party hero Andrew Jackson, were out of touch to pro-bank liberal Democrats, such as Pete Stark, a banker by profession, who thought that Patman’s “economic ideas were not in pace with modern concepts” (Stoller, 2019, 344). His colleagues on the Banking Committee were on board with ousting him as well. As Matt Stoller (2016) writes, “For more than a decade, Patman had represented a Democratic political tradition stretching back to Thomas Jefferson, an alliance of the agrarian South and the West against Northeastern capital. For decades, Patman had sought to hold financial power in check, investigating corporate monopolies, high interest rates, the Federal Reserve, and big banks. And the banking allies on the committee had had enough of Patman’s hostility to Wall Street”. He was ousted from his chairmanship of the House Banking and Currency Committee in favor of Henry Reuss of Wisconsin. The New Yorker Magazine condemned the ousting of Patman, writing “He’s something of a crank, but he’s an intelligent and knowledgeable crank. Those Young Turks who shoved the old Populist aside not only were being cruel, but were probably making a mistake” (Shanahan). He died in office only a year later.

Patman’s MC-Index life score was a 21%, with the last seven years of his career being a bit more conservative than his preceding years in Congress. Patman would almost certainly be horrified by modern neoliberalism and think of it as part II of the 1920s. He strikes me as the sort of Democrat that the white working class could still absolutely get behind, but Democrats have, with some exceptions such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, largely abandoned old-time populism. Patman’s son, Bill, would serve in Congress from 1981 to 1985.


Grant, P.A. Patman, John William Wright. Texas State Historical Association.

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Kenworthy, E.W. (1972, October 13). Patman Balked on Watergate. The New York Times.

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Shanahan, E. (1976, March 8). Wright Patman, 82, Dean of House, Dies. The New York Times.

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Stoller, M. (2019). Goliath: The 100-year war between monopoly power and democracy. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Stoller, M. (2016, October 24). How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul. The Atlantic.

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