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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