James C. Oliver: The Pine Tree State’s Populist

James C. Oliver (Maine Congressman).jpg


1936 was a great year for Republicans…in Maine. That year Alf Landon won the state and two Republicans won seats in the House of Representatives that had been held by Democrats: James C. Oliver (1895-1986) and Clyde H. Smith. Oliver, who had run on a platform of generous old-age pensions and inflationary currency, quickly distinguished himself as different from what could be expected of Maine Republicans. For one thing, he was one of the most visible supporters of radio priest Father Charles Coughlin and for another he was most likely to divert from Republican orthodoxy on issues such as labor and public power although he stuck stronger to it on the minimum wage and foreign policy than his Maine colleagues Smith and Owen Brewster. Oliver’s opposition to Roosevelt was not so much a conservative one, rather the populistic sort of Father Charles Coughlin and Dr. Francis Townsend. By 1938, many conservative Republicans were opposing Oliver’s renomination, some even going as far as to back his Democratic opponent. He also supported the Townsend Plan as did Smith and Brewster when it came for a vote in 1939. In his six years in Congress, he got an MC-Index score of 62%. Oliver’s consistently non-interventionist record aged poorly in Maine after Pearl Harbor and in 1942 he lost renomination to Robert Hale. Hale was both an internationalist and more conservative on domestic issues.


Oliver subsequently served in World War II and in 1951 he switched to the Democratic Party. He seemed a top recruit for the Democrats and they didn’t seem to mind his prior record of supporting Father Coughlin as they nominated him for governor in 1952. Although Oliver badly lost this contest, he in 1954 and 1956 ran against Hale and almost defeated him the latter time. He tried once more in 1958, and prevailed. In his single term in Congress as a Democrat Oliver proved to be staunchly liberal, only dissenting from the Democrats on foreign aid increases in 1960. Along with Senator Edmund Muskie, he reflected an increasing openness of Maine’s voters to the Democrats. Unlike Muskie’s election, his comeback proved a fluke as he lost reelection in 1960. Oliver’s MC-Index score in his last term was a 6% with a lifetime of 48%. He subsequently continued his career in the real estate business and ultimately moved to Orlando, Florida, where he resided until his death.

References

Hagerty, J.A. (1938, September 11). Revolt Against Oliver – Republicans Increase Opposition to Promoter of Townsend Plan on Eve of Election Disaffection Among Republicans…Republicans Support Democrat The Townsend Plan Issue Robbery a Political Issue. The New York Times.

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The Maine Primary. (1936, June 23). The Journal-News.

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Townsend Active in Maine Race. (1936, June 14). The Sunday Star.


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2 thoughts on “James C. Oliver: The Pine Tree State’s Populist

  1. Thank you very much for publishing an entry on James C. Oliver! Although this article is relatively brief, it’s still quite interesting, as a while ago I was trying to do research into Oliver and found nothing of intriguing substance. I do remember getting the impression that he must have been rather liberal, as he became a Democrat and ran against conservative Republican Robert Hale.

    Oliver defeating Hale seemed to be a major sign that Maine trended from conservative Republicanism to favoring liberal Democrats. Previously in the 1930s, the state’s senatorial duo Frederick Hale and Wallace H. White were staunch conservatives. White’s successor was Moderate Republican Margaret Chase Smith, and Frederick Hale’s successor Owen Brewster was defeated for renomination in 1952 by Frederick G. Payne. And thus for the most part in the 1950s, it would appear that Maine had already shifted to moderate Republicanism, paving the way for Oliver to oust Robert Hale.

  2. Yeah, the delegation’s Republicans grew less conservative over time, and Robert Hale himself at a 69% was not that conservative. Oliver couldn’t have been too conservative at the start given his affinity for Coughlin and Townsend; it hasn’t added up to me that the former has been retconned as right-wing given that his break with Roosevelt was over him not nationalizing banks and not resurrecting the populist issue of free coinage of silver. The reason lies in the common belief that fascism, of which he came to support, is “right wing” for its nationalism, militarism, and anti-communism. I will dive into what fascism really is in a future post based on the views and policies of actual fascists, including Americans Lawrence Dennis and William Dudley Pelley.

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