The War of the Rebellion proved a political boon for Republicans and a bane for the Democrats. There was the taint of disloyalty and with black men having suffrage and ex-Confederates being denied it until after the 1868 election, the South was solid Republican territory. Indeed, the 1868 election was won by Grant due to the black vote! However, the Grant Administration had numerous problems surrounding corruption, voters were tiring of Reconstruction, the full extent of the Credit Mobilier scandal was exposed after the 1872 election, and the deep recession produced by the Panic of 1873 all resulted in the Democrats winning the House for the first time since the Buchanan Administration. It also helped that Congress had in 1872 passed a blanket amnesty for Confederates. This was also a comeback in the Senate for former President Andrew Johnson, but he died only months after being seated. The leader of this comeback was Indiana’s Michael C. Kerr (1827-1876), a four-term representative who had just won back his seat.
First elected in 1864, Kerr was a staunch loyalist, both to the United States and his party, making him an ideal figure to lead the Democrats back to a majority. He was a War Democrat who had won praise from Indiana Republican Governor Oliver Morton for cracking down on conspiracies against the Union by Copperheads. Kerr was a strong debater who did his homework and was universally admired in his own party. He in turn was despised by the staunchest Republicans. Kerr was, like all Democrats of the time, opposed to the 14th and 15th Amendments as intrusions upon states but differed with some on his support of hard currency. He also made no bones about expressing anti-black sentiments. Kerr narrowly lost reelection in 1872, and in February 1873 he decided to return the salary increase he received from the widely condemned pay increase that Congress voted for itself (Garraty & Carnes, 308). This new Congress under Kerr opposed subsidies for business, supported patronage regardless of prior affiliation with the Confederacy, opposed Reconstruction as did all Democratic officeholders, pushed anti-Grant measures (prevent ex-presidents from serving again), and admitted Colorado to the Union. Historian William Smith wrote in 1897 on him, “If not a great man, Michael Crawford Kerr was an honest, faithful and useful public servant. He was a man of pure conscience, strict integrity and large ability” (Glass).
Kerr didn’t have long to go; in 1870 he had contracted tuberculosis and despite numerous efforts to cure himself, including travel to warmer climates, it continued to develop, and he often proved too ill to perform his regular duties as speaker (Garraty & Carnes, 308). He died four days after Congress adjourned its first session on August 19, 1876. His fellow Hoosier, William Holman, eulogized him thusly, “Michael C. Kerr is dead. The record of a good life is complete. May that record perpetuate his virtues and services he has rendered to his country as long as time shall endure” (Beam). He was succeeded by Samuel J. Randall of Pennsylvania, who would play a major role in negotiating the compromise that resulted in Rutherford B. Hayes being found to be president.
Beam, A. (2013, June 11). New Albany Bicentennial: Michael C. Kerr. New Albany News and Tribune.
2022 is looking like a bad election year for Democrats, quite contrary to 100 years ago, when in the 1922 elections they had a significant bounce back from the disastrous 1920 election. However, this wasn’t their worst, and this year I’m sure, for all the liabilities the Democrats have, will not exceed the very worst for them since the development of the modern two-party system. That year was 1894, and it changed the Democratic Party as we know it.
A Crisis Strikes the Presidency
Although the 1892 election sustains the Democratic majority in Congress (214 Democrats vs. 123 Republicans) and Grover Cleveland triumphantly returns as the only president elected to two non-consecutive terms, after only two months in office he is faced with a major crisis. The economy is not doing so well at the start of Cleveland’s presidency and while there were some international factors, there were two proximate causes. The first was the bankruptcy of Philadelphia & Reading Railroad on February 20, 1893 due to being financially overextended and losing the financial support of J.P. Morgan (Fulfer). The railroad had for some time been in decline, and this failure spreads doubt among investors about the viability of other railroads. The second was on May 4, 1893, when the straw breaks the camel’s back as the National Cordage Company, a near-monopoly conglomerate of rope manufacturers, declares bankruptcy (Reed). The following day, the stock market crashes with investors proceeding to sell off numerous stocks, particularly railroads. The National Cordage Company’s stock, which had before the bankruptcy announcement been a highly thought of stock, selling at $70 a share, was now selling for $12 a share (Reed). This had an enormous impact on the market, particularly on unemployment. Numerous runs on the banks occurred and unemployment at most increased nationwide from an estimated 3% in 1892 to 11.7% in 1893 and 18.4% in 1894 (Saylor, 1). This crisis is a tremendous test on the Cleveland presidency, and he responds with the Sherman Silver Purchase Act repeal, which ends the policy requiring the United States government to purchase silver. Cleveland largely blames the Sherman Silver Purchase Act for the economic depression. Indeed, banks responded to the increasingly low supplies of gold in the Treasury as well as their own as a result of the act by reducing the supply of credit (Reed). This proposal wins the votes of conservatives of both parties, including Senator Sherman himself. This law, however, didn’t stop the draining of gold, so he managed to get Wall Street bankers, led by J.P. Morgan, to buy discounted gold bonds in exchange for their help in stopping the withdrawal of gold. By the end of the downturn, 156 railroads are bankrupted. Several disturbances occur as well, including the march on Washington by Coxey’s Army, a group of unemployed laborers who call for public works projects for the purpose of increasing employment, and the Pullman Strike of July 1894. In the latter case, much of the nation’s transportation is shut down and Cleveland intervenes on the side of the railroad with troops to end the strike, citing the transport of U.S. mail as a justification (Saylor, 2). The strike, along with opposition to how it was ended, further taxes the approval of Cleveland’s presidency.
Despite some blame falling on Republicans for the Panic of 1893 given the Sherman Silver Purchase Act signed by President Harrison and possibly the McKinley Tariff as well, Cleveland and the Democrats get the political fallout. Western and Southern Democrats saw Cleveland as being essentially a Democrat-in-Name Only for his support for gold and his making a deal with J.P. Morgan. Republicans saw Cleveland and Democrats as to blame, and the 1894 election resulted in Republicans having a majority of 240 with Democrats down to 104 by the start of the next Congress. This constituted a horrific loss of 110 seats. There were also a whopping 32 election challenges brought before the House. After election challenges were resolved, the Democrats lost 10 more and Republicans gained 12 more seats. By contrast, the Tea Party midterms of 2010, considered a “shellacking” by President Obama, lost the Democrats 63 seats in the House. Future Speaker of the House Champ Clark (D-Mo.), who himself lost reelection that year, lamented on the results, “It was the greatest slaughter of innocents since the days of Herod” (U.S. House). Some other people who were major names in the Democratic Party or would become big names lost reelection. Among them were William S. Holman of Indiana and Richard “Silver Dick” Bland of Missouri. The Senate was far from as dramatic given that only a third of senators are up for reelection in any given election year and that state legislatures at the time voted for senators. There a small Democratic majority became a small Republican majority.
Dramatic Implications for Politics
This loss ended the hyper-competitive and relatively politically even period of 1875 to 1895. The Democratic Party essentially disowned Grover Cleveland by the end of his term and embraced as their 1896 nominee William Jennings Bryan, a man who supported unions, opposed gold, opposed big business interests, and supported a consistent greater role of government in the welfare of the people. The Democratic Party had moved to the left, and Republicans would control the House until 1911 and the Senate until 1913.
As I wrote before, I doubt the election will reach 1894 proportions as Republicans are not free of highly publicized political liabilities and are having a more challenging slate of candidates than they’d hoped for the Senate. The picture for the House looks really good for them as of writing, especially given the recent win of Republican Mayra Flores in a strongly Latino district in Texas. If the numbers shift in ways that Republicans hope they will for Latinos and certain other ethnic groups this year, it may even herald a new age in ethnic group voting in America.
Fulfer, J. (2020, August 12). The Reading Railroad and the Panic of 1893. The Economic Historian.
This is it, the final Texas Legend. This one is unique in two ways. First, he is the only Republican, and second, he is as of writing, still alive!
In 1970, Congressman George H.W. Bush, heeding the advice of former President Johnson to run for the Senate (he compared the House and the Senate to “chicken shit” and “chicken salad” respectively), threw his hat in the ring for the second time. The first time, 1964, had been tough for Bush as it was a bad year for Republicans. This time seemed promising as Democratic Senator Ralph Yarborough, the leader of the liberal wing of the Texas Democratic Party, was increasingly unpopular. Unfortunately for Bush, he proved even too unpopular for his fellow Democrats and they voted him out in favor of moderate Lloyd Bentsen, who proved far more difficult to campaign against, and Bush lost. However, Bush’s plan did work out well for his successor to Congress, William Reynolds “Bill” Archer Jr. (1928- ). Archer, a businessman and local politician, had been a Democrat until 1969, and had served in the Texas State Legislature from 1967 to 1971.
While Bush was more amenable to compromise, Bill Archer, while resembling Bush in terms of personality, was more of an ideologue and quickly proved one of the most conservative members of Congress. His Americans for Constitutional Action scores were regularly quite high, and in his first four years he only got a single vote wrong by them, which involved the Vietnam War. Although he was a staunch conservative, he was also regarded as one of the more effective members of the Texas delegation. Archer’s specialty was taxation, and he proved a productive member of the House Ways and Means Committee. Texas Monthly noted in 1976, “Archer does his best work on the Ways and Means Committee, where he is one of the more energetic members on the Republican side. Says one regular observer of Ways and Means: “Archer reads the bills, and he knows precisely what’s in them that will affect his constituency, and he knows how to change it or get it out. He’s terribly knowledgeable and effective for his point of view.” Says another: “He’s a bulldog; he studies his stuff. Archer is the only Republican on Ways and Means who understands the whole Social Security mess” (Burka & Smith). Being both a conservative and from Texas, he was a natural fit to represent the interests of the oil industry on the committee. The late Pierre Rinfret, an economist who didn’t share conservatism to Archer’s degree and delivered harsh criticisms to more prominent conservatives, thought highly of him as a man of honesty and integrity. This view is backed by a Texas Monthly article that reported, “Archer’s integrity is unquestioned. A Texas reporter on Capitol Hill who pays close attention to the financial interests of congressmen calls Archer “one of the most personally honest guys I’ve ever covered in politics.” His attitude toward campaign contributions and personal finance disclosure goes far beyond minimum legal requirements. He will not accept contributions from organized groups nor will he take cash from anyone. His annual disclosure statements are finely detailed” (Burka & Smith). Despite good work, Texas Monthly regarded him as Fair to Middlin’ and there were two reasons for this. First, he was in the minority party in the House and thus not able to be as influential as he otherwise might be, and second, that he was a conservative ideologue who could let his ideology get in the way of his effectiveness and persuasiveness. Indeed, although Texas was conservative, many of its voters opted to stick with moderate to conservative Democrats, so Archer was a staunch conservative outlier in the state for much of his career. As might be expected, he was a strong supporter of the tax reduction policies of Ronald Reagan, and in 1982 voted against the 1981 cut’s partial rollback. Archer was also a supporter of trade agreements, including NAFTA, and backed deregulation efforts.
He often opposed civil rights legislation as a burden to business or to state governments. Archer voted against the 1975 Voting Rights Act Amendments, which extended coverage to Texas, and voted against the 1982 extension. Archer also voted against the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. He initially supported the Equal Rights Amendment in 1971 before opposing it over abortion concerns. Archer was also socially conservative in the traditional ways to be so, including opposing restrictions on school prayer and opposing gay adoptions.
In 1994, the midterms produced Republican majorities, and Archer succeeded the disgraced Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. As chair, he supported a considerably different course than his predecessor. Archer saw the leadership of the Ways and Means Committee under Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.) as a positive example and sought bipartisan approaches to achieving passage of major legislation. This approach was successful in producing legislation in 1997 that provided for a balanced budget as well as for tax reduction. Archer also spearheaded the 1996 welfare reform legislation, stating that it, “turns today’s welfare trap for the needy into a trampoline to self-sufficiency…With this bill, we fulfill our promise to replace the failed welfare state so that America’s poor can achieve independence and enjoy successes that come from work” (Miller). He, unsuccessfully, tried to find a way to make Social Security sustainable in the long-term, a problem that to this day faces the United States. In 1999, Archer worked with the Clinton Administration to secure “most favored nation” status for China. Republicans have six-year term limits on chairmanships, and by 2000, his was up, so he decided to retire as at 72 years old he had reached the height of his career. Archer’s lifetime MC-Index score was a 98%. In 2002, President Bush considered him as a replacement for Paul O’Neill as Secretary of the Treasury. He afterwards consulted for PriceWaterhouseCoopers and most recently in 2017 he testified in favor of the Republican tax reduction bill.
Now that Texas Legends is over, I am mulling over my next series. I am strongly considering an American Radicals series which will focus on the far left. These are historical figures of the far left and include prominent academics, activists, and criminals. Some gradually adopted radicalism, others abandoned their radicalism later in their lives, and others remained radicals until their dying day. Like in the Texas Legends series, I anticipate most or all people I will cover will be dead. Unlike Texas Legends, however, I plan on no legislators being listed even though there were and are undoubtedly radical legislators (Sanders, Warren, & the Squad are some of the biggest contemporary examples).
Burka, P. & Smith, G. (1976, May). The Best, the Worst, and the Fair-To-Middlin’. Texas Monthly.
In 1964, Congressman Joe Kilgore of the 15th district sought to run a primary challenge against Senator Ralph Yarborough. Yarborough was the leader of the liberal wing of the Texas Democrats, and Kilgore was one of the more conservative Democrats. However, President Johnson put the kibosh on it, and he then decided to retire. Kilgore’s district was strongly Latino and a change was rather overdue in the district that elected “Cactus Jack” Garner and Lloyd Bentsen. This change came with Eligio “Kika” de la Garza (1927-2017).
Although liberals had hoped that de la Garza as a Mexican-American would be a change from the district’s business-as-usual politics and side with them, he proved to be something of a disappointment for them. While less conservative and more supportive of civil rights than his predecessor, de la Garza still cast numerous votes that met the disapproval of liberals and proved highly favorable to business interests in the district. Americans for Democratic Action’s ratings would sure suggest this was the case. In 1965, he scored a 21%, while in 1975, he scored an 11%. Conservative organizations didn’t think him that conservative, but liberals thought him conservative beyond justification for his district. As Burka & Smith (1976) put it, “Liberals and radical Chicano groups detest him with an antipathy bordering on the irrational. His record is far more balanced than they would have you believe – he supported the Voting Rights Act, for example – but it does reflect a dismal opposition to social programs which would ease the poverty of his constituents: against a child nutrition program, against an agency for consumer protection, against supplying food stamps to households of striking workers, and for crippling amendments to a bill providing legal services to the poor”. The voters didn’t agree, continually reelecting him by wide margins. Indeed, de la Garza did back some key anti-poverty programs and was more supportive of the Great Society than he got credit for. As a member of the House Agriculture Committee, agriculture became his specialty.
Texas Monthly considered him to be one of the worst of the Texas delegation, crediting whatever success he has had to the district’s longtime administrative assistant, Cecelia Hare Martin, who worked previously for predecessors Lloyd Bentsen and Joe Kilgore. It also identified him as a conservative Democrat, although his lifetime record was moderate, scoring a 41% on the MC-Index. In 1978, de la Garza was invited by Representative Leo J. Ryan to accompany him on his visit to Jonestown, which he fortunately declined. Although the chairmanship of the House Agriculture Committee had been taken from Texas in the ouster of Bob Poage, it would be back to Texas with de la Garza in 1981. He would serve in this capacity for fourteen years, making him the longest serving chairman of the House Agriculture Committee in American history. De la Garza would be crucial in the passage of omnibus farm bills in 1981, 1985, and 1990. As with many Southern Democrats, his record grew more liberal in the 1980s as more party loyalty was expected when facing off against conservative Republican President Ronald Reagan. From 1989 to 1991, he chaired the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, a group he had helped found in 1976. In 1993, de la Garza was a key player in getting NAFTA passed in Congress, and condemned colleagues who wanted to use the law to impose numerous conditions on Mexico as well as certain unnamed members for making “anti-Mexican slurs” (Cooper).
In 1994, the Democrats lost control of Congress, thus de la Garza was out as chairman. He saw no reason to run for another term given the end of his role and retired in 1997. De la Garza is another example of the sort of Democrat who was quite electable in old Texas, and indeed, the sort which is in very short supply today. The historically Democratic district he represented remains a Democratic district to this day, but only leans so now as in 2020 it went for Biden by only two points. If serving in Congress today, de la Garza would probably be the House’s most conservative Democrat despite being a moderate in his day.
Burka, P. & Smith, G. (1976, May). The Best, the Worst, and the Fair-To-Middlin’. Texas Monthly.
The year is 1946 and change is in the air. This is true in a particularly unique way in McMinn County, Tennessee. Although the county had historically been Republican, being in Eastern Tennessee between Chattanooga and Knoxville, the Great Depression resulted in substantial gains for Democrats. One of these was the election of Sheriff Paul Cantrell in 1936, who ran on FDR’s coattails. He proceeded to create a Democratic machine in the county that in order to keep power relied on, as Lones Seiber (1985) put it, “intimidation and violence” (1). Previous sheriffs had not used their position to create such a machine. There was also a suspicion that ballot stuffing had been used to win this election, but at the time there was no proof. Evidence of corruption in Cantrell’s rule became apparent in the following years.
The Cantrell-Mansfield Machine: Mind-Blowing Corruption
To call the Cantrell-Machine “corrupt” seems to fall short of accurately conveying the scale of what was happening in McMinn County. The law in Tennessee provided incentives for arrests and short-term jailing. As Lones Seiber (1985) writes, “The sheriff and his deputies received a fee for every person they booked, incarcerated, and released; the more human transactions, the more money they got. A voucher signed by the sheriff was all that was needed to collect the money from the courthouse. Deputies routinely boarded buses passing through and dragged sleepy-eyed passengers to the jail to pay their $16.50 fine for drunkenness, whether they were guilty or not. Arrests ran as high as 115 per weekend” (1). The machine also squeezed protection money from numerous illegal establishments, such as casinos and brothels.
Cantrell would be reelected in 1938 and 1940, and in 1942 he would be elected to the Tennessee Senate where he would continue to run the machine and was a delegate to the 1944 Democratic National Convention. Under his replacement as sheriff, Pat Mansfield, things got much worse. The sheriff’s department employed some as deputies who had been known criminals. The worst case was perhaps the employment of a deputy who had murdered his own father and would later murder his pregnant sister-in-law (Kumar). There was also the employment of “siren bandits”. These were men in uniform who would pull over and outright rob passing motorists (Kumar). This contributed to the lavish salaries Cantrell, Mansfield, and other major machine men got. Cantrell himself over his time as sheriff commanded an annual salary of almost $60,000, the equivalent of over $1 million in today’s money (Kumar). Mansfield himself commanded a salary higher than that of the Vice President of the United States. The conditions of the Athens jail, where people would go for charges real and fabricated for the profit of the machine, were dreadful and not maintained as the money appropriated to maintain it and properly feed inmates had been pocketed by Sheriff Mansfield (Kumar). In one incident, after Cantrell double-crossed one of his cronies, he decided to spill the beans. This resulted in his father being robbed and arrested and his brother-in-law being subjected to an assassination attempt by a deputy in broad daylight (Kumar).
Curbing the Republican Opposition
Eastern Tennessee, as I wrote before, was typically and is today a Republican place, and overtime there was a growing risk of McMinn County reverting to its old ways. The Cantrell-Mansfield machine sought to prevent such an eventuality by both means illegal and legal. The illegal ways would be fraud and intimidation through stuffing ballot boxes as well as telling seniors that their pensions may be held up if they didn’t vote the correct way. On the legal side, Cantrell got the help of his crony in the state legislature George Woods. In 1941, Woods proposed legislation to restrict McMinn County’s voting precincts from 23 to 12 and justices of the peace from 14 to 7, making the justices of the peace majority Cantrell men (Seiber, 1). This was signed into law by Governor Prentice Cooper. The Cantrell machine had other tricks to limit Republican opposition as well; after the Republican dominated McMinn County Court instructed the county to purchase voting machines, Woods got Governor Cooper to sign another bill into law, which abolished the court, with the machines sold under the guise of economy (Seiber, 1).
The Citizens Attempt Lawful Recourse
The residents did not complain to the local or state authorities as they knew they would side with the machine, so they wrote complaints to the Justice Department on the abuses of the Cantrell-Mansfield machine. One letter from a hardware store owner read, “The good people of this county are sacrificing for the cause of America’s freedom but have lost their freedom at home. Both parties have lost the freedom of the ballot box, a dictatorship has been set up, the county treasury is being raided at the expense of the taxpayers, and the good people of this county would like to sell their property and move away. Your department is our last line of defense. Please, for God’s sake come to the rescue of a helpless people” (Kumar). The Department hadn’t written off these complaints as from cranks either. The Justice Department investigated complaints of electoral fraud in McMinn County in 1940, 1942, and 1944 and found in a report that “the alleged violations in McMinn County were the worst ever brought to the attention of the Department of Justice” (Kumar). However, no action was taken. Many of the citizens who remained in McMinn County were older and not in a position to fight back against the machine. What’s more, so many jobs in the county were dependent on support of the machine or at minimum, not opposing the machine. The residents spoke amongst themselves that change would come once the GIs returned. They had no idea how right they’d be.
The Veterans Return
The veterans of McMinn County came back from fighting tyranny abroad only to find it at home under the Cantrell-Mansfield machine. While places like Knoxville and Chattanooga were undergoing a postwar boom, Athens, the heart of the county, was languishing. The GIs noticed the tyranny as they were subjected to shakedowns, arrests, and beatings for a litany of reasons. One early instance was the murder of Navy Seabee Earl Ford in September 1944 by George Spurling, a man with a lengthy criminal record who had been deputized by Deputy Minus Wilburn to arrest GIs (Kumar). Deputy Wilburn quickly worked to reframe this event. He planted some of his son’s pocketknives on Ford to make the incident appear to be self-defense (Watson). Sheriff Mansfield would then claim that Ford had charged Spurling with a knife, despite eyewitnesses attesting to Ford having no knife on him during the incident. There would be another murder of a GI by a deputy as well, which poured further fuel onto the fire of discontent.
The 1946 Election
The GI slate was headed up by respected veteran Knox Henry, who was running for sheriff. The ticket itself was bipartisan to gain maximum appeal, with three Republicans and two Democrats running on it. Since the county Republican Party had long been on the outs with the Cantrell-Mansfield machine, they backed the GI ticket as the best way to get back into office with their man Otto Kennedy advising the GIs to post poll watchers at every station. The ticket was also backed by numerous local businessmen, ensuring it was well-funded. The machine had Cantrell running as sheriff again and Mansfield being elevated to the Tennessee Senate. Bill White motivated the veterans to take whatever action was necessary, “Listen, do you think they’re going to let you win this election? Those people have been taking these elections for years with a bunch of armed thugs. If you never got the guts enough to stand up and fight fire with fire, you ain’t gonna win” (Kumar).
The Cantrell-Mansfield machine was at the ready against the good government veterans, and they had their guards out on the polls. Kennedy advised the veterans to have the GIs as poll watchers, which they would. Election Day was August 1st, and the machine had a strategy: if they could control the ballot boxes at the 1st, 11th, and 12th precincts in Athens along with the Etowah polling station the election would be won (Seiber, 3). Etowah was a simple matter as it was on Cantrell’s hometown and he was there personally to supervise, but the Athens places would require a bit more attention. Several events occurred that day which heated tensions to the boiling point. At 3:00 PM at the 11th precinct, Deputy Windy Wise was supervising and in walks Tom Gillespie. He is an old black farmer and had long been allowed to vote, as black people could do so in Eastern Tennessee, provided they had paid the poll tax. Gillespie presents his poll tax receipt, but Deputy Wise tells him “Nigger, you can’t vote here” (Seiber, 3). After Gillespie inquires why, Wise slugs him with brass knuckles. As he tries to escape from the scene, Wise shoots him in the back and he with Deputy Karl Neil takes him as well as the two GI poll watchers present, Ed Vestal and Charles Scott, to jail.
Meanwhile, at the 12th precinct polling place GIs Bob Hairrell and Leslie Dooley were assigned as poll watchers and observed throughout the day Deputy Minus Wilburn allowing minors to vote and bribing adult voters. It was finally too much for Hairrell when at 3:45 PM he saw Wilburn attempt to permit a woman to vote without proof she had paid her poll tax and was not on the registration list, so he grabbed his hand as he attempted to deposit the ballot, to which Wilburn clubbed Hairell and kicked him in the face, and hauled the GIs to the Athens jail with the ballot box (Seiber, 3). The veterans, who at this time were unarmed, were becoming enraged at the abuses and protested at the outside of the jail, taunting the deputies. While they are distracted by the crowd, Vestal and Scott jump out through the glass jail windows and run, bleeding, to the safety of the veterans. The veterans head back to the GI headquarters, with two deputies trailing them, intending to arrest anyone they could identify. However, instead of making arrests, they were promptly disarmed and captured. Three more deputies were then sent to see what happened to the first two and were disarmed and captured, rinse and repeat on two more deputies. Although some in the crowd assembled outside of the GI headquarters were calling for the killing of the deputies, the GIs opted instead to take the seven of them ten miles into the woods, beat them, and tie them to trees (Seiber, 3). The tables had turned on the previously indisputably powerful deputies.
The End…Or Is It?
By 6:00 PM it looked like the machine had succeeded in stealing another election and many veterans were feeling defeated. However, one of the leading veterans, Bill White, wasn’t having it. He had been growing angrier throughout the day over the obvious fraudulent practices of the Cantrell-Mansfield machine. He delivered a rousing speech:
“Well! Here you are! After three or four years of fighting for your country. You survived it all. You came back. And what did you come back to? A free country? You came back to Athens, Tennessee, in McMinn County, that’s run by a bunch of outlaws. They’ve got hired gunmen all over this county right now at this minute. What for? One purpose. To scare you so bad you won’t dare stand up for the rights you’ve been bleeding and dying for. Some of your mothers and some of your sisters are afraid to walk down the streets to the polling places. Lots of men, too! Because they know what happens. A car drives by in the night and shoots out your windows. If that doesn’t scare you enough, they’ll set fire to your house or your barn. They’ll beat up members of your family and put them in jail. For no reason! Is that the kind of freedom you were supposed to be fighting for? Do you know what your rights are supposed to be? How many rights have you got left? None! Not even the right to vote in a free election. When you lose that, you’ve lost everything. And you are damned well going to lose it unless you fight and fight the only way they understand. Fire with fire! We’ve got to make this an honest election because we promised the people that if they voted it would be an honest election. And it’s going to be. But only if we see that it is. We are going to have to run these organized criminals out of town, and we can do it if we stick together. Are you afraid of them? Why, I could take a banana stalk and run every one of these potbellied draft dodgers across Depot Hill. Get the hell out of here and get something to shoot with. And come back as fast as you can” (Kumar).
White and other veterans proceeded to raid the National Guard armory for weapons and ammunition. He would state in a 1969 interview about their activities that he “broke down the armory doors and took all the rifles, two Thompson sub-machine guns, and all the ammunition we could carry, loaded it up in the two-ton truck and went back to GI headquarters and passed out seventy high-powered rifles and two bandoleers of ammunition with each one” (Seiber, 4). That night, Cantrell, Mansfield, Woods, and fifty deputies were holed up in the Athens jail to “count” the ballots. What they didn’t know was that armed veterans were advancing on their position.
The veterans, led by Bill White, issued the demand for them to bring the ballot boxes out. White recalls that he shouted, “Would you damn bastards bring those damn ballot boxes out here or we are going to set siege against the jail and blow it down!” (Seiber, 4) They refused, and a gunfight proceeded between the veterans and the deputies, with veterans throwing Molotov cocktails and gas bombs. White reported that he fired the first shot in the conflict, but historian C. Stephen Bynum reports that the first shot was a shotgun blast that had come from the jail (Kumar). They were having trouble blasting through the jail doors, and the veterans knew they had to get those ballot boxes by morning or else their efforts would have been for naught, and they would face imprisonment. The tide turned in the veterans’ favor at 2:30 AM when they were able to procure dynamite. By this time, George Woods had already fled the jail and an ambulance arrived, presumably for the evacuation of wounded men. The ambulance, it turned out, was the getaway vehicle for Cantrell and Mansfield. At 2:48 AM, the jail was dynamited, and the surrendering deputies handed over the ballot boxes.
After the deputies were defeated, the emboldened townspeople took their vengeance. As Lones Seiber (1985) writes, “The townspeople set upon the captured deputies and, but for the GIs, probably would have killed them all. Minus Wilburn, a particularly unpopular deputy, had his throat slashed; Biscuit Farris, Cantrell’s prison superintendent, had his jaw shattered by a bullet; and Windy Wise was kicked and beaten senseless” (5). However, despite all the tensions and violence, miraculously no one was killed. In the morning the veterans delivered a joint statement over the radio proclaiming their victory, “The GI election officials went to the polls unarmed to have a fair election, as Pat Mansfield promised. They were met with blackjacks and pistols. Several GI officials were beaten and the ballot boxes were moved to the jail. The GI supporters went to the jail to get these ballot boxes and were met by gunfire. The GI candidates had promised that the votes would be counted as cast. They had no choice but to meet fire with fire. In the precincts where the GI candidates were allowed watchers, they led by three-to-one majorities. The GIs are elected and will serve as your county officials beginning September 1, 1946″ (Kumar). George Woods would return to Athens under GI protection to certify the election of the veterans slate and Sheriff Mansfield would depart office early. Of all the people involved in the battle, only Wise was prosecuted, being sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for his shooting of Gillespie (who made a full recovery), being paroled after serving a year. In the immediate aftermath, the national press was unified in condemning the revolt, probably not being aware of the full story of what had been happening in McMinn County and the Feds’ inaction to citizen requests for aid.
Although this incident had brought an end to the Cantrell-Mansfield machine and the new deputies proceeded to raid the illegal establishments previously protected, many socioeconomic problems persisted despite the efforts of the reform government. Numerous GIs were having trouble adjusting to civilian life, with numerous violent incidents surrounding them. Bill White, one of the leaders of the veterans in the Battle of Athens, served as a deputy and had to beat down numerous veterans who were getting into fights. The reform government would eventually collapse, with machine politics returning, albeit absent the gross corruption of the Cantrell-Mansfield machine. Sheriff Henry would serve two terms, afterwards being succeeded by Otto Kennedy. This is one of my favorite stories surrounding the exercise of the Second Amendment, as it was a time in which it was employed to fight tyranny.
Brooks, J.E. (2017, October 8). Battle of Athens. Tennessee Encyclopedia.
In 1952, Republicans made numerous gains in Congress. One of these was Utah’s 1st district, with Douglas Stringfellow trouncing the Democratic nominee in a seat that had been held by the Democratic Party for twenty years. Stringfellow had campaigned as a war hero with a deeply compelling story: that he had been an agent of the OSS who had parachuted into Germany to rescue a German nuclear scientist Otto Hahn and bring him to Britain, been captured by the SS, and tortured in the Belsen concentration camp, resulting in him being a paraplegic. Stringfellow was rescued by the anti-Nazi resistance and had been awarded the Silver Star for his service. More compelling yet, he was the only survivor of his team. During his term, he voted a solidly conservative line, getting an MC-Index score of 96%. His career seemed to have nowhere to move but up, and in fall 1954 he appeared on the TV show This Is Your Life, where he told his story to a national audience. This attention resulted in Hollywood directors bidding for the film rights to his story, but there were doubts.
After holes and inconsistencies were found in his story by Democratic opposition, Senators Wallace Bennett and Arthur Watkins questioned him and under their questioning he admitted the story was false. The Mormon church ordered him to confess his false story on television. Stringfellow did just that on October 16th, admitting that he walked with a cane due to being injured by a French land mine as a GI rather than being tortured as an OSS agent, and offered to withdraw from the race. With the election just weeks away, the GOP accepted his offer and promptly replaced him with respected Professor Henry A. Dixon of Utah State Agricultural College, who won the election. Stringfellow resumed a career in broadcasting under a pseudonym after his dropping out from politics. In his personal writings, he held that he suffered a delusion about himself from the time he was injured in 1944 until he was running for office in 1952, only realizing this story was false by the time he had been elected once people had started questioning the story (Davidson). Since mental illness was deeply stigmatized in 1952, he thought it was preferable for him to have been seen as a liar. Stringfellow suffered a fatal heart attack on October 20, 1966, only 44 years old.
Davidson, L. (2013, December 30). Scandalized Utah congressman believed his false war stories. The Salt Lake Tribune.
The 1970s were a decade of disillusionment for the people of the United States. America lacked the political will to prevent South Vietnam from being invaded and North Vietnam and the Viet Cong knew it, the booming 60s had declined to the stagflation 70s, and faith in the American presidency was shaken with Watergate. There was also bad news when it came to American intelligence agencies; in 1975, the Church Committee uncovered the existence of numerous secret programs under the CIA, FBI, NSA, and IRS that regularly abused power and violated the law. One of these was the CIA’s Family Jewels, a program that provided for CIA participation in assassinations of foreign leaders. This led to questions as to whether any American intelligence agencies were involved in the assassinations of JFK and MLK. What’s more, conspiracy theories on these assassinations were on the rise. In 1966, Mark Lane, a former New York state legislator, published Rush to Judgment, an indictment of the Warren Commission largely using the commission’s report. Among its critiques of the commission include that there were witnesses who claimed to hear gunshots coming from the grassy knoll of Dealey Plaza rather than the Texas School Book Depository and that Warren Commission firearms experts were unable to replicate Oswald’s alleged three shots (Bugliosi). Warren ultimately won unanimous approval for the commission’s findings despite doubts on its conclusions from some of its members, such as Senators Richard Russell (D-Ga.), in the hopes it would easily resolve the issue. He had tried unanimity with Brown v. Board of Education (1954), in which he swayed Justice Stanley Forman Reed, who wasn’t convinced segregation was discrimination, to vote for to avoid being the only dissenter. However, like with Brown, the Warren Commission itself wouldn’t stop significant opposition. Lane’s book popularized conspiracy theories regarding the Kennedy Assassination, with 81% of the public according to a 1976 Gallup poll believing that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone (Swift). Doubts about the Warren Commission were not without some reason; there were numerous eyewitnesses the commission did not interview, the FBI and CIA downplayed their foreknowledge of who Oswald was to dodge potential blame for failing to prevent the assassination, and most damning of all was that the decision had been made ahead of time by President Johnson, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach that Oswald and only Oswald was the perpetrator. The Warren Commission’s investigation was motivated by a political need to bring closure to the American public and in a way that would not cause complications for the US government. Representative Thomas Downing (D-Va.) became the chief advocate for the creation of a House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), with Representative Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.) and Delegate Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.) joining in. The House voted to establish this committee in 1976, making Downing chair.
In addition to Downing as chairman, Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.), Louis Stokes (D-Ohio), L. Richardson Preyer (D-N.C.), Yvonne Burke (D-Calif.), Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), Harold Ford (D-Tenn.), Floyd Fithian (D-Ind.), Robert Edgar (D-Penn.), Samuel Devine (R-Ohio), Stewart McKinney (R-Conn.), Charles Thone (R-Neb.), and Harold Sawyer (R-Mich.) sat on the committee. Preyer headed the JFK assassination subcommittee while Fauntroy headed the MLK assassination subcommittee. The committee would be troubled and had three chairmen. Downing didn’t run for reelection in 1976 and was replaced with Gonzalez, whose relationship with the head counsel was so acrimonious it resulted in the resignations of both men from the committee. The next and final chairman was Louis Stokes (D-Ohio).
Hot New Evidence: The Dictabelt Recording
A major new piece of evidence reviewed by the JFK subcommittee was from the discovery that an officer who was said to have been near the motorcade, H.B. McLain, had an open mic. The resulting Dictabelt recording was the basis by which the committee concluded that four, not two to three shots as reported by the Warren Commission, were fired. Analysis of the recording by acoustics experts revealed that with 95% confidence the fourth shot came from…the grassy knoll! However, the experts also concluded that this fourth shot didn’t hit Kennedy. This seemed to change the whole narrative of the Kennedy assassination. If this recording was accurate, it meant that the first two shots came from Oswald in the Texas Book Depository, a third from the grassy knoll by an unknown actor that missed, and the fourth again from Oswald. In 2001, Dr. Donald B. Thomas wrote in the journal Science & Justice an article that reaffirmed the HSCA findings. But was this all it was cracked up to be?
Not So Hot? Problems with the Dictabelt Recording
Acceptance of this Dictabelt recording was not unanimous. Representatives Devine, Edgar, Sawyer, and Thone dissented and based their dissent on skepticism over the validity of the recording. They highlighted the fact that of the people on the scene who were interviewed, 90% had reported two to three shots heard. Representatives Devine and Edgar in their views pointed out that less than 12% of witnesses claimed to hear a shot from the grassy knoll, over 27% heard the shot from the Texas Book Depository, and 17% heard the shot from another building (National Archives, 492). They dismissed the idea of conspiracy with Kennedy while regarding an MLK conspiracy as more plausible albeit inconclusive based on evidence. Devine and Edgar also noted, “There is another reason to doubt the open-microphone evidence. Officer H.B. McLain of the Dallas Police Department was identified by the acoustics experts as being the operator of a motorcycle with an open mike to the left rear of the President’s limousine. But, apparently the officer himself rejects the assumption, which led to the test and reenactments. He asks a very simple, but important question, “If it was my radio on my motorcycle, why did it not record the revving up at high speed plus my siren when we immediately took off to Parkland Hospital?”” (National Archives, 492-93)
Skepticism of the recording only grew with time. A 1980 report from the FBI Technical Services Division found that it could not be proven that gunshots were heard on the Dictabelt and a separate Justice Department investigation ruled out a conspiracy. In 2003, Peter Jennings of ABC News conducted his own investigation into the recording and found that the recording could not have originated from McLain and what’s more could not have come from Dealey Plaza (Cunningham). In 2013, this recording would be conclusively debunked at the conclusion of Professor Larry Sabato’s five-year study into the JFK assassination. This study used more advanced acoustics technology to analyze the recording. It turns out the recording had been two miles from Dealey Plaza, and that what was interpreted as gunshots were the sounds of the motorcycle and a stuck microphone. As Professor Sabato noted, “By no means were the sins of the HSCA equivalent to the Warren Commission, however, the HSCA, like the Warren Commission did not succeed….Our analysis shows that no gunshots were recorded on the dictabelt” (Rossoll).
JFK Committee Conclusion
The committee concluded that Kennedy was probably assassinated as the result of a conspiracy, while ruling that the Soviets, the Cubans, the CIA and FBI, anti-Castro Cubans, and organized crime were not involved in the assassination. However, it didn’t rule out that individuals among anti-Castro Cubans and organized crime were involved. The Committee also reaffirmed the Warren Commission’s conclusions that Oswald was the assassin and that a single bullet had traveled through Kennedy and Connally. Some members, such as Floyd Fithian (D-Ind.), believed that members of the mob were implicated. The sole evidence that the committee had for the belief that there was a second shooter was the recording. The story the HSCA presented on this was that the first, second, and fourth shots had come from Oswald at the Texas School Book Depository while the third shot that missed came from the grassy knoll. This conclusion gave conspiracy theorists ammunition. Although the committee’s conspiracy finding was not nearly as comprehensive as might be suggested and ruled out numerous favorite targets of conspiracy theorists, this did not deter them.
The MLK Assassination Panel
The MLK assassination panel reached some more conventional conclusions, albeit with the conclusion that “there is a likelihood” that his assassination was the result of a conspiracy. They concluded that it was highly probable that James Earl Ray had stalked Dr. King for days and then shot him. They found his alibi of “Raoul” to be false and ruled out other exculpatory evidence. The committee also ruled out FBI involvement in the MLK assassination, but did criticize aspects of its investigation afterwards, such as not considering the possibility of conspiracy. They also criticized the FBI targeting him using illegal tactics through the COINTELPRO program. The conspirators the committee thought could have been involved were not government actors, rather Ray’s brothers. MLK conspiracy theories, with support from some of his family, would gain more coverage in the Loyd Jowers trial in 1999, but that is a story for a different post.
Bugliosi, V. (2007). Reclaiming history: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. New York, NY: Norton.
Presidential historians wonder with the two who died early in their term what they would have been like had they lived just a bit longer through it. William Henry Harrison lived merely a month after delivering one of the longest inaugural addresses in the cold rain, while James A. Garfield was only able to get his appointments confirmed before he was shot by deranged office seeker Charles J. Guiteau. Today I have a lesser-known example of lost potential, Jerry Lon Litton.
In 1956, Litton, the 19-year old national secretary of Future Farmers of America, visits former President Truman to invite him to speak at the FFA convention. What is supposed to be a 15 minute conversation between them extends to two hours (Mertens). Truman is deeply impressed with the young man. He advises him to start his own business and run for public office (Jolley).
Litton joins the family’s successful cattle ranch in his hometown of Chillicothe and expands upon its success, gets married, and has two children. He is a natural people person, being able to relate to them regardless of what station in life they are in. This serves him well when he seeks a seat in Congress. In 1972, President Nixon is running for reelection. In Missouri’s 6th district, moderate conservative Democrat Bill Hull has had enough. He is 66 years old, his last few elections have been quite competitive, and the direction of the Democratic Party only seems to be moving further left with the nomination of George McGovern. Running in his place is Litton, who is by contrast young and moderately liberal. He had narrowly defeated the Democratic Party establishment’s preferred candidate in the primary, and he becomes immensely popular after winning the election.
Litton as Congressman
To regularly communicate with his constituents, Litton forms the Sixth District Congressional Club, which in 1974 he expands into a TV show, Dialogue with Litton. On this program he discusses the concerns of constituents, answers their unscripted questions, and has various guests and makes a great effort to restore people’s faith in the American system of government during a decade marked by disappointment and disillusionment. His guests include future President Jimmy Carter, Senators Hubert Humphrey and Thomas Eagleton, and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. Political leaders who meet Litton walk away impressed. Future Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) offered this praise, “I’ve been in Congress 22 years and I have never yet met a freshman member of Congress that could equal Jerry Litton” (Historic Missourians). Jimmy Carter expresses his belief that he would one day be president. He is a hard worker and a good listener, and his voters know it.
Although Litton won by less than ten points in 1972, in 1974 he wins reelection with a whopping 79% of the vote. This is a much higher margin than his predecessor had ever won and is the highest margin of any Missouri incumbent that year despite him representing a district that on paper is Republican. Litton has a moderately liberal record (MC-Index: 26%) and a populist streak, which shows when he opposes a pay raise for members of Congress while the public struggles with high inflation. He is also a strong advocate for farmers. Reporter Robert Macy, who covered his Senate race, recalled, “You had to be told, or you read someplace, that he was a Democrat. He wasn’t this type of person that wore the party label on their vest. He was the type of politician and the type of person that fit in well with presidents or the farmer down the road. And equally liked by both of them” (Newton).
In 1976, he wants to expand the scope of his service, so he runs for the Senate. However, the competition for the primary is formidable; one of the candidates is Jim Symington, a member of Congress who has been in office longer and also happens to be the retiring senator’s son. Another is Warren Hearnes, who had served as Missouri’s governor from 1965 to 1973. Litton runs a hands-on, constituent focused campaign; he tours the state, hosting small “Dialogue with Litton” sessions. On the day of the primary, he prevails with 45%, winning by almost 20 points over Hearnes, who took second.
Jerry Litton seems too good to be true, and fate cruelly ensured this to be so. On the night of his primary victory, he and his family board a plane to attend the victory party. However, the plane’s engine fails and only nineteen seconds after takeoff, the plane crashes into a soybean field in a blazing inferno with all on board killed. He was only 39. Also on board was Litton’s pilot friend Paul Rupp and his son, Rupp Jr. The tragedy for the people of Chillicothe is immeasurable…their favorite son and his family are gone in an instant.
Litton is replaced on the ticket with Hearnes, who goes on to lose the election to Republican John Danforth, who himself is a figure who reaches across the aisle. The deaths of Litton and his family were a great loss for Chillicothe, a great loss for Missouri, and a great loss for America. His “Dialogue with Litton” reminds me a bit of conversational podcasts as opposed to partisan news, acerbic opinion shows, and the acrimonious point-counterpoint format. Tragically, Litton would not be the last Democratic Senate nominee from Missouri to die in a plane crash; in 2000, Mel Carnahan would meet the same fate right before the election and strangely, he wins. Fortunately, his wife, Jean, was not on board and served temporarily in his place.
Jolley, L.R. Jerry L. Litton. Historic Missourians.