New Hampshire had a reputation for quite some time for producing flinty conservative Republicans, but Charles W. Tobey (1880-1953) was not one of them. Tobey’s background was one based on a biblical education, rather than much of a formal one and throughout his career, he would make extensive use of biblical quotations. His ability to rise to be a farm owner and a banker despite his humble beginnings convinced him of the American dream.
In his early career, Tobey sided with the progressive Republican Robert P. Bass and with Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 campaign. In 1914, Tobey was elected to the General Court as a Progressive Republican and served three non-consecutive terms, him being speaker from 1919-1920. In 1924, Tobey was elected to the state Senate. Despite opposition to him in the primary by some die-hard conservatives such as Senator George Moses, he was in 1928 with the help of his campaign manager Styles Bridges elected New Hampshire’s governor. As governor, he emphasized both road building and fiscal conservatism. Tobey didn’t run for reelection in 1930 due to personal financial issues related to the Great Depression, but it didn’t take too long for him to get those resolved.
In 1932, Tobey was elected to Congress, succeeding arch-conservative Edward Wason. Tobey was, although fiscally conservative, willing to support some early New Deal measures, including the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the National Industrial Recovery Act. Consistent with his Bull Moose background, he believed that there was a minimum level of social welfare programs needed. Tobey’s record during FDR’s first term could be described as moderately conservative. However, he was becoming increasingly wary of the expansion of executive power under Roosevelt and became more opposed to his initiatives. In 1938, Tobey pursued House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Sol Bloom (D-N.Y.) on a charge that he had profited from the sesquicentennial celebration of the signing of the Constitution and went as far as to dive into anti-Semitic tropes when he wrote in a letter, “Bloom is a Jew with all it implies; very able and always makes everything play for his own aggrandizement” (Bankson, 83). He defeated Democratic incumbent Fred Brown for a Senate seat that year in the backlash to the Roosevelt Administration.
In his first four years, he was a staunch non-interventionist and archconservative. He voted against the repealing the arms embargo in 1939 and the Lend-Lease Act in 1941 and spoke at America First rallies, with him declaring in one speech on September 17, 1941 that, “Today, certain forces in our country, intrigues by inter-national interests, are bending their every effort to embroil us in the European holocaust, by ignoring the Constitutional prerogatives of the people’s representatives in the Congress, which body has the sole power to declare war” (Tobey). It was Tobey’s belief that President Roosevelt’s efforts to get the United States into World War II would result in a fatal undermining of free enterprise and an undesirable consolidation of power in the executive. He also asserted in a letter to a constituent, “It is not necessary for us to get into the war. We are not a nation such as the small nations of Europe that have been overrun by Hitler. We of America are 132 million strong, able to out-produce all of Europe, and able to take care of ourselves in this world should any nation or nations attempt to come our way” (Bankson, 2). However, Tobey was not opposed to preparation…in 1940 he voted for the peacetime draft. During this time, he took great pride in being regarded as a leading thorn in the side of the Roosevelt Administration. As he wrote, “The Administration hates me more than any other member of the Senate and if they could get me in a concentration camp they would do it with glee” (Bankson, 139).
Although after the declaration of war in 1941, despite supporting the war effort he appeared to remain in the non-interventionist camp, but within a three-month period in 1944 he started taking the Vandenberg path…moving from non-interventionist to internationalist; that year he requested a spot at the Bretton Woods Conference in New Hampshire, which was granted. Tobey also was moving to the center on domestic issues. By 1944, he was moving into the progressive wing of the GOP. This put him greatly at odds with his conservative colleague and former campaign manager Styles Bridges, who he had previously been to the right of on foreign policy, and the two had been on such poor terms since they differed on foreign policy pre-1941 that they hardly spoke to each other (U.S. Senate). During the 80th Congress, he was a frequent dissenter of Senator Robert Taft’s (R-Ohio) leading of domestic issues and was one of the few Republicans to vote against overriding President Truman’s veto of the Bulwinkle Bill, which exempted railroad joint rate agreements from antitrust prosecution if the ICC had approved of them. In 1950, Tobey was named to the Kefauver Committee, which investigated organized crime. Many watched the televised hearings and along with the namesake of the committee, Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, Tobey gained popularity in the limelight with his biblical quotations and his biting responses to testifying witnesses (The New York Times).
On June 1st, Tobey was one of six Republican senators to join Margaret Chase Smith in her “declaration of conscience” against the methods of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. This along with his increasing liberalism got him targeted for a primary defeat by a candidate backed by both Joseph McCarthy and fellow New Hampshire Senator Styles Bridges in 35-year-old S. Wesley Powell, the latter’s administrative assistant, who condemned him as a “Truman Republican” and “the darling of the C.I.O.” (Time). Tobey naturally did not agree with this assessment. He held, “No man in the United States Senate today has fought the Truman crowd more than Charles W. Tobey . . . Down in Washington they have the damnedest, or damnable, crew of rascals” (TIME). Tobey narrowly won renomination and won reelection handily despite Powell opting for a write-in campaign. His record in 1950 included voting in support of granting easier credit to housing co-ops and non-profit housing, opposition to natural gas deregulation, support for Point Four foreign aid, opposition to extending rent control, and support for the McCarran Internal Security Act. Tobey’s last term would certainly be his most liberal. He opposed the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act, opposed the Tidelands Bill, opposed public housing cuts, and opposed using the Taft-Hartley injunction in a steel dispute.
In 1952, Tobey backed General Dwight Eisenhower for the Republican nomination and at the start of the 83rd Congress, he continued his emphasis on organized crime by launching a Senate committee on crime at U.S. ports. However, he wouldn’t last long in this role, as on July 24, 1953, he suffered a fatal coronary thrombosis two days after his seventy-third birthday. Tobey’s overall MC-Index score was a 59%, reflecting a moderate conservative phase in FDR’s first term, an ultra-conservative phase in FDR’s second and first part of his third term, and his turn as a moderate liberal during the Truman years. He was not an easy figure to deal with, and I think he rather relished in his role as a dissenter, be it against the leadership of President Roosevelt or against the leadership of Senator Taft.
Bankson, M.Z. (1972). The Isolationism of Senator Charles W. Tobey. University of Alaska.
National Affairs: Scourge of the Rascals. (1950, September 11). Time Magazine.
Overwork Makes the Senate Surly. U.S. Senate.
Senator Charles W. Tobey Dies at 73; Won Fame in Crime Investigation. (1953, July 25). The New York Times.
Tobey, C.W. (1941, September 17). Wake Up America! The Hour is Late.