Senator Harry Flood Byrd (June 10, 1887–October 20, 1966) led the Democratic Party political machine in Virginia. According to historian James T. Patterson, Byrd was one of the "irreconcilable Democrats," who voted against the New Deal beginning as early as 1935. He opposed the Franklin Roosevelt administration 65 percent of the time; only Senator Carter Glass, also from Virginia, opposed the New Deal more. Byrd became a significant member of the Republican-Democratic congressional coalition that emerged to oppose the New Deal by 1938.
Born in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and raised in Winchester, Virginia, Byrd was the scion of prominent Virginia families. He traced his lineage to the William Byrds, who had helped to settle colonial Virginia. Harry Byrd, however, downplayed his distinguished ancestry and preferred to think of himself as a "self-made" man. He left school at age fifteen to take over his father's bankrupt newspaper, the Winchester Evening Star. Byrd also began to invest in apple orchards, eventually becoming one of the largest apple producers in the country.
Both his father, Richard, and his maternal uncle, Henry Flood, were active in state politics, and they encouraged Byrd to run for office. Byrd's uncle was one of the key architects and leaders of the Democratic Party political machine, known simply as the "Organization." As his uncle's protégé, Byrd served in the state legislature from 1916 to 1925, and became chairman of the state Democratic Party upon his uncle's death. By the mid-1920s, Byrd had risen to lead the Organization. Efficient management and a restricted electorate assured the political success of Byrd and his favored candidates for state offices. Elected governor in 1926, Byrd reorganized the state government in an effort to eliminate waste and inefficiency. A fiscal conservative, Byrd earned a reputation for himself as a progressive. He focused on maintaining a balanced state budget, keeping state taxes low, and providing few social services.
In 1933, Byrd was appointed to the Senate when Claude Swanson joined Roosevelt's cabinet. Facing reelection in 1934, Byrd supported President Roosevelt and the New Deal programs. Yet, as a fiscal conservative, he voiced his concerns about the rapid expansion and reckless spending of the federal government. A champion of self-help, Byrd asserted that government work relief programs undermined individual character. Moreover, the New Deal, popular with both blacks and whites in Virginia, threatened to disrupt the political and social control of the Byrd machine. By 1935, Byrd openly opposed Roosevelt's policies, voting against the Wagner Labor Relations Act and Social Security. He secured an amendment to the Social Security Act that allowed states to determine how much aid they would contribute to the program. Through his influence, Virginia was the last state to join the program in 1938. Moreover, in 1936, at Byrd's urging, the Senate created a Select Committee to Investigate Executive Agencies of the Government and appointed Byrd chair. Throughout his career in the Senate, which lasted until his retirement in 1965, Byrd consistently criticized federal government expansion, large federal expenditures, and deficit spending.
See Also: CONSERVATIVE COALITION; DEMOCRATIC PARTY; GLASS, CARTER; NEW DEAL.
Heinemann, Ronald L. Depression and New Deal in Virginia: The Enduring Dominion. 1983.
Heinemann, Ronald L. Harry Byrd of Virginia. 1996.
Patterson, James T. Congressional Conservatism and theNew Deal: The Growth of the Conservative Coalition in Congress, 1933–1939. 1967.
Larissa M. Smith