"Sheep without a Shepherd": The New Deal Faction in the Virginia Democratic Party

Article excerpt

Virginia State Senator Lloyd Robinette was near despair. In July 1941, he wrote to one of his closest allies in the fight against Harry F. Byrd's conservative Democratic political machine:

   I feel that at this time we are at the lowest ebb that has characterized
   any movement in the history of Virginia politics. We are sheep, few in
   number, sheep without a shepherd. I wonder if the time will ever come in
   Virginia when sincere men who have no axe to grind and who cannot be bought
   with the fleshpots of Egypt are willing to band together for a renaissance
   in Virginia politics, without hope of reward or without fear of reprisal. I
   sometimes grow exceedingly despondent along that line.(1)

Senator Robinette's despair in 1941 was in marked contrast to the optimism of Virginia's liberal Democrats in the 1930s. For a time, it had seemed that there were genuine prospects for change in Virginia politics. In 1936, supporters of the New Deal overcame opposition by the anti-New Deal Byrd Organization to win the Democratic nominations in two congressional districts, and in November, Franklin Roosevelt carried the state by 136,000 votes. By year's end, organization leaders had acquiesced in the gubernatorial candidacy of Lieutenant Governor James Price, a supporter of the New Deal, whose popularity made continued opposition to him risky.

In the years between 1938 and 1941, however, Virginia's New Deal Democrats suffered a series of setbacks. In 1938, one of the pro-Roosevelt congressmen, Norman Hamilton of Portsmouth in southeastern Virginia, was defeated in a Democratic primary. By 1940, Congressman John Flannagan, a staunch New Dealer from southwestern Virginia, had made his peace with the Byrd Organization. Governor Price did not provide much needed leadership for the New Deal faction. His failure cost him credibility as a political leader in the eyes of many Virginia liberals as well as the Roosevelt White House. Roosevelt's own popularity seems to have declined in the state in the late 1930s after his unsuccessful attempts to reform the Supreme Court in 1937 and to purge conservative Democrats in the 1938 primaries. Although FDR carried Virginia again in 1940, the conservative Byrd Organization remained securely in control of the state's politics. The liberals, unable to field a viable candidate in the 1941 Democratic gubernatorial primary, were reduced to lamenting their fate.(2)

This article will answer the question why the Virginia New Dealers failed to create a competitive Democratic faction in the Old Dominion during the Roosevelt years. The liberals' failure can be attributed to several causes. First, the political culture of Virginia during the 1930s was not conducive to disturbance of the status quo. Second, the liberals did not have an aggressive leader with statewide appeal who was willing to wage war against the Byrd Organization. Third, President Roosevelt himself contributed by his own actions to the Virginia liberals' decline. Finally, the coming of World War II caused both the national administration and Virginia's voters to change their political priorities from issues of domestic reform to national security.

Virginia's senators, Harry Byrd and Carter Glass, were among the leading opponents of the New Deal in the U.S. Senate. Glass, ranked by historian James Patterson as the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, opposed the administration on 81 percent of key roll calls. Byrd was not far behind with 65 percent antiadministration votes. This situation presented more of a problem for Byrd as leader of the Virginia Democratic party than for his venerable colleague. Byrd was appointed to his Senate seat in 1933 when President Roosevelt chose Senator Claude Swanson to be secretary of the navy. Byrd faced a special election in 1933 to win the right to complete Swanson's term and another election a year later for a full term. Political realities, therefore, caused Byrd to moderate his criticism of President Roosevelt's early actions to fight the Depression. …