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Byrd, Harry Floodlocked

(10 June 1887–20 October 1966)

Byrd, Harry Floodlocked

(10 June 1887–20 October 1966)
  • Ronald L. Heinemann

Harry Byrd

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-91550).

Byrd, Harry Flood (10 June 1887–20 October 1966), governor of Virginia and U.S. senator, was born in Martinsburg, West Virginia, the son of Richard Evelyn Byrd, a lawyer, and Eleanor Bolling Flood. A direct descendant of the colonial William Byrds, Harry Byrd grew up in Winchester, Virginia, in modest circumstances. At age fifteen he left school to take over the failing family newspaper, the Winchester Evening Star, and through hard work and thrift turned it into a profitable venture. Moving into the apple orchard business, he created a multimillion dollar operation that brought him financial security and a national reputation as one of the largest apple growers in the country. In 1913 he married Anne Douglas Beverley; they had four children, one of whom, Harry Byrd, Jr., succeeded his father in the U.S. Senate.

Byrd was elected to the Virginia Senate in 1915. Rarely involved in legislative debates, he quietly but effectively pursued interests in highways and finance. He also served as state fuel administrator during World War I. Chosen Virginia Democratic party chairman in 1922, he led the successful fight against a highway bond issue in 1923 that confirmed pay-as-you-go as the fiscal policy of the Old Dominion and solidified his control of the political organization that he soon reshaped into his own machine.

Elected governor in 1925, Byrd modernized Virginia government by streamlining the bureaucracy and expanding the authority of the executive. His major reorganization proposals reduced the number of elected state officers from eight to three (governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general), abolished many state agencies and consolidated all others into eleven departments, and instituted a new system of tax segregation that separated state and local sources of taxation for greater equity and efficiency. Byrd’s enthusiasm, energy, and political skills were primarily responsible for the ease with which all that he proposed won the approval of the general assembly and the electorate.

Governor Byrd furthered his record of progressive leadership with his “program of progress” that attracted new industries and residents through tax cuts and recruiting, increased tourism, and left a state surplus of over $4 million when he departed office. He was the Commonwealth’s number one “booster,” supporting creation of the Shenandoah National Park and traveling across the state to promote roads, tourism, and airport development, the latter encouraged by the exploits of his brother, polar explorer Richard Evelyn Byrd, Jr. (1888–1957). A notable achievement was his advocacy of a strong antilynching bill passed by the legislature in 1928. Byrd’s governorship reflected the business progressivism of the 1920s that emphasized economy, efficiency, and industrial growth, but paid little attention to the problems of agriculture, poverty, and labor relations.

When Byrd “retired” to his orchards in 1930, he was still an energetic young man who had a long political career ahead of him. Although the apple business consumed much of his time, he remained highly involved in state affairs. He also undertook a modest presidential campaign in 1932 that ended with the fourth-ballot convention victory of Franklin Roosevelt. While this was as close as he ever came to the presidency, Byrd flirted with a token protest candidacy against Roosevelt in 1944 and in 1960 won fifteen electoral votes when disaffected southern electors chose not to support the nominees of their parties.

When Virginia senator Claude Swanson was appointed secretary of the navy in 1933, Byrd was appointed to fill his seat in the Senate, where for more than thirty years he argued on behalf of balanced budgets, reduced federal spending, and states’ rights. Reelected for six terms by overwhelming margins, Byrd adhered to a nineteenth-century Jeffersonian philosophy that favored a laissez-faire economic and political order in which government activity was minimal and rugged individualism reigned supreme. He became a vociferous critic of the New Deal, joining a conservative coalition of congressmen who opposed the growth of government. For twenty years he chaired the Joint Committee on Reduction of Non-essential Federal Expenditures, whose reports derided the bloated federal bureaucracy. Predictably, his Senate record was remarkably negative. He voted against aid to education, public housing, prolabor legislation, antipoverty programs, and minimum wage increases. Although he was not an isolationist and supported major defense appropriations, he opposed most foreign aid programs, such as the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine, because of their cost.

By the 1950s Byrd had assumed the role of an elder statesman. He had achieved national prominence as the conservative spokesman for an older order, but his positions alienated him from a more liberal national Democratic party, particularly on civil rights. After 1944 he pursued a “golden silence” during presidential campaigns. Chairman of the important Senate Finance Committee from 1955 to 1965, Byrd was respected for his independence and fairness. Although he frequently delayed social and fiscal legislation that he found philosophically offensive, he never totally obstructed it.

During his Senate years, Byrd continued to control Virginia politics, helping to select gubernatorial candidates, advising them on legislation, and keeping the Old Dominion committed to honest but parsimonious government. As depression and war changed the nature of the Commonwealth and the nation, Byrd was hard-pressed to maintain his authority. Faced with the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision of 1954, he orchestrated a policy of massive resistance to thwart its implementation in Virginia, but doctrines of interposition, school-closing laws, and political demagoguery ended in ignominious defeat in 1959. He spent his final years unsuccessfully combating the budget deficits, civil rights legislation, and social programs of President John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Byrd retired from the Senate on 11 November 1965, undoubtedly feeling the effects of a brain tumor that took his life eleven months later at his beloved “Rosemont” in Berryville, Virginia.

Byrd was the most prominent Virginian of the twentieth century. Although his influence at the national level was limited by his increasingly unfashionable view of government and balanced budgets, his leadership of Virginia was practically unchallenged for over forty years. That legacy, however, was mixed. After a dynamic governorship, Byrd settled into a conservatism that obstructed economic and social progress in the state. He could not adapt his individualistic ethic to the demands of modern society. As V. O. Key said of Virginia’s leaders in his Southern Politics in State and Nation (1949), “Men with the minds of tradesmen do not become statesmen.”


Byrd’s papers are at the University of Virginia Library. Other important collections that include extensive correspondence with and about Byrd are those of Senator Carter Glass, Representative Howard Smith, and Everett R. Combs at the University of Virginia Library; Representative William Tuck and Senator A. Willis Robertson at the College of William and Mary Library; the executive papers of Virginia governors at the Virginia State Library; and the papers of William T. Reed at the Virginia Historical Society. Ronald L. Heinemann, Harry Byrd of Virginia (1996), is a full-length biography. Alden Hatch, The Byrds of Virginia (1969), offers anecdotal information. A formidable number of articles, monographs, and biographies on twentieth-century Virginia political history address Byrd’s leadership of the machine. The best of these is J. Harvie Wilkinson, Harry Byrd and the Changing Face of Virginia Politics, 1945–1966 (1968). Allen Moger, Virginia: Bourbonism to Byrd, 1870–1925 (1968), is good on the origins of the Byrd organization. The most thorough treatment of Byrd’s governorship is Robert T. Hawkes, Jr., “The Career of Harry Flood Byrd, Sr., to 1933” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Virginia, 1975). A brief but complete history of Virginia politics since the Civil War can be found in Edward Younger and James T. Moore, eds., The Governors of Virginia, 1860–1978 (1982). James R. Sweeney offers an assessment of Byrd’s political philosophy in “Harry Byrd: Vanished Policies and Enduring Principles,” Virginia Quarterly Review 52 (Autumn 1976): 596–612. Helpful biographies include William B. Crawley, Jr., Bill Tuck: A Political Life in Harry Byrd’s Virginia (1978), Bruce J. Dierenfield, Keeper of the Rules: Congressman Howard W. Smith of Virginia (1987), and Henry C. Ferrell, Jr., Claude A. Swanson of Virginia: A Political Biography (1985). The best analysis of massive resistance is James Ely, The Crisis of Conservative Virginia: The Byrd Organization and the Politics of Massive Resistance (1976). An extensive obituary is in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, 21 Oct. 1966.