Harry F. Byrd Jr.

Harry F. Byrd Jr. (1914–2013)

Harry F. Byrd Jr. represented Virginia in the United States Senate from 1965 to 1983 after serving seventeen years in the Senate of Virginia. A member of one of Virginia's most powerful political families, Byrd took over the Senate seat from his father in 1965. Byrd, however, was also something of a dissident, quitting the Democratic Party in 1970 to run as an Independent. In addition to his career in politics, Byrd followed his father into journalism as well, serving as editor and publisher of the Winchester Star from 1935 to 1981 and as publisher of the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record from 1939 to 2001. He died in 2013. MORE...

 

Harry Flood Byrd Jr. was born in Winchester, one of four children of Harry F. Byrd Sr. (1887–1966) and Anne Douglas Beverley Byrd. Harry Jr. attended Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia. During World War II he attained the rank of lieutenant commander in the United States Navy Reserve. In 1941 he married Gretchen Thomson, who died in 1989. The marriage produced two sons, Harry F. III and Thomas T., and one daughter, Beverley.

Byrd and his father shared a passion for journalism and politics, the basis of a close bond between them. As editor and publisher of the family newspapers and as a member of the state senate, he was a conservative Democrat like his father and a loyal member of the Byrd Organization. His principal accomplishment while serving in the General Assembly was the Byrd Tax Credit Act of 1950, a controversial measure that called for an automatic refund to taxpayers if the state's revenues surpassed budget estimates by a certain percentage. Byrd publicly supported Virginia's program of Massive Resistance to public school desegregation with which his father was closely associated; he privately thought the legislation unwise, however.

In 1965 Virginia governor Albertis S. Harrison Jr. appointed Byrd to complete the U.S. Senate term of his father, who had resigned due to illness. Challenged by a progressive former state legislator, Armistead Boothe, in the 1966 Democratic primary, Byrd won a narrow victory by 8,225 votes. Within the Democratic Party the power of the Byrd Organization had eroded as African Americans, labor union members, and newcomers to the state became politically active. Four years later Byrd decided not to subject himself to the uncertainties of the primary. In March 1970 he announced that he would seek reelection as an Independent. Publicly he declared that he was abandoning the party of his father because the Democratic State Central Committee had adopted a loyalty oath binding all Democratic nominees to support the party's candidates at the next general election. Facing Democratic and Republican opponents in the fall, Byrd received a majority (53.5 percent) of the vote. Resisting overtures from President Richard M. Nixon to join the Republican Party, Byrd continued to caucus with the Democrats. In 1976 he became the first U.S. senator to be elected and then reelected as an Independent. He chose not to seek reelection to another term in 1982.

Byrd followed a consistently conservative course in the Senate. Urging economy in government, he denounced waste in federal programs. While supporting a strong national defense, he opposed sending troops into Cambodia in 1970 and voted to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson had interpreted as congressional authorization to wage war in Southeast Asia.

After retiring from the Senate, Byrd lived in Winchester, maintaining his interest in the family's businesses and taking public stands for fiscal responsibility in state government. He died at his home in Winchester on July 30, 2013.

Time Line

  • December 20, 1914 - Harry F. Byrd Jr. is born in Winchester.
  • 1935 - Harry F. Byrd Jr. serves as editor and publisher of the Winchester Star newspaper.
  • 1939 - Harry F. Byrd Jr. works as a publisher for the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record.
  • 1940 - Harry F. Byrd Jr. serves as a member of the Virginia Democratic State Central Committee.
  • 1941 - Harry F. Byrd Jr. serves in the United States Naval Reserve as a lieutenant commander during World War II.
  • 1941 - Harry F. Byrd Jr. marries Gretchen Thompson.
  • 1948 - Harry F. Byrd Jr. serves in the Virginia state senate.
  • 1950 - Harry F. Byrd Jr. helps pass the Byrd Tax Credit Act.
  • November 12, 1965 - Harry F. Byrd Jr. is appointed as a United States Senator by Virginia Governor Albertis S. Harrison Jr. after Byrd's father retires from the Senate.
  • November 8, 1966 - Harry F. Byrd Jr. wins a narrow victory over Armistead Booth by 8,225 votes in the Virginia Democratic primary for the United States Senate.
  • 1970 - Harry F. Byrd Jr. opposes sending troops into Cambodia and votes to repeal the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.
  • March 1970 - Harry F. Byrd Jr. leaves the Democratic Party and runs for the United States Senate as an Independent.
  • November 1970 - Harry F. Byrd Jr. wins the election to the United States Senate as an Independent.
  • November 1976 - Harry F. Byrd Jr. becomes the first senator to be elected and then reelected as an Independent.
  • January 2, 1983 - Harry F. Byrd Jr. retires from the United States Senate.
  • July 30, 2013 - Harry F. Byrd Jr. dies at his home in Winchester.
Further Reading
Byrd, Harry F., Jr. Double Trouble: Vignettes from a Life of Politics and Newspapering. Harrisonburg, VA: R. R. Donnelley & Sons, 2007.
Byrd, Harry F., Jr. Defying the Odds: An Independent Senator's Historic Campaign. Harrisonburg, VA: R. R. Donnelley & Sons, 1998.
Sweeney, James R. "Southern Strategies: The 1970 Election for the United States Senate in Virginia." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 115, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 165-200.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Sweeney, J. R. Harry F. Byrd Jr. (1914–2013). (2014, June 22). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Byrd_Harry_Flood_Jr_1914-.

  • MLA Citation:

    Sweeney, James R. "Harry F. Byrd Jr. (1914–2013)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 22 Jun. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: February 12, 2008 | Last modified: June 22, 2014


Contributed by James R. Sweeney, associate professor of history, Old Dominion University.