Harry Flood Byrd was born June 10, 1887, in Martinsburg, West Virginia. He was a direct descendent of the William Byrds of colonial fame. His was a political family; his father, Richard Evelyn Byrd, a lawyer, was Frederick County‘s commonwealth’s attorney and later Speaker of the House of Delegates and an influential member of the emerging political organization led by U.S. Senator Thomas S. Martin. His mother, Eleanor Bolling Flood, was sister of Congressman Henry “Hal” Flood, a leader of the Martin machine, and her uncle Charles James Faulkner Jr. had been a United States senator from West Virginia. The Byrd name would be further illuminated by the exploits of Harry’s brother, Richard Evelyn Byrd Jr. (1888–1957), the famed polar explorer. His other brother, Thomas Bolling Byrd (1890–1968), was a lawyer and Harry’s partner in the apple business.
The boys were reared in Winchester, a town that, while still obsessed with glorifying the Confederacy, nevertheless exemplified the trappings of New South boosterism. These two socioeconomic strains of southern life would be prominent throughout Byrd’s life. He was a defender of what he perceived to be traditional southern culture, traditions, and political philosophy, yet he was also an entrepreneur, out to make money and advance the interests of his section. He left Winchester apple cold storage warehouses, an apple blossom festival, and the best road network of any city in the state.
Festival Promoting Winchester’s Apple Industry
The apple business was his first love and he never left it; he was always there at harvest time, picking apples and supervising operations. First and foremost, it was a business to him. He applied to it the principles of hard work, thrift, attention to detail, wise and timely investment and expansion, and adoption of new marketing techniques that he had embraced as a young newspaperman. But he was also a farmer, knowledgeable about his crop and its production; he was an innovative, nationally known orchardist, using the most up-to-date scientific methods of spraying and fertilizing, while introducing new varieties of apples to the area.
Early Political Career and the Beginning of the Byrd Organization
His youthful experiences shaped the adult Byrd. Individual initiative and effort were the essence of success. The creed of the self-made man was his guide; he lived it and believed others should do likewise. Undergirding this was a pay-as-you-go philosophy—avoid debt and put savings into expansion—which he used to revive his newspaper. Byrd was a nineteenth-century Jeffersonian liberal, who favored laissez-faire economic and political order in which government was small, debt-free, and decentralized, with state and local rights ensured.
Byrd started his political career at twenty-one when he served an appointed term on the Winchester City Council. He lost reelection to the position—the only race he ever lost—and he never took another election for granted. He became as careful a candidate as he was a businessman, being well-organized down to the precinct level and constantly sending letters to campaign workers and voters urging them to get out the vote. In 1915 he was elected to the state senate, where he served for ten years. Although he was recognized as an expert on matters of finance and highways, he left no legislative mark. He favored prohibition but opposed the woman suffrage amendment.
Byrd married Anne Douglas Beverley in 1913. They had four children—Harry Jr., who would replace his father in the U.S. Senate; Bradshaw Beverley; Richard; and a daughter, Westwood.
Harry F. Byrd Resigns as State Fuel Administrator
Byrd’s leadership of his political machine was personal and direct. He mingled with the local officeholders, relishing their Brunswick stews and talk of weather and farm prices and maintaining contact with them through his many letters and energetic campaigning at election time. He cultivated friends in the business and banking communities and among journalists to whom he catered with his news releases. Rewarding with praise, jobs, roads, and legislation, he generated a firm bond of loyalty that permitted him great freedom to select his candidates for state office and implement the policies he desired. What he created was a smooth-running political organization that for more than four decades was beholden for its direction to only one man.
Harry F. Byrd Elected Governor
Byrd’s policies generated a four million dollar treasury surplus. But perhaps even more remarkable was the ease with which all that he proposed won the approval of the General Assembly and the electorate—a tribute to his masterful political skills.
Byrd’s “Program of Progress,” meanwhile, touted Virginia as a site for industrial and tourist development, promoting roads, airports, and historical sites with his highway markers. He supported the creation of Shenandoah National Park and the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg with money from John D. Rockefeller Jr.
Angered by two recent lynchings in the state and influenced by the editorials of Norfolk Virginian-Pilot editor Louis Isaac Jaffé, Byrd, who had no use for the Ku Klux Klan, pressed the assembly to pass one of the toughest antilynching laws in the country. The assembly, however, also passed a law to segregate public assemblies in Virginia, but without his signature. Byrd was not a racial demagogue like many other southern politicians, but he would play the race card to his advantage when the machine was in a tight election contest.
Byrd’s governorship reflected what historian George Tindall has called the business progressivism of the 1920s in the South—no fundamental changes in the role of government, but a tinkering in the realm of economy and efficiency. Consistent with Byrd’s philosophy there was much road-building and encouragement of industrial development and tourism, but little was done for education, agriculture, or the structure of county government, which was wallowing in the abusive fee system by which local officials were paid. It is fair to say, however, that Byrd was much more of a governmental activist as governor than he was later in his Senate career.
When Harry Byrd “retired” to his orchards and Rosemont, his new house outside Berryville in 1930, he was still an energetic young man with a long political career ahead of him. Although the apple business consumed most of his time, he did not give up his interest in politics, advising successor John Garland Pollard on necessary fiscal steps to combat the Great Depression, including support for the Byrd road law passed by the assembly in 1932 that turned the county roads over to the state. In that year he campaigned unsuccessfully for the Democratic Party presidential nomination won by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He also ran a protest campaign against Roosevelt in 1944 and received fifteen electoral votes in 1960 from southern Democrats dissatisfied with John F. Kennedy’s nomination.
Byrd’s political hiatus ended in 1933 when he was appointed to the United States Senate to replace Claude Swanson, who had been selected Secretary of the Navy. He remained in Washington for more than thirty years, becoming a national spokesman for balanced budgets, reduced federal spending, and states’ rights. Following a brief period of support for Roosevelt’s efforts to tackle the problems caused by the Great Depression, Byrd became a vociferous critic of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Opposing relief and public works programs, he determined that Virginia would contribute next to no funds to match federal appropriations, which meant that the federal government provided most of the money for relief in Virginia. He attempted to curtail farm programs that he claimed were making “criminals of those who plant in excess,” and he was one of only six senators, including his Virginia colleague, Carter Glass, who voted against Social Security legislation. He demanded an end to the “spending orgy at Washington” that was mortgaging generations to come.
Byrd’s Senate record for his entire career was remarkably negative. No significant legislation bears his name. He voted against aid to education, public housing, antipoverty programs, and minimum-wage increases. He compiled an antilabor record, voting against the Wagner Act but favoring the Smith-Connally and Taft-Hartley bills that restricted union power and activity. Reflecting his love of the outdoors, however, he supported conservation projects and the National Park Service in whose parks he frequently vacationed.
Although he was not an isolationist, he voted against most foreign-aid legislation, such as the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine. Advocating a strong national defense, he strongly criticized delays in Roosevelt’s rearmament program prior to World War II. Just before America’s involvment in the war, Byrd demanded and won creation of a Joint Committee on Reduction of Non-Essential Federal Expenditures. He chaired the committee for twenty years, handing down reports that ridiculed a bloated bureaucracy.
By the 1950s, Byrd had assumed the role of an elder statesman. He had a national reputation for economy in government and was respected for his courage, integrity, and courtliness. As chairman of the influential Senate Finance Committee he shaped tax and social legislation to suit his conservative sentiments, but as the country elected more liberal senators and presidents, he lost much of his political clout. His efforts to obstruct the election of Democratic presidential candidates with a “golden silence” that implied support for Republicans had little effect on the results.
In Virginia, however, his authority seemed impervious to national trends. He continued to influence the selection of gubernatorial candidates and kept the state committed to pay-as-you-go and honest but parsimonious government. In the words of Benjamin Muse, “Governors of Virginia are appointed by Harry Byrd, subject to confirmation by the electorate … He ruled not with a command but with a nod.” Only the election of James Hubert Price in 1937 defied Byrd’s preferences, but Price’s independence as governor was constrained by Byrd’s friends in the assembly.
Economic and social changes brought on by World War II and Supreme Court decisions, however, challenged his leadership in Virginia. New residents, anti-Byrd Organization candidates, African Americans, and Republicans were criticizing his failure to confront contemporary issues, calling for an end to the poll tax and more money for education. Faced with the Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation decision (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas), Byrd pushed the state down the road of “massive resistance” and school closings—an embarrassing chapter with which to close a long career of dedicated public service.
“Massive resistance,” a term coined by Byrd, was designed to maintain segregated schools and perpetuate the power of the machine that was being threatened by new political opposition. It squared with the racist attitudes of politicians and voters in Southside Virginia, the area of Byrd’s greatest support. Massive Resistance was consistent with Byrd’s anger at the federal government’s intruding on the affairs of Virginia. His views propelled Byrd into being a spokesman for the South on this issue, which carried with it obligations to protect and defend the region from outsiders; he helped to author the 1956 “Southern Manifesto” that called for opposition to the Brown decision. He pushed for creation of the school-closing laws passed in the 1956 special session of the assembly, and he encouraged Governor James Lindsay Almond Jr. to close the schools when courts ordered their integration. Even after the courts overturned Virginia’s laws, Byrd insisted that other obstructive measures be adopted.
Final Years and Legacy
Byrd spent his last years unsuccessfully combating the tax cuts, civil rights legislation, and social programs of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. He retired from the Senate in November 1965, undoubtedly feeling the effects of a brain tumor that took his life eleven months later.
The legacy of his forty-year rule in Virginia was mixed. During his governorship he provided the state with debt-free government that built good roads and stimulated economic development. But as rapid changes engulfed Virginia, Byrd was unable to adapt. Pay-as-you-go led to crowded colleges, inadequate mental hospitals, and neglected social services; Massive Resistance produced racial intolerance, bitterness, and, in the case of Prince Edward County, schoolchildren who were denied education for five years, a lost generation. Commenting on Byrd’s leadership, political scientist V. O. Key stated, “Men with the minds of tradesmen do not become statesmen.”