James H. Price (1878-1943)


James H. Price was a governor of Virginia (1938–1942) who advocated for a series of progressive policies designed to help those hurt by the Great Depression of the 1930s. His most notable achievement came in 1938 with the enactment of an Old Age Assistance Plan that enabled Virginians to receive federal Social Security benefits. Throughout his term, Price battled with U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr. and members of his political machine over policy and patronage issues. While Price won some of these battles, by 1940 Byrd and the Byrd Organization had derailed his legislative agenda, leaving a defeated Price to spend most of is last two years in office helping to mobilize Virginia for war.

James Hubert Price was born in Organ Cave in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, on September 7, 1878. He grew up in Staunton and graduated from the Washington and Lee Law School in 1909. He moved to Richmond to practice law in 1910. His political career began in 1916 when he won the first of seven consecutive terms representing Richmond in the House of Delegates. Two years later, he married Lillian Martin. The marriage produced two children. Price’s growing family coincided with a blossoming social and political life. Long active in fraternal organizations, Price served as grand master of the Grand Lodge of Virginia Masons from 1922 to 1924 and as imperial recorder for the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine for North America (more commonly known today as the Shriners of North America) from 1927 until his death. These positions provided him with a wealth of social and political contacts. In 1929, Price was elected lieutenant governor of Virginia.

Governors James H. Price and George Peery

Price’s differences with Byrd, the former governor, became apparent as the Great Depression hit the nation in 1930. After Governor John Garland Pollard, a Byrd ally, failed to take decisive action, Price called unsuccessfully for a special legislative session to “provide [a] limited work relief program to reduce unemployment in rural areas” through highway construction. This idea ran counter to Byrd’s conservative pay-as-you-go philosophy of highway construction. Lacking Byrd’s support for governor, Price again ran for lieutenant governor and was reelected in 1933.

In July 1935, Price upended the normal selection process and announced his candidacy for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination two years ahead of the primary. The Byrd Organization searched but failed to find as attractive an alternative. Price eventually gained the endorsement of a majority of organization supporters in December 1936. He won the general election easily in November 1937. Price achieved the bulk of his legislative success in his first session with the General Assembly in 1938. Most notably, the governor enabled elderly Virginians to receive Social Security benefits through the passage of the Old Age Assistance Plan. Other accomplishments included the establishment of forty-eight-hour work week for women, an increase in teachers’ salaries, and a law that made Virginia localities eligible for federal funds for slum clearance.

Governor James Price with Bette Davis

Price broke with the Byrd Organization when he fired top Byrd lieutenant Everett R. Combs as comptroller and chairman of the Compensation Board. This breach was furthered by rumors that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had given Price veto power over federal appointments in Virginia. This rumor gained traction when Price became involved in an attempt to appoint a judge to the federal bench to whom both of Virginia’s U.S. senators were opposed. These controversies set the stage for the 1940 session in which the Byrd-dominated legislature stonewalled Price’s plan to reorganize the state’s government. Price thus spent the last two years of his term readying Virginia for World War II.

Price’s term as governor ended in 1942. He continued his work with the Shriners until his death on November 22, 1943, after suffering a brain hemorrhage.

September 7, 1878
James H. Price is born in West Virginia.
James H. Price graduates from Washington and Lee University Law School. He moves to Richmond to practice law in 1910.
James H. Price serves seven consecutive terms in the General Assembly.
October 2, 1918
James H. Price marries Lillian Martin.
James H. Price serves as Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Virginia Masons.
James H. Price serves as Imperial Recorder for the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine for North America (also known as the Shriners of North America).
November 1929
James H. Price wins election as lieutenant governor of Virginia.
November 1933
James H. Price wins reelection as lieutenant governor of Virginia.
July 1935
James H. Price announces his candidacy for Virginia governor two years before the primary.
December 1936
James H. Price receives the endorsement of a majority of Byrd Organization supporters in his bid for the Virginia governorship.
November 1937
James H. Price is elected governor of Virginia.
James H. Price passes a number of legislative bills, most notably the Old Age Assistant Plan that allows for Social Security benefits.
Following his failure to reorganize the state government in the wake of opposition from Harry F. Byrd Sr., James H. Price prepares Virginia for World War II.
November 22, 1943
James H. Price dies after suffering a brain hemorrhage.
  • Hall, Alvin Leroy. “Politics and Patronage: Virginia’s Senators and the Roosevelt Purges of 1938.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 82 (1974): 331-350.
  • Syrett, John. “The Politics of Preservation: The Organization Destroys Governor James H. Price’s Administration.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 97 (1989): 437-462.
APA Citation:
Tulli, Dan. James H. Price (1878-1943). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/price-james-h-1878-1943.
MLA Citation:
Tulli, Dan. "James H. Price (1878-1943)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2023, September 21
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