Harry F. Byrd

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(Redirected from Harry F. Byrd, Sr.)

Harry Flood Byrd, Sr. (1887October 20, 1966) was a dominant figure in Virginia Democratic politics for much of the first half of the 20th century.

Byrd belonged to one of Virginia's oldest families. A wealthy apple grower in the Shenandoah Valley, he took over his father's newspaper, the Winchester Star, in 1903. The paper had slipped into debt under his father's ownership. The paper owed its newsprint supplier $2,500 and refused to ship more newsprint on credit. Byrd cut a deal to make daily cash payments in return for cash. This experience gave him a lifelong aversion to borrowing money and to debt of any kind.

He had an early interest in road improvements. In 1908, he became president of the Shenandoah Valley Turnpike, a 92-mile toll road between Winchester and Staunton. He served there until 1915, when he was elected to the state senate. He first came to prominence in 1922, when he led a fight against using bonds to pay for new roads. He feared the state would sacrifice future flexibility by committing too many resources to paying off construction debt. The publicity from this drive allowed him to be elected governor in 1925.

As governor, Byrd pushed through constitutional amendments that streamlined the state government and allowed for more efficient use of tax dollars. He also made property taxes solely a county responsibility. When it was obvious that increased spending on road construction wasn't enough to "get Virginia out of the mud," he pushed through a secondary roads bill that gave the state responsibility for maintaining county roads.

These measures initially made Byrd look like a New South progressive. However, many of his measures were more to the benefit of rural areas more interested in low taxes than better services. He instituted a "pay as you go" approach to spending, in which no state money was spent until enough taxes and fees came in to pay for it. Conseqently, spending for education remained very low until the 1960s. His secondary roads bill didn't apply to cities.

In 1933, at the urging of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Byrd was appointed to the United States Senate; however, Byrd quickly became one of the most bitter opponents of the New Deal. Part of his change of heart was Roosevelt's strong support of organized labor.

While he was governor, Byrd built up contacts with the "courthouse cliques" in most of Virginia's counties. This formed the basis of the Byrd Organization, which dominated Virginia politics well into the 1960s. They carefully vetted candidates for statewide office, and Byrd only made an endorsement, or "nod," after consulting with them. Without his "nod," no one could win statewide office in Virginia.

By the 1950s Byrd was one of the most influential senators, serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and later as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. He often broke with the party line, going so far as to refuse to endorse Roosevelt's successor, Harry Truman in 1948. He also refused to endorse Adlai Stevenson in 1952. He voted against public works bills, including the Interstate Highway System, and became one of the most vocal proponents of maintaining policies of racial segregation. His call for "Massive Resistance" against desegregation of schools led to many Virginia schools closing rather than be forced to integrate. Byrd authored and signed "The Southern Manifesto" condemning the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Although Byrd was never a candidate in a presidential election, he nevertheless received 134,157 votes in the 1956 election. In the 1960 election, also as a non-candidate, he received 15 votes in the Electoral College from unpledged electors: all 8 from Mississippi, 6 of Alabama's 11 (the rest going to Kennedy), and 1 from Oklahoma (the rest going to Richard Nixon).

Byrd retired from the Senate in 1965. His son, Harry F. Byrd, Jr., was appointed his successor.

Preceded by:
Claude A. Swanson
U.S. Senator from Virginia
Succeeded by:
Harry F. Byrd, Jr.
Preceded by:
Eugene D. Millikin
U.S. Senate Committee on Finance
Succeeded by:
Russell B. Long

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