Harry F. Byrd

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Harry F. Byrd
Harry F. Byrd.jpg
United States Senator
from Virginia
In office
March 4, 1933 – November 10, 1965
Preceded by Claude A. Swanson
Succeeded by Harry F. Byrd, Jr.
50th Governor of Virginia
In office
February 1, 1926 – January 15, 1930
Lieutenant Junius Edgar West
Preceded by Elbert Lee Trinkle
Succeeded by John Garland Pollard
Member of the Virginia Senate
from the 26th district
In office
January 9, 1924 – February 1, 1926
Preceded by James M. Dickerson
Succeeded by Joseph S. Denny
Member of the Virginia Senate
from the 10th district
In office
January 12, 1916 – January 9, 1924
Preceded by Frank S. Tavenner
Succeeded by Marshall B. Booker
Personal details
Born Harry Flood Byrd
(1887-06-10)June 10, 1887
Martinsburg, West Virginia, U.S.
Died October 20, 1966(1966-10-20) (aged 79)
Berryville, Virginia, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Anne Douglas Beverley
Children Harry, Jr.
Religion Episcopalian

Harry Flood Byrd, Sr. (June 10, 1887 – October 20, 1966) of Berryville in Clarke County, Virginia, was an American newspaper publisher, and for four decades political leader of the Democratic Party in Virginia as head of the Byrd Organization. Byrd served as Virginia's governor from 1925 until 1929, then represented the Commonwealth as a United States Senator from 1933 until 1965. He came to lead the "conservative coalition" in the United States Senate, and opposed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, largely blocking most liberal legislation after 1937.[1] His son Harry F. Byrd, Jr. succeeded him as U.S. Senator, but ran as an Independent as the Byrd Organization collapsed with the end of Massive Resistance.

Byrd succeeded to what had been the Virginia Democratic Party organization of U.S. Senator Thomas Staples Martin (who died in 1919). Elected the 50th Governor of Virginia in 1925, initially Byrd reorganized and modernized Virginia's government. His political machine dominated state politics for much of the first half of the 20th century.[2]

Financial conditions in Virginia during Byrd's youth conditioned his thinking on fiscal matters and "pay-as-you-go" financial policies.[3] Especially after his leadership of Massive Resistance to the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education in the 1950s, Byrd became known as a racist and avowed white separatist.[4] Although paying his black and white workers similarly, Byrd was vehemently opposed to racial desegregation even early in the New Deal, and later opposed Presidents Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy despite their also being Democrats (as well as losing Democratic Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson) because they opposed racial discrimination within the federal workforce. The Byrd Organization also benefitted from limiting the political participation of blacks and poor whites in Virginia by means of poll taxes and literacy tests, but managed to crush opposition ranging from New Deal Governor James H. Price to gubernatorial and senatorial candidate Francis Pickens Miller.[5] Although Byrd never announced as a presidential candidate, he received many votes in the 1956 presidential election and 15 electoral votes in the 1960 presidential election.

Early life and education[edit]

Harry Flood Byrd was born in Martinsburg, West Virginia in 1887 (just two weeks after future fellow Virginia Senator Absalom Willis Robertson was born in the same community). His parents, Eleanor Bolling (Flood) and Richard Evelyn Byrd, Sr., moved the young family to Winchester, Virginia the same year.

Young Harry Byrd's father became a wealthy apple grower in the Shenandoah Valley and published the the Winchester Star newspaper. Harry initially attended the public schools, but received most of his education from the private Shenandoah Valley Academy in Winchester.

Genealogy and family relations[edit]

Byrd's ancestors included the First Families of Virginia. His paternal ancestors included William Byrd II of Westover Plantation (who established Richmond), Robert "King" Carter of Corotoman, and Pocahontas.

One of his younger brothers became famed Naval aviator and Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd (1888-1957). His other younger brother Thomas Bolling Byrd (1890-1968) became an infantry captain during World War I. His uncle Henry De La Warr Flood served in the House of Representatives of the U.S. Congress from Appomattox County, Virginia (1901 to 1921). Another uncle from Appomattox County, Joel West Flood, served as that county's Commonwealth Attorney (1919 to 1932), in the U.S. Congress (beginning in 1932 to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Henry St. George Tucker), as a Federal appellate Judge (of the Fifth Circuit based in Richmond), 1940 to 1964).

Influence on character[edit]

Born only twenty-two years after the end of the American Civil War, Byrd grew up in an era when "the Shenandoah Valley was still a place of genteel poverty ... Harry Byrd never lacked food, but he had no money for luxuries. No one had any money. If a man got into debt, there was small chance of getting out of it."[6]

Even worse in Byrd's eyes was the dilemma of the state itself, which was also heavily in debt during Byrd's youth. Before the Civil War, Virginia had taken on debt to help finance many internal public improvements (canals, turnpikes, and railroads) through the Virginia Board of Public Works. Most had been destroyed during the War, although the debt remained and the infrastructure needed to be rebuilt to get crops and goods to market. Virginia's first postwar legislature had affirmed those debts at original terms (highly favorable to bondholders, which by then were mostly out-of-state purchasers at rates a small fraction of par value). Some related to improvements in the area that separated during the war to form the new State of West Virginia; those were litigated for decades until the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1915 that West Virginia owed Virginia $12,393,929.50.[7] After the Reconstruction period, most of Virginia's governors insisted upon paying state bondholders, rather than pay for public education (newly added in Virginia Constitution of 1869) or other government services. The Readjuster Party, which briefly challenged the Conservative Party of Virginia which became the Virginia Democratic Party, advocated adjusting the terms of the prewar bonds, but had a relatively brief lifespan.[8] Thus, the issue of Virginia's public debt was far from resolved during Byrd's formative years.

Marriage and family[edit]

Byrd married Anne Douglas Beverley, a childhood friend, on October 7, 1913. They lived with her parents in Winchester until 1916, when he built a log cabin, named Westwood, in Berryville at a family-owned orchard, and they moved there. The cabin was constructed from chestnut logs and remains one of the few examples of natural chestnut bark existing in the United States due to the chestnut blight. The Byrds had three sons: Harry F. Byrd, Jr., Bradshaw Byrd, and Richard Byrd, and one daughter, Westwood Beverly Byrd. In 1926, Byrd purchased Rosemont, an estate outside Berryville, adjacent to the family apple orchards. The family moved in 1929, at the end of Byrd's term as governor, after some renovations.


As a businessman, Byrd had several operations: publishing newspapers, running a local turnpike, and selling apples and apple products.

Newspaper publisher[edit]

In 1903, Harry Byrd took over his father's newspaper, the Winchester Star. Under his father's ownership, it came to owe $2500 (equivalent to $66,000 in 2015) to its newsprint supplier, the Antietam Paper Company. The company refused to ship more newsprint on credit, so Byrd cut a deal to make daily cash payments in return for ownership. As Byrd would later say, "when you have to hunt for them that way, you get to know how many cents there really are in a dollar." He eventually bought the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record and several other papers in the Shenandoah Valley; his family still owns these papers today.[citation needed]

Thus started what would become Byrd's famous "pay-as-you-go" policy. He developed a lifelong aversion to borrowing money and any indebtedness. "I stand for strict economy in governmental affairs," Byrd proclaimed. "The State of Virginia is similar to a great business corporation ... and should be conducted with the same efficiency and economy as any private business." In a fifty-year political career, no statement of Byrd's ever more succinctly spelled out his view of government.[9]

In 1907, he founded The Evening Journal in nearby Martinsburg, West Virginia. He sold the paper in 1912 to associate Max von Schlegell.[10]

Turnpike operator[edit]

In 1908, at the age of 21, he became president of The Valley Turnpike Company, overseeing the Valley Turnpike, a 93-mile (150-km) toll road between Winchester and Staunton. Earning $33 a month, he was required to drive the entire route at least twice a month to inspect it and arrange any repairs. As automobile traffic increased, he ensured road conditions were maintained within the available revenues. He held that office for seven years until his election to state office. He maintained an interest in roads and tourism throughout his career, though always tempered by his pay-as-you-go philosophy.

Orchard owner[edit]

Byrd also owned extensive apple orchards in the Shenandoah Valley and an apple packing operation which was among the largest on the East Coast. He later pointed out that he paid his African American workers the same wages as his white farm workers.[11]

In the 1950s, Edward P. Morgan's assistant visited Byrd's Northern Virginia farm during the apple harvest and was outraged by the living conditions of the migrant workers. This prompted Morgan to take up the issue of migrant labor in his CBS Radio Network commentaries. Producer Fred W. Friendly then prompted his close associate Edward R. Murrow to produce the television documentary "Harvest of Shame" on this issue.[12]

Virginia politics[edit]

In 1915, while still heading the Valley Turnpike Company, at the age of 28, Byrd was elected to the Virginia Senate. That election was to begin his 50 years of service in various roles in the state and federal government.

At the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, as a new State Senator, Byrd was initially a progressive with an early interest in road improvements. He was a member of the Senate Committee on Roads, the Finance Committee, the Steering Committee, the Committee on Privileges and Elections, and the Committee of Schools and Colleges. He advocated a tax on gasoline as a fair method of raising revenue for road construction.

Byrd as a state senator during the 1916 General Assembly

However, he first came to prominence in 1922, when he led a fight against using bonded indebtedness as a method to pay for new roads. He feared the state would sacrifice future flexibility by committing too many resources to paying off construction debt. In 1923, Byrd was sued by the Virginia Highway Contractors Association because he said their activities "by combination and agreements may be very detrimental" to the State. The court dismissed the suit, stating the criticism was legal, imposing all costs upon the association. The publicity helped him to be elected Governor of Virginia in November 1925, easily defeating Republican Samuel H. Hoge in the general election.

In 1923, he became a member of the Virginia Society of the Sons of the American Revolution.

As governor, serving a term from 1926 to 1930, 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 was not 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 made Byrd seem like a New South progressive at first. 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. Highways and tourism were his primary pursuits, says his biographer. "He advocated building roads to state shrines such as Jamestown and Monticello and called for historical markers along roadways, the first of which appeared in Fredericksburg. He held regional meetings to bring about closer cooperation between state and county road officials, prophesying that the road system could be completed within ten years through such cooperation... A tour of the highway system convinced him of the progress being made in extending the arterial network. Indeed, over 2,000 miles would be added to the system during Byrd's governorship, 1,787 of these miles in 1928. Road building was one way to keep the voters happy and prove the efficacy of pay-as-you-go."[13]

While he was governor, Byrd built up contacts with the "courthouse cliques" in most of Virginia's counties. He curried support from the five constitutional officers in those counties (sheriff, Commonwealth's attorney, clerk of the court, county treasurer, and commissioner of revenue). 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. While he was governor, he shortened the ballot so that only three officials ran statewide: the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. This limited opportunities to challenge the candidates that he wanted to run. His secondary roads bill in 1932, which became known as the Byrd Road Act, did not apply to the state's independent cities.

Education was not on his agenda, and state spending for public schools remained very low until the 1960s. Byrd became one of the most vocal proponents of maintaining policies of racial segregation. Byrd authored and signed the "Southern Manifesto" condemning the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. His call for "massive resistance" against desegregation of public schools led to many Virginia schools closing rather than be forced to integrate.[14]

He helped draft a series of laws, known as the Stanley plan, to implement his "massive resistance" policy. This led to closure of some public school systems in Virginia between 1959 and 1964, most notably a five-year gap in public education in Prince Edward County, Virginia.[15]

National politics[edit]

In the 1928 U.S. presidential campaign, he supported Al Smith, the Democratic Governor of New York, who would go on to lose to Republican Herbert Hoover. Byrd himself was an early favorite for the 1932 presidential nomination but he opted to endorse Franklin D. Roosevelt at the right moment and became an official in Roosevelt's successful campaign.

In 1933 Byrd was appointed to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate; he won reelection as a Democrat in 1933, 1934, 1940, 1946, 1952, 1958, and 1964. Byrd and his colleague Carter Glass invoked senatorial courtesy to stop Roosevelt's nomination of Floyd H. Roberts to a federal judgeship in Virginia in 1939. Byrd broke with Roosevelt and became an opponent of the New Deal, but he was an internationalist and strongly supported Roosevelt's foreign policy. As war loomed in 1941 Congress approved his proposal for a joint House-Senate committee to look into ways of eliminating nonessential expenditures. By late September, the Joint Committee on Reduction of Non-essential Federal Expenditures was in operation with Senator Byrd as Chairman; it built his national reputation as an economizer.

By the 1950s Byrd was one of the most influential senators, serving on the Armed Services Committee, and later as chairman of the Finance Committee. He often broke with the Democratic Party line, going so far as to refuse to endorse the reelection of liberal President Harry S Truman in 1948. He also refused to endorse Adlai Stevenson in 1952. He voted against public works bills, including the Interstate Highway System, and played a key role in the passing of the 1964 Revenue Act. He had blocked the bill until President Lyndon Johnson agreed to decrease the total budget to under $100 billion. Subsequently, he helped push the Act through.[16]

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

U.S. presidential elections[edit]

Although Byrd never stood as a candidate in a presidential election, he was drafted by Southern Democrats in several campaigns between 1944 and 1960. At the 1944 Democratic National Convention, Southern delegates opposed to Roosevelt's New Deal and racial policies nominated him as the party's presidential candidate. Ruth Nooney of Florida, in nominating him, said she did so without his knowledge or consent. He won 89 delegate votes to Roosevelt's 1,086 (James Farley of New York got one vote).[17][18] Byrd's vote included all of the delegates from Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia, and 12 of the 36 delegates from Texas.[19] In 1952, both the Constitution Party and the America First Party nominated him for vice-president, and Douglas MacArthur for president, without the consent of either.[20] The slate got 17,205 votes.[21] In 1956 He was nominated for president by the States' Rights Party of Kentucky, receiving 2,657 votes in that state, and was the choice of an independent (i.e. unpledged) slate of electors – endorsed by former governor James Byrnes and Senator Strom Thurmond – in South Carolina, where he received 88,509 votes.[22][23][24][25] In 1960, he received 15 votes in the Electoral College: eight unpledged electors from Mississippi (all of that state's electoral votes), six unpledged electors from Alabama (the other 5 electoral votes from that state went to John F. Kennedy), and a faithless elector from Oklahoma (the other 7 electoral votes from that state went to Richard Nixon).[26]


Byrd died of brain cancer in 1966. He was interred in Mount Hebron Cemetery in Winchester.[27]


Harry F. Byrd Middle School, a National Blue Ribbon School located in the Richmond area, was slated to be renamed by the local school board on April 28, 2016 in response to a grassroots effort that convinced board members that having a school named after a man who supported school segregation was inappropriate.[28] It was named "Quioccasin Middle School"—Quioccasin is the name of a historically black village in the area where the school is located—and officially took the name in July 2016.[29]


  1. ^ Mordecai Lee (2012). Congress Vs. the Bureaucracy: Muzzling Agency Public Relations. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 211. 
  2. ^ Frank B. Atkinson (2006). Virginia in the Vanguard: Political Leadership in the 400-year-old Cradle of American Democracy, 1981-2006. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 7. 
  3. ^ Ronald L. Heinemann, Harry Byrd of Virginia (1996)
  4. ^ Clarence M. Dunnaville, Jr., Governors Recognized for Historic Contributions, Virginia Lawyer, Apr. 2014, Vol. 62, Page 44-48
  5. ^ Ronald L. Heinemann, Harry Byrd of Virginia (1996)
  6. ^ Alden Hatch, The Byrds of Virginia (1969) p 401
  7. ^ Commonwealth of Virginia v. State of West Virginia, 238 U.S. 202 (1915)
  8. ^ Allen W. Moger, From Bourbonism to Byrd (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia 1968)
  9. ^ Heinemann, (1996)
  10. ^ "Martinsburg Journal". The West Virginia Encyclopedia. October 8, 2010. Retrieved November 24, 2015. 
  11. ^ Heinemann, Harry Byrd exact page cite needed
  12. ^ Persico, Joseph E. (1997). Edward R. Murrow: An American Original. Da Capo Press. ISBN 9780306807961. 
  13. ^ Heinemann, (1996)
  14. ^ William Bryan Crawley, Bill Tuck, a political life in Harry Byrd's Virginia (1978) pp 232-35
  15. ^ Numan V. Bartley, The rise of massive resistance (1999) p 341
  16. ^ Robert Caro, The Passage of Power
  17. ^ Catledge, Turner (July 21, 1944). "Roosevelt Nominated for Fourth Term". New York Times. pp. 1, 9. Retrieved 7 April 2017. 
  18. ^ Jewell, Katherine Rye (2017). Dollars for Dixie. Cambridge University Press. p. 233. ISBN 9781107174023. Retrieved 7 April 2017. 
  19. ^ "Ballot on Renomination Of President Roosevelt". New York Times. Associated Press. July 21, 1944. p. 9. Retrieved 7 April 2017. (subscription required (help)). 
  20. ^ Kellman, George (1953). "Anti-Jewish Agitation". American Jewish Year Book. 54: 93, 94. JSTOR 23604428. (subscription required (help)). 
  21. ^ "1952 Presidential General Election Results". US Election Atlas. Retrieved 8 September 2016. 
  22. ^ Taylor, Jeff (2013). Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism. Lexington Books. p. 223. ISBN 0739175769. Retrieved 23 September 2016. 
  23. ^ Mickey, Robert (2015). Paths Out of Dixie: The Democratization of Authoritarian Enclaves in America's Deep South, 1944-1972. Princeton University Press. p. 233. ISBN 1400838789. Retrieved 23 September 2016. 
  24. ^ Leip, David. "1956 Presidential General Election Results - Kentucky". Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. Retrieved 23 September 2016. 
  25. ^ Leip, David. "1956 Presidential General Election Results - South Carolina". Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. Retrieved 23 September 2016. 
  26. ^ Trende, Sean. "Did JFK Lose the Popular Vote?". RealClearPolitics. Retrieved 23 September 2016. 
  27. ^ https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=2759
  28. ^ "WTVR TV - Board approves Quioccasin Middle School as new name for Byrd Middle". WTVR TV CBS 6 News. April 29, 2016. Retrieved May 5, 2016. 
  29. ^ Freeman, Vernon (July 14, 2016). "Quioccasin Middle School 'officially' adopts new name, unveils marquee". CBS 6 News. Retrieved 21 February 2017. 
  • Finley, Keith M. Delaying the Dream: Southern Senators and the Fight Against Civil Rights, 1938–1965 (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2008).
  • Hatch, Alden, The Byrds of Virginia: An American Dynasty, 1670 to the Present (1969)
  • Heinemann, Ronald L. Harry Byrd of Virginia (1996)
  • Key, V.O. Southern politics in state and nation (1949), Includes in-depth coverage of the Virginia political system
  • Koeniger, A. Cash. "The New Deal and the States: Roosevelt versus the Byrd Organization in Virginia." Journal of American History (1982): 876-896. in JSTOR
  • Wilkinson, J. Harvie. Harry Byrd and the Changing Face of Virginia Politics 1945–1966 (1984) ISBN 0-8139-1043-9

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Elbert L. Trinkle
Governor of Virginia
February 1, 1926 – January 15, 1930
Succeeded by
John G. Pollard
Preceded by
Eugene D. Millikin
Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee
Succeeded by
Russell B. Long
United States Senate
Preceded by
Claude A. Swanson
U.S. Senator (Class 1) from Virginia
March 4, 1933 – November 10, 1965
Served alongside: E. Carter Glass, Thomas G. Burch, A. Willis Robertson
Succeeded by
Harry F. Byrd, Jr.