Oscar Underwood

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Oscar Underwood
Oscar W. Underwood.jpg
Senate Minority Leader
In office
1920–1923
Preceded by Office Created
Succeeded by Joseph T. Robinson
United States Senator
from Alabama
In office
March 4, 1915 – March 3, 1927
Preceded by Francis S. White
Succeeded by Hugo Black
House Majority Leader
In office
1911–1915
Preceded by Sereno E. Payne
Succeeded by Claude Kitchin
House Minority Whip
In office
1899–1901
Preceded by Office Created
Succeeded by James T. Lloyd
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Alabama's 9th district
In office
March 4, 1897 – March 3, 1915
Preceded by Truman Heminway Aldrich
Succeeded by George Huddleston
In office
March 4, 1895 – June 9, 1896
Preceded by Louis W. Turpin
Succeeded by Truman Heminway Aldrich
Personal details
Born Oscar Wilder Underwood
May 6, 1862
Louisville, Kentucky
Died January 25, 1929 (aged 66)
Woodlawn Plantation, Accotink, Virginia
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Eugenia Massie (d. 1900)
Bertha Woodward
Education University of Virginia
Alma mater University of Virginia
Profession Attorney, politician
Religion Episcopalian

Oscar Wilder Underwood (May 6, 1862 – January 25, 1929) was an American lawyer and politician from Alabama, and also a candidate for President of the United States in 1912 and 1924. Underwood was the only Democrat to lead his party in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, and the first formally designated floor leader in the U.S. Senate.[1]

Early and family life[edit]

Underwood was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 6, 1862, the eldest of three sons of lawyer and planter Eugene Underwood and his second wife, Frederica Virginia Wilder. Eugene Underwood also had three sons with his first wife before her death in 1857. His paternal grandfather, Joseph R. Underwood, served as U.S. Representative and Senator from Kentucky, as well as on the Kentucky Supreme Court. His maternal grandfather, cotton merchant Jabez Smith, once served as mayor of Petersburg, Virginia.[2]

In 1865, the Underwood family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, hoping the climate would help Oscar's chronic bronchitis,as well as his mother's health. After ten years, the family moved back to Louisville, where Oscar graduated from the Rugby University School, an exclusive private school, in 1879. He then attended the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, where he was president of the Jefferson Society, as well as excelled in debate. He also received a doctor of laws degree from Columbia College in New York by 1920 (possibly honorary). He served as president of the University of Virginia Alumni Association in 1913 and 1914.[3]

Oscar Underwood married twice, the first time in Charlottesville on October 8, 1885 to Eugenia Massie, daughter of Dr. Thomas Eugene Massie. They had two sons before she died in 1900: John Lewis Underwood (1888-1973) and Oscar Wilder Underwood Jr. (1890-1962). Underwood remarried on September 10, 1904, to Bertha Woodward (1870-1948), daughter of Union Army veteran Joseph Hershey Woodward (1843-1917) of the Woodward Iron Company and his wife Martha Burt (both of Ohio County in what became West Virginia), who survived him.[4]

Career[edit]

After graduation, Underwood returned to Minnesota to begin his legal career. However, his older half brother William soon convinced him of better opportunities awaiting in Birmingham, Alabama. There, he moved in September 1884 and established a successful legal practice, working for a decade, including with James J. Garrett.

Political career[edit]

Alabama earned an additional seat after the census of 1890, and Underwood became chairman of the new 9th District's Democratic Committee in 1892. Two years later, voters elected him as a Democrat to the United States House of Representatives. However, Truman H. Aldrich successfully challenged that election result, forcing Underwood to resign in the middle of the term, on June 9, 1896.[5]

However, Underwood persisted, and campaigned for tariff reform. He won the seat again in the election at year's end, then re-election numerous times, serving nine terms (from 1897 to 1915). Underwood became as the first Democratic House Minority Whip, serving from about 1900 to 1901.[6] He then became House Majority Leader from 1911 to 1915.

He was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1912 and had some strength at the national convention among southern delegates but could not compete with Champ Clark and Woodrow Wilson. At the convention that year in Baltimore, Wilson's managers offered Underwood the vice-presidential nomination, which he declined.[7] Following the election, Underwood supported the progressive reforms of Wilson's first term,[8] using his position as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee to manage legislation and maintain party discipline. In return, Wilson granted him considerable control over patronage and appointed Albert S. Burleson Postmaster-General upon Underwood's recommendation.[9] The Revenue Act of 1913 is also known as the Underwood Tariff Act or Underwood-Simmons Act in recognition of Underwood's role in writing and managing the bill as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He stood with a small minority of House members in opposition to the President when he voted, as the Democrats had promised in their last campaign, to maintain an exemption from Panama Canal tolls for American ships traveling between American ports, despite British protests that the policy violated the Hay–Pauncefote Treaty.[10]

Underwood twice won election to the United States Senate, in 1914 and 1920, and served there from March 4, 1915 to March 3, 1927. He was Senate minority leader from 1920 to 1923.

He opposed federal Prohibition as "an attempt to rob the states of their jurisdiction over police matters" and advocated local control of liquor regulation because "the improved conditions which we may naturally expect to find in the lives of the men and women who practice Temperance are not found to predominate in the state where Prohibition laws have been on the statute books for years as compared to those states where liquor is sold under a license system or where Temperance laws are controlled by the sentiment of the local communities."[11]

Underwood led the anti-Ku Klux Klan forces at the 1924 Democratic National Convention. He was a longtime opponent of the Klan. In 1924, when the Klan organized a parade in Birmingham during that year's Democratic National Convention, Underwood called it an effort "to intimidate me, the Alabama delegation and the democratic party....It will not succeed....I maintain that the organization is a national menace....It is either the Ku Klux Klan or the United States of America. Both cannot survive. Between the two, I choose my country."[12] By 1924 Underwood was one of very few anti-Klan officeholders left in the South.[13]

He blamed the Klan's opposition to his candidacy for his loss in the Georgia presidential primary to former Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo.[14] He then determined to embarrass McAdoo by putting the party on record against the Klan.[15] Even before the Convention considered its platform, the speech nominating Underwood called for the condemnation of the Klan and produced a lengthy floor demonstration.[16] The attempt to modify the platform to condemn the Klan by name produced rousing demonstrations and speeches, many, including that of William Jennings Bryan, interrupted by the anti-Klan crowds that filled the galleries. The Convention's final vote, though contested, defeated the minority proposal naming the Klan by a vote of 542 3/20 to 541 3/20. The fight proved a polarizing battle that made each of the Convention's two major candidates unacceptable to large segments of the party, without enhancing Underwood's chances in the least.[17]

The Convention was marked by a deadlock between the supporters of the Irish Catholic New York Governor Al Smith and McAdoo, while the Convention's rules required a two-thirds vote to secure the nomination. Several delegations declined to support either of the leading candidates and persisted in voting for their state's "favorite son" instead. Like the other favorite son candidates, Underwood resisted efforts to remove the convention's two-thirds rule.[18] As the Convention labored through 103 ballots, Alabama, as the first state alphabetically, cast its votes first. The delegation's leader, Governor William W. Brandon, reported the state's unanimous vote tally each time without variation: "Alabama casts 24 votes for Oscar W. Underwood." Underwood became a symbol of the Convention's deadlock.[19] His vote totals were meager, fewer than 50, until the deadlock broke and on the 101st ballot he won 229.5, but his anti-prohibition, anti-Klan stances made him a most unlikely compromise candidate and the Convention turned to John W. Davis of West Virginia, whose work as a Wall Street lawyer proved less of a political hurdle for the delegates.[20]

Underwood declined to run for reelection to the Senate in 1926. His anti-Klan stance had upset some in his own party and as well as from the Klan, and Hugo Black was a formidable candidate.[21]

In 1927, Underwood was appointed to an international peace commission. In 1928, Underwood supported New York Governor Al Smith for President.[22]

Later life[edit]

In retirement, he and his second life lived at Woodlawn plantation, a historic house associated with George Washington in Alexandria, Virginia. There, Underwood wrote his only published book, an analysis of the transformation of American government in the 20th century, Drifting Sands of Party Politics, which appeared in 1928. He decried federal legislation aimed at regulating morality, government by commissions, and excessive American engagement in foreign affairs.[23]

Death and legacy[edit]

Underwood suffered two disabling strokes in the winter of 1928-29. He died on January 25, 1929 at Woodlawn plantation.[24] Pursuant to his wishes, his corpse was returned to Alabama, and buried beside his first wife in Birmingham's Elmwood Cemetery.[25] He was survived by his second wife, who would be also buried with him, as would be his son John Lewis Underwood (1888-1973). His son Oscar Wilder Underwood Jr. (1890-1962), who served with distinction as a U.S. Army Captain in World War I, later became a law professor at the University of Virginia

Most of Underwood's papers are held by the Alabama Department of Archives and History,[26] with some made available free online.[27] Some of the family's papers are also held by his alma mater, the University of Virginia.[28]

Future President John F. Kennedy mentioned Underwood as one of his Profiles in Courage for his stand against the Klan. Underwood's former home in Washington, D.C., the Oscar W. Underwood House, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Woodlawn plantation was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, and designated a national landmark in 1998. In 1990, Underwood was inducted into the Alabama Men's Hall of Fame.[29]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/Featured_Bio_Underwood.htm
  2. ^ George M. Cruikshank,History of Birmingham and its Environs, Vol. 2, pp.2-4 (Lewis publishing 1920), available at https://books.google.com/books?id=ifAxAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA3&lpg
  3. ^ John Shelton Patton, Sallie J. Doswell, and Lewis Dabney Crenshaw, eds., Jefferson's University: Glimpses of the Past and Present of the University of Virginia (1915), 81, available online, accessed February 7, 2011
  4. ^ http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-2961
  5. ^ Thomas McAdory Owen and Marie Bankhead Owen, History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography, vol. 1 (Chicago: S.J. Clarke, 1921), 358, available online, accessed February 7, 2011
  6. ^ See notes at Party whips of the United States House of Representatives for details on the ambiguity.
  7. ^ John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (NY, 2009), 150-1, 157-8
  8. ^ Cooper, 213
  9. ^ Scott C. James, Presidents, Parties, and the State: A Party System Perspective on Democratic Regulatory Choice, 1884-1936 (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 142, available online, accessed February 7, 2011
  10. ^ Cooper, 249-50
  11. ^ Lamar Taney Beman, ed., Selected Articles on Prohibition of the Liquor Traffic (NY: H.W. Wilson, 1915), 120, 127-8, available online, accessed February 7, 2011
  12. ^ Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins, ed., From Civil War to Civil Rights–Alabama, 1860-1960 (University of Alabama Press, 1987), 316n, available online, accessed February 7, 2011
  13. ^ Murray, 23
  14. ^ Murray 53-4
  15. ^ Murray, 90
  16. ^ Murray, 123-4
  17. ^ Murray, 151, 153ff.
  18. ^ Murray, 113
  19. ^ Murray, 194
  20. ^ Murray, 204-5
  21. ^ George Brown Tindall, The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945 (A History of the South vol. 10) (Louisiana State University Press, 1967), 194, available online, accessed February 7, 2011
  22. ^ New York Times: "Underwood Lauds Smith," December 10, 1927, accessed February 7, 2011
  23. ^ New York Times: "Who Rules the United States?", June 3, 1928, accessed February 7, 2011
  24. ^ http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-2961
  25. ^ Findagrave: Oscar Wilder Underwood, accessed August 3, 2011
  26. ^ http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/guidedisplay.pl?index=u000013
  27. ^ http://digital.archives.alabama.gov/cdm/search/collection/voices/field/subjec/searchterm/Underwood,%20Oscar%20Wilder,%201862-1929/mode/exact
  28. ^ http://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaxtf/view?docId=uva-sc/viu03762.xml
  29. ^ https://www.samford.edu/alabama-mens-hall-of-fame/inductees/Underwood.html

Sources[edit]

  • United States Congress. "Oscar Underwood (id: U000013)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. 
  • James S. Fleming, "Oscar W. Underwood: The First Modern House Leader, 1911—1915," in Raymond W Smock and Susan W Hammond, eds. Masters of the House: Congressional Leadership Over Two Centuries (1998), 91–118
  • James S. Fleming, "Re-establishing Leadership in the House of Representatives: The Case of Oscar W. Underwood," in Joel H. Silbey, The United States Congress in a Nation Transformed, 1896-1963, vol. 1 (Carlson, 1991), 235-52
  • Evans C. Johnson. Oscar W. Underwood: A Political Biography (Louisiana State University Press, 1980).
  • Robert K. Murray, The 103rd Ballot: Democrats and the Disaster in Madison Square Garden (NY: Harper & Row, 1976)

External links[edit]

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Louis Washington Turpin
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Alabama's 9th congressional district

March 4, 1895 – June 9, 1896
Succeeded by
Truman Heminway Aldrich
Preceded by
Truman Heminway Aldrich
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Alabama's 9th congressional district

March 4, 1897 – March 3, 1915
Succeeded by
George Huddleston
United States Senate
Preceded by
Francis S. White
U.S. Senator (Class 3) from Alabama
1915–1927
Served alongside: John H. Bankhead, B. B. Comer, J. Thomas Heflin
Succeeded by
Hugo Black
Party political offices
Preceded by
None (new office)
House Democratic Whip
1899–1901
Succeeded by
James T. Lloyd
Preceded by
Sereno E. Payne
House Majority Leader
1911–1915
Succeeded by
Claude Kitchin
Preceded by
Champ Clark
House Democratic Leader
1911–1915
Succeeded by
Claude Kitchin
Preceded by
None (new office)
Senate Democratic Leader
1920–1923
Succeeded by
Joseph T. Robinson
Arkansas