Claude A. Swanson of Virginia

Claude A. Swanson of Virginia: A Political Biography

Copyright Date: 1985
Pages: 312
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    Claude A. Swanson of Virginia
    Book Description:

    Spanning most of the years of the one-party South, the public career of Virginian Claude A. Swanson, congressman, governor, senator, and secretary of the navy, extended from the second administration of Grover Cleveland into that of Franklin Roosevelt. His record, writes Henry C. Ferrell, Jr., in this definitive biography, is that of "a skillful legislative diplomat and an exceedingly wise executive encompassed in the personality of a professional politician."

    As a congressman, Swanson abandoned Cleveland's laissez faire doctrines to become the leading Virginia spokesman for William Jennings Bryan and the Democratic platform of 1896. His achievements as a reform governor are equaled by few Virginia chief executives. In the Senate, Swanson worked to advance the programs of Woodrow Wilson. In the 1920s, he contributed to formulation of Democratic alternatives to Republican policies. In Roosevelt's New Deal cabinet, he helped the Navy obtain favorable treatment during a decade of isolation.

    The warp and woof of local politics are well explicated by Ferrell to furnish insight into personalities and events that first produced, then sustained, Swan-son's electoral success. He examines Virginia educational, moral, and social reforms; disfranchisement movements; racial and class politics; and the impact of the woman's vote. And he records the growth of the Hampton Roads military-industrial complex, which Swanson brought about.

    In Virginia, Swanson became a dominant political figure, and Ferrell's study challenges previous interpretations of Virginia politics between 1892 and 1932 that pictured a powerful, reactionary Democratic "Organization," directed by Thomas Staples Martin and his successor Harry Flood Byrd, Sr., defeating would-be progressive reformers. A forgotten Virginia emerges here, one that reveals the pervasive role of agrarians in shaping the Old Dominion's politics and priorities.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6295-9
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. Illustrations and Photo Credits
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. 1 Rising Young Politician: 1862-1892
    (pp. 1-18)

    A few weeks before the Second World War ignited Europe,Timereviewed the life of a “lank, long-nosed Southern politician,” Claude Augustus Swanson, late secretary of the navy in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cabinet. Noting that the former congressman, governor, senator, and cabinet minister was “no mediocrity, but a shrewd, hard-working careerist,” the article surmised that Swanson, who held “his job for reasons of political expediency was one of the best secretaries of the Navy the U.S. ever had.” Lacking wide perspective, the summary illumined but one aspect of a multifaceted, seventy-seven-year career politician whose forebears lived among the southern Virginia...

  6. 2 Faith with the People: 1893-1898
    (pp. 19-36)

    Thirty-one-year-old Claude Swanson led a resurgence of youth within the Virginia Democratic party. One University of Virginia classmate remarked to Petersburg’s Francis R. Lassiter that “the Young Democracy” now advanced to the forefront of state affairs: “You and [Andrew] Montague and Swanson have secured big plums under the Federal Government and Hal Flood helps to run the State as a Senator.” To advance his political standing, Swanson avoided a stem, implacable ideology and used his personal affability while repeating generally acceptable political slogans. Eventually this would not suffice, and he emerged as an agrarian spokesman who proposed more government involvement...

  7. 3 Platform Democrat: 1893-1903
    (pp. 37-52)

    While he assembled a political organization that won seven consecutive congressional elections, Claude Swanson assumed a larger role in the U.S. House of Representatives. In addition to his monetary proposals, the accumulation of his votes, speeches, and statements provide a picture of a reform-bent, partisan, and effective congressman. Relying less on oratory, he moved from formal speeches on free silver and credit famines to becoming a skilled debater and parliamentary veteran. He perfected the use of charm, knowledge, and persuasion to gain his ends from both Democrats and Republicans. Bonding to the Democratic party, he identified himself as a “platform...

  8. 4 Middle of the Road and Stepping High: 1901-1906
    (pp. 53-69)

    Between 190 I and 1906, Claude Swanson moved from being an influential regional politician in Virginia’s factionalized Democratic party to becoming a commanding personality known throughout the state. He was unable in 1901 to secure the governorship through the nineteenth-century nominating convention, but, upon its replacement by the party primary, he applied in Virginia techniques perfected in the mass politics of the Fifth Congressional District. His gubernatorial nomination and election in 1905 confirmed his political prowess and established patterns other candidates would follow to gain future nominations.

    In 1901, Swanson first approached local leaders in the quid pro quo manner...

  9. 5 Concur and Cooperate: 1906-1910
    (pp. 70-85)

    Governor Claude Swanson conducted one of the most effective terms of executive leadership in the history of the commonwealth. Nourished by a national reform mood that some historians have labeled the Progressive Movement, Swanson utilized his organizational skills, personal attractiveness, astute politics, and a broad and flexible intelligence to realize the greater number of his campaign promises. He gave direction to the General Assembly that enacted proposals accumulating since the Readjuster era. No “swashbuckling lieutenant” of white-thatched Thomas Martin, Swanson recruited the senator’s friends and minions to strengthen his own political hand. Upon the conclusion of his tenure, Swanson gained...

  10. 6 The Latest Successful Comeback: 1906-1911
    (pp. 86-99)

    Concluding his gubernatorial term, Claude Swanson faced a recent Virginia political habit that precluded governors from additional elected office. Few Virginians expected, however, the vital and adroit politician to retire to squiredom in Pittsylvania County. Journalists speculated that Swanson might be appointed to the state corporation commission, take a “trip of four months to Europe,” or devote “time to his private affairs.” A more realistic conjecture placed Swanson in the House of Representatives. Expressing no interest in a commission chair, he declined to discuss a renewed congressional career. In the Fifth District, associates anticipated his return to a House seat...

  11. 7 Both Ears to the Ground: 1910-1917
    (pp. 100-118)

    As a senator, Claude Swanson continued the political habits that he had practiced since 1893: he responded quickly and positively to Virginians ranked in their regional interests, he gathered and awarded patronage, he favored expansion of government services, he maintained his allegiance to the national Democrats, and he infiltrated to the center of political and bureaucratic Washington. In these years he passed his fiftieth birthday, consolidated his political position, and facilitated a generation of agrarian demands into legislative reality.

    In his initial committee assignments, he worked for federal contributions to vocational high schools, preferred a more advanced workers compensation law...

  12. 8 Neither Hesitate nor Halt: 1917-1921
    (pp. 119-130)

    A mainstay of Woodrow Wilson in the Senate, Claude Swanson contributed his opinions in war councils and fell heir to mustering legislative majorities for the administration. Encumbered by partisan congressional preparedness and antiwar debates, Wilson entered the conflict with a precarious political advantage in the House of Representatives and a divided Democratic party in the Senate. Swanson and other Virginia congressional leaders, including newly elected majority leader Thomas Staples Martin, were soon entangled in programs for military expansion. Following the armistice, defending Wilson’s wartime course yielded to struggling to forge support for the president’s peace proposals.

    In the first few...

  13. 9 The Principle of Local Self-Government: 1920-1930
    (pp. 131-150)

    Between 1920 and 1930 Claude Swanson rewove the Virginia Democratic organization to strengthen his senatorship. Women’s suffrage, prohibition enforcement, controversial road financing and construction schemes, ambitions of rising politicians, and colliding regional interests presented barriers that only arduous work and subtle adjustments surmounted. In his personal life, he recovered from Elizabeth’s death, suffered a series of illnesses, and regained his health. Swanson married Lulie Lyons Hall, Elizabeth’s sister and the widow of Cunningham Hall of Richmond, on October 27, 1923. His spirits were boosted by his stepson Douglas Deane Hall, and his new family provided a safe haven from the...

  14. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  15. 10 Hares and Hounds: 1921-1932
    (pp. 151-165)

    Within the Senate during the 1920s, Democrat Claude Swanson grew in influence and in authority. The Senate became his political home, as he settled in amid party hacks and hierarchs, committee chairmen and senior colleagues. Younger members discovered his engaging wit, useful advice, and astute bargaining; in 1932, a colleague acknowledged that, in senatorial matters, he was the “shrewdest politician and diplomat” in the Senate.¹

    Each constituent request received the attention of his seasoned office staff led by Archibald Oden. Whether seeking subsidies for highways or maintaining full repair schedules at Norfolk Navy Yard, Swanson flexed a skilled political craftsmanship....

  16. 11 Prodigious Shadow: 1921-1932
    (pp. 166-182)

    Between the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Claude Swanson emerged as a principal in shaping Democratic foreign affairs and naval preparedness policies. Ranking Democrat on the Navy and Foreign Relations committees, he navigated a sea of paradoxes. The United States sought national security outside the League of Nations but participated in a series of disarmament conferences amid nervous competition among the major naval powers. The United States focused upon Asia, measuring especially Japan’s emerging sea power, while, in the Atlantic, Great Britain and the United States entertained a wary suspiciousness that verged toward overt rivalry. Republican administrations...

  17. 12 The Wise Thing to Do: 1929-1933
    (pp. 183-199)

    Events between 1929 and 1933 led Claude Swanson to accept appointment as secretary of the navy in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. In advocating the navy, in proposing acceptance of the 1930 London naval treaty, and in participating in the 1932 Geneva disarmament conference, he advanced to the forefront of senators in both parties in foreign relations and in naval affaris. His friendly relationship with Roosevelt and his political sagacity as well as national and Virginia political developments, encouraged Swanson’s elevation to the Roosevelt cabinet.

    Swanson frequently used informal meals and dinners as background to fathom senatorial attitudes; his home frequently...

  18. 13 Second to None: 1933-1939
    (pp. 200-218)

    A few weeks before his seventy-first birthday, Claude Swanson was sworn in as secretary of the navy. Younger journalists and recent arrivals in New Deal Washington frequently stereotyped him as a typical southern politician, replete with pince-nez secured by a long black ribbon, gray hair worn a bit long for the custom of the day, and a mustache from an earlier stylish mode. One State Department officer, reflecting his cultural bias, found Swanson’s discursive manner objectionable; he “looked longer and seedier than ever. He sat back in his chair puffing away at his long, thin cigar and proceeded to utter...

  19. 14 Epilogue: The Red Oak Breaks
    (pp. 219-221)

    The passing shadow of Claude Swanson’s death stirred memories of his public career. A Richmond jeweler remembered him “from the time he was the Governor.” Virginia had “lost one of her finest, truest and best beloved public servants.” An agricultural expert recalled Swanson’s passion for good roads and their relationship that began in “the early months of 1906 and the Jamestown Exposition of 1907,” which had “ripened into a warm friendship, which, as the years went by, became more precious.” An official of the Securities and Exchange Commission appreciated Swanson’s contributions “to the life of our little private office group...

  20. Notes
    (pp. 222-272)
  21. Bibliographic Essay
    (pp. 273-276)
  22. Index
    (pp. 277-294)