Harry Flood Byrd, Sr. (June 10, 1887 – October 20, 1966) of Berryville in Clarke County, Virginia, was an American newspaper publisher, and political leader of the Democratic Party in Virginia. He was the leader of the "conservative coalition" in the United States Senate, which largely blocked most liberal legislation after 1937.
He was a descendant of one of the First Families of Virginia. His ancestors included William Byrd II of Westover Plantation, who established Richmond, Robert "King" Carter of Corotoman, a colonial governor, and Pocahontas, and he was the brother of famed aviator Richard E. Byrd. His son Harry F. Byrd, Jr. succeeded him as U.S. Senator.
Byrd was a dominant figure in Virginia who reorganized and modernized Virginia's government. His political machine dominated Virginia Democratic Party politics for much of the first half of the 20th century. He was elected the 50th Governor of Virginia in 1925 and continued to lead a political faction that became known as the Byrd Organization as he represented Virginia as a United States Senator from 1933 until 1965.
Financial conditions in Virginia during his youth conditioned his thinking on fiscal matters throughout his life. He is best remembered for his austere "pay-as-you-go" financial policies. Byrd was also known as a racist and avowed white separatist. Byrd was vehemently opposed to racial desegregation of the public schools, and as such advocated a policy of "massive resistance" that led to closure of some public school systems in Virginia between 1959 and 1964. This policy created a large subset of black students who were denied their education in several Virginia counties. These students, many of whom are still alive, are known as the "lost generation." Although he never decided to become a candidate for the office, Byrd received a considerable number of votes in the 1956 presidential election and 15 electoral votes in the 1960 presidential election.
Harry Flood Byrd was born in Martinsburg, West Virginia in 1887 (just two weeks after fellow Virginia Senator Absalom Willis Robertson was born in the same community) and moved with his parents, Eleanor Bolling (Flood) and Richard Evelyn Byrd, Sr., to Winchester, Virginia the same year. Byrd was a descendant of one of the First Families of Virginia; his ancestors included William Byrd II of Westover Plantation, who established Richmond, and Pocahontas.
Harry Flood Byrd was the brother of famed aviator Richard Evelyn Byrd. He was a nephew of Henry De La Warr Flood, who served in the House of Representatives in the U.S. Congress from Appomattox County, Virginia from 1901 to 1921 and Joel West Flood, also of Appomattox County. Joel Flood served as Commonwealth Attorney of Appomattox County from 1919 to 1932, served in the U.S. Congress to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Henry St. George Tucker in 1932. He became a long-time Federal Court Judge of the Fifth Judiciary Circuit (based in Richmond), serving from 1940 to 1964.
Young Harry Byrd's father was a wealthy apple grower in the Shenandoah Valley and publisher of the Winchester Star newspaper. He attended the public schools and Shenandoah Valley Academy in Winchester.
One of his biographers, Alden Hatch, has noted that, having been born only twenty-two years after the end of the American Civil War, he 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."
Even worse in Byrd's eyes was the dilemma of the state itself, which was also heavily in debt during Byrd's youth. Virginia beginning in 1816 had taken on debt to help finance many internal public improvements through the Virginia Board of Public Works before the Civil War. Some of these improvements, which were primarily canals, turnpikes, and railroads, had been destroyed during the War, although the debt remained. Others had been made in the former portion of the state that separated to form the new State of West Virginia. For several decades thereafter, Virginia and West Virginia disputed the new state's share of the Virginia government's debt, which had grown to $47 million by 1871 (immediately after the Reconstruction period).
The issue was finally settled in 1915, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that West Virginia owed Virginia $12,393,929.50. (Commonwealth of Virginia v. State of West Virginia, 238 U.S. 202 (1915)). West Virginia paid the final installment of this sum in 1939. However, the issue of Virginia's public debt was far from resolved during Byrd's formative years.
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.
Byrd was the brother of famed aviator Richard Evelyn Byrd.
Career, pay-as-you-go policy
In 1903, he took over his father's newspaper, the Winchester Star. The newspaper had slipped into debt under his father's ownership, owing $2500 (equivalent to $66,000 in 2015) to its newsprint supplier, the Antietam Paper Company. The company refused to ship more newsprint on credit. Byrd cut a deal to make daily cash payments in return for paper. 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.
This was the first appearance of Byrd's famous "pay-as-you-go" policy. The experience, combined with other experiences of his youth, gave him 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.
In 1907, he founded The Evening Journal in nearby Martinsburg, West Virginia. He sold the paper in 1912 to associate Max von Schlegell.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
Although Byrd never stood as a candidate in a presidential election, he was brought into three successive elections in the 1950s. 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. The slate got 17,205 votes. 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. In 1960, he received 15 electoral votes: 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).
Byrd retired from the Senate for health reasons in November 1965. His son, Harry F. Byrd, Jr., was appointed his successor.
Byrd died of brain cancer in 1966. He was interred in Mount Hebron Cemetery in Winchester.
Edward P. Morgan's assistant visited Byrd's Northern Virginia farm during the apple harvest in the 1950s and was outraged by the conditions of the migrant workers employed there.
This prompted Morgan to take up the issue of migrant labor in his CBS Radio Network commentaries. CBS producer Fred W. Friendly then prompted his close associate Edward R. Murrow to produce the television documentary "Harvest of Shame" on this issue.
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.