Harry Flood Byrd

(b. 1887)

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(b. Martinsburg, W. Virginia, 10 June 1887; d. Berryville, Virginia, 20 Oct. 1966)

US; member of the State Senate 1915–25, Governor of Virginia 1926–1930, US Senator 1933–65 Harry Byrd was a key figure in Virginia politics for forty years and built a political machine that dominated the state and was remarkable for its combination of effectiveness and relative honesty.

The son of a lawyer who served as Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, Harry Byrd came from a long-established, but not especially wealthy, Virginia family. After leaving school at 15 to run the family newspaper, Byrd established a highly successful orchard business which supported and complemented his remarkable political career.

He was elected governor in 1926 and in his early years was relatively progressive, introducing a number of economic and political reforms, including an anti-lynching law and the construction of a state highway system. Most significantly, he turned a state deficit into a surplus.

In 1933 Byrd was appointed to fill the unexpired Senate term of Claude Swanson, who was appointed Secretary of the Navy. Thereafter he was re-elected six times. Although he was initially friendly with F. D. Roosevelt, he came to oppose the New Deal as an extravagant exercise which endangered state autonomy. Increasingly Byrd found himself out of sympathy with the expansionary trend of Washington and the liberal leadership of the Democratic Party. In Virginia and in the Senate, he promoted the loose coalition of conservatives drawn from Democratic and Republican ranks. Through this coalition he and other Southern senators were able to exercise disproportionate power in Congress and to delay the progress of liberal measures especially civil rights.

In the Senate, Byrd was a member of the Armed Services Committee, chairman of the Committee on Rules, and chairman of the Joint Committee on the Reduction of Non-essential Expenditure. As chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, he opposed federal spending programmes championed by presidents from Roosevelt to Johnson. He attacked the Marshall Plan, foreign aid, and most social programmes including Medicare and was able to delay Lyndon Johnson's 1964 tax cut.

Byrd's inherent opposition to civil rights caused him to urge a campaign of ‘massive resistance’ to integration in the South in the 1950s and Virginia for a time pursued a strategy of defiance, in which public schools and other facilities were closed to prevent the implementation of the law. By the 1960s however Byrd was forced to accept change, although to many he remained a symbol of white reaction. He was forced by illness to retire from the Senate in 1965 and his son Harry Flood Byrd Jr. inherited the seat.

Subjects: Politics.

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