John S. Battle and Virginia Politics: 1948-1953

Henriques, Peter Ros, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Younger, Edward, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Lowe, Richard G., Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia

Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. a skilled politician of rare ability, was the towering figure in Virginia politics during the twentieth century. Dominating the Democratic organization and through it the political life of the state, Byrd was its undisputed leader from his inauguration as Governor in 1925 until his death in 1965. These four decades deserve to be designated the Byrd Era. Using the career of Governor John S. Battle (1950-1954-) as its focal point, this study concentrates on the political developments of one phase of the Byrd Era and demonstrates both the effectiveness and shortcomings of the Byrd organization.

John Battle’s election as Governor in 1949 climaxed one of the most spirited gubernatorial races in Virginia’s political history. The usually invincible organization, weakened by its unsuccessful attempt to deny President Harry Truman a place on Virginia's ballot in the 1948 election, was severely split when a personable member of the organization, Horace Edwards, decided to challenge Battle in the primary. With the organization split and only a plurality necessary for election, it appeared as if the liberal factions, led by the crusading Francis Pickens Miller, would’ emerge triumphant. Challenged as never before, the Byrd organization responded with a series of brilliant political moves which managed to undercut the Edwards vote, portray Miller as a dangerous radical, and to invite the Republicans into the Democratic primary. These moves, coupled with Battle's personal appeal, succeeded in snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

The Battle years of the Byrd Era were essentially quiet years, a fact due in part to good fortune and in part to Battle's ability as Governor. The events which would have caused Battle real difficulty — the outlawing of segregation, a severe recession, the resurgence of the liberals — failed to develop. Indeed, the liberals were reduced to political impotency during the Battle years. Battle’s twenty years of experience in the General Assembly, his political skill and real ability all combined to insure that the ship of state remained on an even keel. Yet, though the Battle years were stable, they were not, with the exception of public school construction, very productive. Battle, a born conciliator and harmonizer, had a strong desire to avoid controversy which occasionally led him to sacrifice progress in order to gain harmony.

The highlight of Battle's public career and the climax of Senator Byrd's struggle against “Trumanism" both occurred at the 1952 National Convention. Angered at the continuing shift to the left by the national party, Byrd was ready to take "Virginia Democrats" out of the national party. An ill-advised loyalty oath set the stage for the confrontation. By having Virginia's delegates refuse to sign, Byrd attempted to place the national party in the position of expelling Virginia from the convention. In the midst of the struggle, Governor Battle, whose attachment to the national party was much stronger than Byrd's, made a moving speech explaining Virginia's reasons for not signing the loyalty oath. Although the subsequent importance of the speech has been exaggerated, it did, because of its conciliatory- tope, trigger, a series of events which led directly to the crucial vote to seat Virginia and clearly demonstrated that the forces favorable to Adlai Stevenson were in control of the convention.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Battle, John Stewart -- 1890-1972, Virginia -- Politics and government -- 20th century

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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