Steve Flowers: Alabama’s 1940’s Congressional Delegation

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1930 US Capitol [Photo via the Library of Congress]

Recently I came across a copy of an old congressional directory from 1942. It is always fun for me to read about this era in American political history.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been first elected in 1932 in the depths of the Great Depression. He would go on to be reelected in 1936, 1940 and 1944 and would have been reelected into perpetuity. However, he died in Warm Springs, Georgia in April of 1945, only four months into his fourth term. He was the closest thing we Americans have ever had to having a king. Nobody has or ever will serve four terms as President. After FDR’s omnipotent reign, the Constitution was changed to limit our presidents to two four-year terms.

Roosevelt brought the country out of the Depression with his New Deal. However, he did not do it alone. He worked closely with a Democratic Congress. They congruently changed the nation and it’s government. Our Alabama delegation was an integral part of that transformation. Our delegation in Washington was seniority laden and very much New Dealers.

A cursory perusal of Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, reveals that a standard prerequisite for being successful in politics in Alabama during that time was to have been a military veteran. All of our congressmen had been veterans of World War I, unless they were too old to have served.

In the 1940’s we had nine congressmen, whereas today we have seven. All nine members of our congressional delegation were men and all were Democrats. Today, we have six Republicans and one token Democrat.

There are several differences in our delegation on the Potomac today and our group of gentlemen congressmen of over 70 years ago. Obviously, their partisan badges have changed as have Alabamians. Another observation is the tremendous difference in power and seniority of the 1940s group versus our group today. Of that group of men, which included Frank Boykin, George Grant, Henry Steagall, Sam Hobbs, Joe Starnes, Pete Jarman, and John Sparkman, many of them had been in Congress for decades and wielded significant influence. Indeed, from the mid 1940s through 1964 ours was one of the most powerful delegations in the nation’s capital. They had risen to power through their seniority and their allegiance to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies.

Henry Steagall from Ozark in the 3rd Congressional District was Chairman of the prestigious Banking Committee. He was instrumental in the passage of much of FDR’s New Deal banking laws which were revamped in the wake of the collapse of America’s banks in 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression. He was the sponsor of the Glass-Steagall Banking Act, which was a lynchpin foundation of FDR’s Banking Resurrection Plan coming out of the Depression.

One of the monumental differences in that era’s delegation and today’s is their philosophical voting records. As mentioned, that group of men were witnesses to and participants of the Great Depression. Every one of them had been born in the late 1800s, therefore, they were in the prime of their life when the Great Depression struck. They witnessed the devastation of the country.

These men voted lockstep with FDR’s liberal agenda to transform America. Given this partisan progressive loyalty to FDR and the New Deal, this delegation’s voting record was one of the most liberal in the nation. Because of their loyalty to FDR’s programs, coupled with this group’s seniority, no state benefited from the New Deal agenda more than Alabama. Through the Works Progress Administration and the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Alabama progressed. The Tennessee Valley of North Alabama was especially transformed.

Later John Sparkman would create the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, which made this North Alabama city one of the most prosperous and progressive areas of the country.

To the contrary, our delegation today is one of the most conservative in America. It was a different era.

See you next week.


Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.