Opinion: Daily Journal

Impactful N.C. congressmen: From the Civil War to World War II  

I have shared a list about North Carolina politics with you before. It was fun, at least for me. Here’s another one. In no particular order, these are my top five most interesting and impactful members of the state’s congressional delegation from the critical Civil-War-until-World-War-II period.   

George Henry White only served two-terms in Congress, but his impact on North Carolina politics was hardly commensurate with such a short stay in Washington. White was a prominent African-American Republican from Tarboro and central figure in the state’s fusion of populist and GOP politicians that wrestled power away from the Democratic establishment in the last decade of the 19th century. White worked tirelessly for civil rights and introduced an important bill designating lynching a federal crime. After the Democrats grabbed power back in the wake of the Wilmington race riot of 1898, they set about reversing Jim Crow and disenfranchising blacks. White decided not to run for a third term in 1900 and retreated to Pennsylvania, where he built a successful banking career. After his departure, no African-American served in Congress for 28 years, and he was the last black elected to Congress from the South until 1972.   

Funnily enough, the next political figure succeeded White as the member from the second congressional district, Claude Kitchin. Protected by the Democrats’ political monopoly and racist sentiment in the eastern part of the state, Kitchin served 22 years in the House until he died in office in 1923. Few North Carolinians have ever been as powerful in national politics. He was House Democratic leader for three Congresses when he controlled the party’s committee assignments. He also chaired the Ways and Means Committee, the panel charged with writing bills on taxes and trade. Kitchin was a skilled orator and widely respected legislator. He opposed the tariff and called for a direct income tax to make up revenue. Kitchin warned that America was militarily unprepared in 1917, and although he disliked the Germans could not support President Wilson’s request to go to war.     

Furnifold Simmons was another figure behind the racial violence that forced White from office. After losing his U.S. House seat in 1890 to an African-American Republican, Henry Cheatham, Simmons helped orchestrate a Democratic revival in eastern North Carolina and then built a stunningly successful political organization of white supremacy, patronage, and the distribution of government largesse. The machine dominated state politics and secured his election to the Senate five times over a 30-year career in Washington. Simmons chaired the Finance Committee and midwifed the largest reduction in tariffs since the Civil War. He was eventually undone by a stubborn refusal to back the Democratic presidential candidate and anti-Prohibition Catholic Al Smith in 1928. In an act of retaliation — and opportunism given the increasing creakiness of the Simmons machine — Gov. O. Max Gardner secured the nomination of Josiah Bailey to the seat in 1930.   

“Farmer” Bob Doughton from Allegheny County served in the House for 42 years, making him the “dean,” or longest continually serving member of that body, when he retired in 1952 at age 89. Doughton was a quiet but critically important player in the Democratic Congress that enacted the New Deal. He chaired the Ways and Means Committee for the entirety of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency and helped shepherd the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Revenue Acts of 1935 and 1937 through the House. Doughton was also instrumental in getting the body to pass the Social Security Act, establishing America’s public pension plan and the crown jewel of federal government programs. He was not particularly enthusiastic about the idea, but once fellow Democrat David Lewis of Maryland had introduced a version, Doughton began working closely with the legislation’s chief architect, Sen. Robert Wagner of New York. Keen to get credit for this seminal achievement, the usually modest Doughton substituted his own bill for Lewis’s, ensuring the press would call the measure Wagner-Doughton.         

Another “mountain man,” Bob Reynolds, served two terms in the Senate, again covering the FDR presidency. Reynolds’ personal life was colorful, to say the least. He married five times, became a wealthy widower after the death of his first wife, and spent his pre-Washington career as an itinerant vaudeville performer, voracious womanizer, and quixotic political candidate. In 1932, he found a winning populist message in the Democratic primary against incumbent Cameron Morrison. Reynolds had a refreshingly honest approach and an uncanny ability to expose haughtiness in elites. He initially supported the president, particularly the public works programs that brought federal funds flooding into the rural South. But there was another side. Despite having traveled the globe, Reynolds was an ardent isolationist wary of the administration’s surreptitious support of Britain in the prelude to war. Many thought him a fascist sympathetic to Nazi Germany. N.C. Democrats rejected his effort to win a third term in 1944.    

Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at the N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.