NLS Misrepresents Virginia History

Our good friend NLS is the spear tip in reporting much of what goes on in Virginia politics.  NLS also frequently brings an uncontrollable sense of indignation to his subject matter. But in doing so with a recent post, he misrepresents Virginia history in the hopes of making his charges more explosive.

In this post NLS goes on about democratic committee decisions to have a caucus instead of a primary to choose candidates in the the 39th Senate district and the 40th House district. There is a not so thinly veiled charge of racism, and he compares one democratic candidate to George Allen, etc. It is an interesting string of comments

NLS also offers the following statement as fact:

“As many of you may know, laws from the Byrd Machine remain on the books here in Virginia. One example is the bizarre laws we have in this state that allow the political parties to choose between open primaries and closed caucuses to pick their nominees. This law was put on the books by the Byrd Machine in order to reduce minority turnout and allow whites to pick the Democratic Nominee.”

I suggest a fair reading of history shows this to be a grossly inaccurate interpretation of Virginia history, and one that does a disservice to people who were truly disenfranchised in Virginia during the time of the Byrd Machine.

The Virginia Democratic Party was under the control of the Martin Organization from 1893 until 1919. Following several years of turmoil, state Senator Harry Byrd, Sr., asserted control over the party after rallying anti-debt forces to defeat the 1923 Road Bond Issue refererendum. From then until his death in 1966 the “Byrd Machine” ran the state. The GOP presence was minimal in most parts of the state, strong in the western portions of the Commonwealth.

Byrd ruled the state with an iron hand through the network of courthouse rings, democratic domination of the General Assembly, and a willingness to keep the “wrong people” from voting. If you were a minority, or if you were poor, or if you were unreliable, you did not vote. Poll taxes had to be paid six months prior to election day. You had to pass a literacy test to register to vote. Multi-member legislative districts were used to dilute representation for minority areas and for “liberal” areas.

In his biography “A Man from the Valley”, Francis Pickens Miller, candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1949, recounts his surprise when he asked a house painter for his vote, and the man-caucasian, owned his home, had a steady job, was well thought of-replied “Why Mr. Miller, I don’t belong to those folks who can vote”.

In order to keep things running smoothly, the Byrd Machine codified the use of the open primary and of the closed caucus to nominate candidates. The open primary had the benefit of allowing GOP voters to crossover if the conservative Byrd’s faced a strong liberal challenge (see Democratic gubernatorial primary in 1949 and senate primary in 1952), while the closed caucus allowed the small GOP party to nominate their candidates while minizing costs to the commonwealth. They were decisions based in political practicality and governmental frugality. These practices really did little to diminish minority participation-that damage had already been done by use of the instruments described above.

Perhaps the most effective testimony to what tool was truly used for disenfranchising voters is found in the fact that the US Supreme Court has over time explicity ruled the poll tax, the literacy test, and multi member districts are unconstitutional. The Open primary and the closed caucus method are still on the books.

Why do I offer this history lesson?

Because I find NLS’s misrepresentation of Virginia history to advance his own outrage over a current partisan matter to grossly inappropriate. The Byrd Machine did not select nomination methods in order to supress turnout…the turnout supression had occured long before the nomination method was chosen.


8 thoughts on “NLS Misrepresents Virginia History

  1. Not a problem…however, if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it likely is a duck.

    The historical fact is that the method of nomination was not created by the Byrd Machine to curtail participation. An objective reading of Moger, Wilkinson, and a raft of other supporting documents show that the Byrd Machine had other tools that were expressly designed to suppress participation and representation…if they did not want you voting, they made sure you couldn’t get registered.

    Perhaps the greatest fact you are ignoring is that statewide the Byrd Machine didn’t use caucuses, they always used primaries-exception was when a vacancy came up out of cycle…which is why A. Willis Robertson went to the Senate instead of Howard W. Smith-but that is another story. If they were so interested in supressing turnout by using the caucuses, why weren’t they in all those years of selecting candidates?

    Is there a problem that your story identifies? Yes.

    However, in attempting to get a flashy headline that draws in viewers you have misread history to further the case for your outrage.

  2. Light Horse-not a problem…but that is the wages of history. Not only is it misapplied, but so many are forgotten.

    Martin might have been an even more capable and wily politico than Byrd…beating Fitz Lee out by means fair and foul to go to the Senate, keeping peace between Montague and Swanson, then beating Montague in the first state primary…and then with Montague taking out Class and Jones in the 1911 primaries.

    Martin served as Democratic Leader in the Senate, and I believe is the only Virginian to hold the top leader position in either house in the 20th century.

    I think biographies of Martin and also of Henry De LaWarr Flood, 5th district congressman, Martin lieutenant, Byrd’s godfather and partial namesake, would be marvelous additions to Virginia history…but unless there is some PhD candidate out there ready to make his name with such a book, I doubt it will ever happen.

  3. Light Horse,

    When I ever have some time, I plan on writing a long paper on Thomas Martin. Its hard to find ANYTHING on him. Virginius Dabney’s New Dominion has some stuff on him, as does various books on Harry Byrd since Byrd’s uncle, Hal Flood, was Martin’s right-hand man. Bwana’s right about Martin’s skills. Equally impressive was the way he kept Flood’s loyalty despite passing him over for John Daniel’s Senate seat, giving it to Swanson. Martin’s machine was much looser than Byrd’s iron grip, but it was nonetheless still very impressive.

    What is interesting is the dicotomy of upper south vs. lower south. The lower south tended to degerate into states led by racial demegouges (think Theodore Bilbo or Ben Tillman) while the upper south fell into machines. North Carolina had Furnifold Simmons, Tennessee had E.H. Crump, Virginia had Martin. They tended to be more Bourbon, less racially focused, and were very flexible. Crump operated behind the scenes and Simmons would hang around untilt he FDR years.

    Bwana, there is a lot of stuff on Hal Flood in Robert Heinneman’s “Harry Byrd of Virginia.”

    There is also a biography of Westmoreland Davis floating around (GMU has a copy) that has a lot on Martin. The problem with Fitz Lee is all the books about him center around his war record. Same with Swanson.

    But, to my knowledge, there is not any definative history of Martin himself in modern scholarship.

  4. Bwana:
    I think by his response he defacto conceeds that you are correct in your analysis. I agree with you entire assessment and it is evident that you are well versed in Virginia Political History. I agree with LightHorse that some sort of book, treatise or paper should be done on the Martin Machine and it’s overall effect on the Commonwealth. It would make for some good reading, at least to me. Give ’em hell Bwana!!!

    Bwana Fan In Vienna

  5. “The open primary… still on the books.”

    I believe that the federal courts will strike down the state-mandated open primary.

    A party, of course, will still be able to have an open primary if it wants one.

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