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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, June 10-13, 1975. Interview A-0311-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Impact of Byrd's background on later politics

Because of Byrd's self-sufficient background, he opposed an activist government. Accordingly, Byrd rejected the New Deal legislation as creating a dependent populace. His calculated support of pay-as-you-go policies reflects his early life experiences and his political ambition.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, June 10-13, 1975. Interview A-0311-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

DANIEL JORDAN:
Mr. Dabney, the public record is rather full on Harry Byrd, Sr.'s background and his youth and his early political career. We would like to get your assessment of some aspects of it. By that, we would like to get your view as to how significant certain of those early events might have been. We might start with the fact that he dropped out of school and went to work and never really had a complete formal education. Do you see any connection with that and Byrd's overall attitude about public education?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Yes, I think that it has quite an application to much of his subsequent career, because he felt that he had made it without going to college, he had made it on his own. He didn't believe that the average person needed all the government help and assistance that the New Deal provided. He thought that it was creating loafers and neer-do-wells. He came along as a rugged individualist, made it all alone, put the Winchester Star back on its feet when it was practically bankrupt, and started raising apples and became the biggest private apple grower in the world. He went on from there to get into politics and in his political attitudes, he was much influenced by his own career, I think. He believed that other people could do it if he could do it, and he thought an awful lot of people were just sponging on the government when they could look after themselves. He came into office with the whole political organization behind him. Swanson and Glass were then the leaders. He came in as Governor with such fanfare and a great majority in 1925 that he dominated the whole scene and froze out all competitors. He was a very personable man, extremely able to get along with people. He was a great backslapper with politicians. He studied the Constitution of Virginia rigorously before he went in and he knew a lot about it by the time he took office. He had been in the Senate, of course, for sometime before that. He was in his late thirties when he became governor. Byrd was extremely popular personally and he did not indicate in his campaign that he was going to try to make drastic changes in the government.
DANIEL JORDAN:
Let me ask you one other thing about that early career and you touched on it. We know that "pay as you go" was an important part of the philosophy of the Byrd organization and when he took over that financially ailing newspaper, the Winchester Star, it was in debt. As I understand it, he operated strictly on a pay as you go basis and got his newspaper back on a COD basis. It is an oversimplification to say that pay as you go, in a personal sense for Byrd, is associated with that early experience?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
I would say so. The principle is exactly the same.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Mr. Dabney, wasn't there some type of federal subsidy that was used to advantage for circulation purposes by newspapers during that period? Are you aware of a . . .
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
A postal . . .
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
A postal subsidy that meant virtually . . .
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
There may well have been. I don't know that far back whether it was in effect, but I imagine that he took advantage of it if it was, but I just don't have any knowledge on that.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
He used the trains for circulation and it was much cheaper in certain areas used that in his pay as you go.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
It may well be, because later on he was very happy to get federal money for the unemployed in Virginia and he didn't want to spend any state money.
DANIEL JORDAN:
He also, I believe, was president of the Valley Turnpike, which began as a toll road. Is it leaping very far to say that his experience there and his notion of building roads, was to have money and not borrow?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
It is all perfectly consistent with his later philosophy. Yes, I do think so.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Wasn't he an early supporter of the amendment to the Constitution, the Virginia Constitution, to allow bonds for highway improvement?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
In about 1918, he was. Astonishingly enough, I didn't know that until I began writing that book, and I put that in, as you know. In a couple of years, he reversed himself and was vigorously on the other side for the rest of his life.
DANIEL JORDAN:
A sort of key point in that was the election of 1923 referendum and I suppose that he took a chance in a sense in coming out so strongly against bonds, but it turned out to be a very shrewd political maneuver.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
That was the beginning, really, of his rise to fame.