Virginia’s most powerful politicians not surprisingly come from the early years of the republic. I was somewhat struck at how hackish their politicians were in the late 19th and much of the 20th century. Also, although Woodrow Wilson was from Virginia, his political life was entirely in New Jersey, so he’s there, not here.
1. George Washington–I rank him first because of his stabilizing influence over the country in its early days. I know Washington’s star has fallen a bit in recent years, but he was important for who he was, irregardless of policies he made as president. His choice not to accept a lifetime appointment alone ranks him here.
2. Thomas Jefferson–Actually a pretty bad president, but so successful in the rest of his political life and in creating American ideology.
3. James Madison–he only wrote the Federalist Papers, was Jefferson’s Secretary of State, and a 2 term president, though that presidency was marred by America’s stupidest war.
4. John Marshall–most important Supreme Court justice in history. Really created the Supreme Court as a legitimate institution.
5. James Monroe–an important figure of early America, even if he wasn’t the most memorable president.
6. John Tyler–one of our worst presidents, Tyler significantly furthered the pro-slavery cause by hitching his political hopes for the 1844 election to southern extremists. Named John C. Calhoun Secretary of State, who proceeded to declare southern slavery expansion as the foundation of U.S. foreign and domestic policy. Good times. While terrible, an extremely important figure due to his decision to make the overt expansion of slavery the central feature of his presidency and thus helping move the nation closer to Civil War.
7. Patrick Henry–core figure of the American Revolution and its immediate aftermath. Turned quite conservative in later years and became an ally of John Adams against Jefferson and Madison. Would have been more prominent in the early republic if, a) he had accepted Washington’s offer as Secretary of State in 1795 and b) he hadn’t died of stomach cancer in 1799.
8. Harry Byrd, Sr.–segregationist senator from 1933-65. Dominated the Democratic Party in Virginia during the mid-twentieth century. Opposed much of the New Deal and activist government policies more broadly. Leading segregationist. Received unsolicited electoral votes from southern voters opposed to both political parties in 1960.
9. Carter Glass–Secretary of the Treasury, 1918-20; Senator, 1920-46. White supremacist who openly advocated discrimination. Most remembered today for the Glass-Stegall Act, which has received much attention from people interested in banking reform today. That’s fine, but let’s not allow his sensible fiscal policies to cloud the fact that even for a man of his time and place he was a hell of a racebaiter.
10. Howard Smith–Congressman from 1931-67. Also a notorious racebaiter. Most famous for proposing protecting women under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a way to undermine support for it. Because who thinks women should have equal rights…. Smith actually claimed that he was serious in supporting women’s rights and he had some history here. However, I find it extremely hard to believe that he would add a women’s rights clause to a bill he so vociferously opposed, and of course voted against. These were the years that Sam Rayburn dominated the House. A southerner himself, Rayburn worked to reduce Smith’s power in Congress because of his racism. Yet other southern Congressmen always ensured Smith would speak for them.
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