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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 934

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This is the grave of Cotton Ed Smith.

One of the worst human beings to ever befoul this nation, Ellison Smith was born in 1864 outside of the appropriately named Lynchburg, South Carolina. He grew up in the dying plantation elite of the South. He was a rich kid and his family managed to hold onto their home through the end of slavery, where he would live his entire life. Smith went to the University of South Carolina and then transferred to Wofford, where he graduated in 1889. In 1897, he won election to the South Carolina legislature. This was just at the end of the Populist movement and Smith had some sympathy for the Populists–so long as whatever happened only benefited whites. See, Smith was a race baiter par excellence and this would be the key to his rise. No one was going to out race bait Smith, he would make sure of that. And it was electoral gold in South Carolina.

Smith won a couple of terms in Columbia, but then lost a run for Congress in 1901. So he took a job with the Southern Cotton Association, which was a cotton farmers organization that sought to reduce production and raise prices so that the farmers could actually make a living. He traveled the South organizing for that group and doing so managed to become a very skilled public speaker. Quite ambitious, he turned those skills back to politics and was the surprise winner of the 1908 election to the U.S. Senate. He was a political nobody at this time, but he wouldn’t remain that way for long.

Smith brought his quasi-Populist principles to the Senate, though in truth he was more a white supremacist Progressive than a real man of the people. He focused so heavily on improving conditions for cotton farmers by demanding government regulation of the industry that the press started calling him “Cotton Ed” and that stuck and is largely what he remains known as today. In fact, the specific moment of him receiving this moniker came when he started using a new catchphrase–“Cotton is king and white is supreme.” That about sums him up. He was known by his fellow senators as a real piece of work, even the other white supremacists. When someone was speaking on the Senate floor about something he didn’t like, he would take his penknife and repeatedly carve into his chair in a way that everyone could see.

A lot of his ideas when it came to agriculture were actually pretty good–the Department of Agriculture should extend credit to farmers, it should become a modern agency that kept statistics and did studies of farm issues, etc. He supported the federal development of Muscle Shoals, in what became the Tennessee Valley Authority. He was the sponsor of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 that created cooperative extension services associated with DOA. But he would not sponsor any legislation that he saw as threatening his beloved southern way of life, meaning anything that would diversify the southern economy or potentially challenge race relation. It was far from uncommon for leading reform politicians to have really good ideas while also centering extreme race baiting as their political weapon of choice.

About that race baiting. Smith was the worst and this was for a time where the bar on that award was very, very high. His actual stated goal as a Senator was “keep the N……. down and the price of cotton up.” And that was the kind of language he would use on the Senate floor, in private meetings with party officials, anyone. He would take the lead on opposing any kind of federal anti-lynching legislation. One Georgia newspaper editor said of him that he had “the courage of his prejudices and a vocabulary which runs the gamut from invective to invective.”

It’s also worth noting here the it wasn’t only Black people that Smith hated. He also hated immigrants. He was one of the prime movers behind the 1924 Immigration Act that effectively shut the door of America to people from around the world. He gave a speech to the Senate that year that was known as the “Shut the Door” speech that was probably the most well-known attack on immigrants that came out of that year. When many years later, the St. Louis arrived in the U.S. with a boatload of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, Smith was among those powerful politicians who made sure they would not enter the U.S., helping to doom many of them to their deaths in the Holocaust. Smith probably didn’t know this at the end of his life, but he wouldn’t have cared if he had. He hated women too. When the move for women’s suffrage was at its peak, Smith gave a speech on the Senate floor where he compared it to the evil Fifteenth Amendment, stating “Here is exactly the identical same amendment applied to the other half of the Negro race. The southern man who votes for the Susan B. Anthony Amendment votes to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment.” Quite a guy.

Smith was not necessarily that popular back home. Unlike most of these long-standing southern senators, he had real opposition to his reelection campaigns. Yes, he would win, but several times he faced real primary challenges that were unusual for southern leaders of this time. In short, he was so ridiculously over the top and so unserious that many other white supremacists just felt he was too extreme. But waving that racist flag would work for Smith until the end and he always managed to pull it out.

By the 1930s, Smith was so extreme at a time of significant liberalism that he became the poster child for revanchist America. The New Deal hit him hard. He was the leader of the southern Democratic opposition to FDR after initially being OK with him and the first part of the New Deal. He marched into the office of Alger Hiss, then a young Department of Agriculture worker, when a bill came out to force landowners to actually pay sharecroppers, screaming, “Young fella, you can’t do this to my n…..s, paying checks to them. They don’t know what to do with the money. The money should come to me. I’ll take care of them.” This was Cotton Ed in a nutshell. At the 1936 Democratic National Convention, the proceedings began with an invocation from a Black minister named Marshall Shephard. Upon seeing this, Smith stormed out, shouting, “By God, he’s as black as melted midnight! Get outa my way. This mongrel meeting ain’t no place for a white man! I don’t want any blue-gummed, slew-footed Senegambian praying for me politically.” I guess he was creative in his racist language.

It was Cotton Ed Smith who led the charge to make sure the National Labor Relations Act and Fair Labor Standards Act excluded any kind of work done by Black southerners or he wouldn’t allow the bills to pass. He was horrified by the FLSA anyway. The idea of a minimum wage was anathema to the southern elite. So in 1938, FDR put him at the top of his list of southern Democrats he wanted to see defeated. He promoted the more reformist and less evil Olin Johnston, who was governor of the state. Smith went all-in on his extremism here. Calling FDR a “Yankee carpetbagger” and playing up the Confederate memory then at his peak, he gave a speech under a statue of Wade Hampton, saying, “No man dares to come into South Carolina and try to dictate to the sons of those men who held high the hands of Lee and Hampton.” That would lead Smith to win the primary and showed the problems with Roosevelt’s plan to wipe out his southern opposition. In fact, there’s plenty of reason to believe that Smith would have lost if FDR had just stayed out of it since the opposition to him internally was real. He was embarrassing to lots of South Carolinians. Also, James Byrnes gave him an endorsement, but not because he liked Smith. He despised the old racebaiter. But he hated the Fair Labor Standards Act so much that he put aside his hatred. Ah, nothing brings together bad people like the minimum wage and abolishing child labor.

By the 1940s, the old doddering fool really was past his time. He opposed war mobilization efforts and anything that would potentially threaten the 20th century reaching South Carolina. So in 1944, Olin Johnston primaried Smith again and this time he won, in part because Johnston realized that he needed to do more racebaiting to win. Smith tried to say that he was the candidate of the white man, but he was so old by this time that he had no energy left to campaign. He lost the primary and then died in November 1944, at the age of 80.

When Smith lost, Time ran a great feature celebrating it. Here’s an excerpt:

Cotton Ed was a conscientious objector to the 20th Century. He walked out of the 1936 Democratic Convention in high dudgeon because a Negro preacher read a prayer. He was a drag-end isolationist. He was a believer in poll taxes; he was never heard to protest a Southern lynching; and he stood prepared to filibuster to the end against an anti-lynching bill. He decorated his speeches by “pings” at a spittoon ten feet away, or if there were no spittoons, he would spit on the Senate carpet.

In his 35 years on the U.S. payroll he kept the list loaded with members of his family. He was imperious: “Tell those butt-heads we will assemble tomorrow morning” was his way of summoning fellow Senators to a meeting of his Agriculture Committee. He once formulated his economic, social and political thinking in one sentence: “Gentlemen, we are right in the smack-dab middle of a jackass age.”

Six years ago Franklin Roosevelt tried to “purge” him from the Senate. This classic political mistake got Cotton Ed re-elected just as the people of South Carolina were prepared to throw him out. For Cotton Ed exploited the “carpetbag meddling” for all it was worth. Said he, with gallus-snapping righteousness: “You can buy a rubber stamp for a dollar, but you can’t buy a man for any price. God made me a man before South Carolina made me a Senator.” After that, Cotton Ed’s hatred for the President extended to everything that Franklin Roosevelt did.

Cotton Ed Smith is buried in Saint Luke Cemetery, Bishopville, South Carolina.

You can visit Cotton Ed’s Tanglewood Plantation today. It doesn’t exactly go into the history, talking about how he had so many dignitaries visit him and whatnot. But…it was purchased by an interracial couple and the pictures are all their kids playing there. So I’ll take that as a victory.

If you would like this series to visit other horrible southern politicians of the era that FDR tried to defeat in 1938, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Millard Tydings is in Havre de Grace, Maryland and Walter George is in Vienna, Georgia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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