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  • "Be Patient and Satisfied with Their Progress Thus Far":Senator Robert A. Taft's Opposition to a Permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, 1944-1950
  • Clarence E. Wunderlin Jr. (bio)

After his election to the U.S. Senate in November 1938, Robert A. Taft (1889-1953), Republican from Cincinnati, Ohio, quickly became one of his party's most important spokesmen on matters of domestic policy. A conservative who embraced a natural-law conception of economic development and cherished individual liberty as the basis for an equal-opportunity society, Taft desired to restore stability to a nation that he believed had been fundamentally altered by a half-decade of ardent New Deal radicalism. After the United States entered the Second World War, the Ohioan and other conservatives worked tirelessly to prevent congressional liberals from expanding the federal government's capacities to administer private-sector markets during the emergency. One of the liberal initiatives that most concerned Senator Taft was legislation to establish a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) that would transform that voluntary wartime agency into an extensive bureaucracy with enforcement powers to protect minority workers from discrimination. Given his strong advocacy of racial uplift, his praise for the wartime Fair Employment Practices Committee and such white employers as Harvey Firestone who voluntarily employed blacks, as well as his fervent desire to bring African Americans back into the Grand Old Party (GOP), Taft's resistance to permanent FEPC legislation is somewhat puzzling. Taft's biographer considered him both out [End Page 92] of touch with "the plight of the black man in American society" and antagonistic to federal supervision of hiring practices.1

It is Taft's opposition to federal government intervention in labor markets that is the focus of this study. The article that follows is situated at the intersection of two historiographical currents in the field of twentieth-century U.S. history. One is recent scholarship on the civil rights movement devoted to the struggles (at both the national and state levels) to eradicate discrimination in employment, most notably The Fifth Freedom, by Anthony S. Chen.2 The other is the growing body of literature identifying antistatism as a central problem in the state-building process in America. To understand Taft's view of the state's proper role, the most useful study from the political development literature has been, surprisingly, a work on the nineteenth century: Brian Balogh's A Government Out of Sight.3 Taken together, the scholarship [End Page 93] on both antistatism and employment discrimination make one point perfectly clear: at the mid-twentieth-century crossroads of these two streams of history stood the conservative wing of the Republican Party, led by Senator Taft.4

This article, drawn from a book-length study of his conservatism, assesses the senator's ideological leadership in the successful opposition to FEPC from 1944 to 1950. As it reveals, he blended his own unique analysis of job discrimination with a tradition of antistatism dating back to the American Revolution. During the FEPC debate, Taft rooted employment discrimination in both prejudice (long-held beliefs) and customs (longstanding practices); focusing on customs, he refused to brand those discriminatory practices as criminal even though he conceded that they were "contrary" to American ideals. The senator argued that only gradual reform, respectful of local conditions and based on voluntary compliance, could effectively curb those practices without undermining an "American business system" directed by extra-human "natural [market] forces." Not surprisingly, therefore, he asserted that intrusion by a federal agency enforcing compulsory mandates in the market was not merely ineffective but, in this case, counterproductive.

Thus, the following study explores the senator's political arguments on race and employment discrimination in wartime and postwar America. The wartime transition in American liberalism that led to government intervention on behalf of minority groups compelled the senator to engage in a strenuous effort to defend market-directed employment practices from government-imposed reform. In doing so, he confronted civil rights activists at both the national office and the Cincinnati chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as well as congressional liberals in a heated debate over passage of legislation establishing a permanent...


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