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  • Asserting States’ Rights, Demanding Federal Assistance:Texas Democrats in the Era of the New Deal
  • Kenneth J. Heineman (bio)

This article will examine the Texas Democrats who demanded federal economic intervention and asserted a states’ rights stance when it came to U.S. government oversight of relief programs, civil rights, labor rights, and wages. Given their constituents’ desperate need for economic assistance during the Great Depression, Texas Democrats had little choice but to embrace federal intervention—regardless of the potential opening it gave to detested labor union and civil rights advocates. The most politically astute members of Congress, as political scientist Richard Fenno observed, delivered what their constituents wanted and mitigated any unintended political consequences. It was a difficult balancing act, but Texas Democrats took up the challenge.1

Much of the scholarly literature on states’ rights and federal power in the New Deal era has had a national or regional (southern) focus. The focus here will be on Texas, a southern state that had a not-quite-southern ethnic mix (Mexican American, as well as black and white), a relatively more vibrant economy than Dixie at large (thanks to oil), and a significant urban working-class population (Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, the Gulf Coast). There was another difference between Dixie and Texas. In contrast to their southern [End Page 342] brethren, Texas Democratic leaders did not always strictly enforce the disenfranchisement of impoverished whites and minorities. Lone Star Democrats often paid the poll taxes for Mexican Americans in South Texas whenever doing so provided favored candidates with an electoral advantage in primaries.2

Although different from Dixie in so many ways, Texas was still southern in its persistent low standard of living, underdeveloped educational and physical infrastructure, and restricted electorate. Texas State government in the 1930s, as fiscally conservative as it was socially conservative, had no intention of raising taxes, funding education, and providing relief to cotton farmers and oil workers. In light of these realities, influential Texas Democrats looked to the federal government to succor their constituents and, in the process, assure their continual reelection. If confronted with criticism locally about the expanding federal role in their constituents’ lives, Texas Democrats could always (and frequently did) rationalize that federal funds were simply reparations for the unjust war that the North had waged against the South in the 1860s.3

Texas Democrats exercised enormous influence at the national level in the 1930s. In addition to former House Speaker and vice president John “Cactus Jack” Garner, Texas Democrats chaired six major committees in the House and one in the Senate. Nearly all federal legislation dealing with agriculture, defense, the judiciary, financial regulation, rural electrification, and commerce could be approved or killed by a Texas Democrat. This political reality engendered ill will from northern Democrats who felt that the southern branch of the party discriminated against their own constituencies of ethnic minorities and union members. Northern Democrats, and even a few Texas Democrats, argued that so long as Dixie fed from the federal trough, the deployment of states’ rights rhetoric in opposition to civil and labor rights appeared hypocritical. Further, as historian Ira Katznelson has contended, northern liberals resented the fact that their labor and civil rights initiatives were often doomed to be locked up in “a ‘southern cage,’ from which there appeared to be no escape.”4

As economists Lee Alston and Joseph Ferrie argued, the irony of the New Deal era was that while “Southern congressmen were expected not only to bring home the pork but also to prevent federal intervention in southern labor and race relations,” there was an escalating northern effort to “interfere with southern race and labor relations in a variety of ways.” Even President Franklin Roosevelt, as historian Susan Dunn observed, came to resent his reliance on southern Democrats and envisioned a day when his party would [End Page 343] be shed of its most conservative elements. The challenge for Texas Democrats in the 1930s was to dine from ever-expanding plates of federal funds while fending off federal regulation and growing northern hostility. So long as that delicate balance could be maintained, Texas Democrats would remain a commanding political force—in Washington, as well...


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