- For the Good of the PartyJohn Nance Garner, FDR, and New Deal Politics, 1933–1940
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John Nance Garner is well known to scholars of the New Deal era. Born in 1868 in a log cabin in Lamar County, Texas, he became a lawyer and moved to Uvalde County, where he began a life in politics by serving as county judge (1893–1896) and as a member of the Texas state legislature (1898–1902). He was elected to the United States Congress in 1902 and remained there continuously for fifteen terms until March 4, 1933. During his last term he served as the Speaker of the House. In 1932, he began the first of two terms as vice president under Franklin Roosevelt. Surprisingly his career has received limited scholarly attention. In part this is due to a lack of personal papers, which he destroyed after leaving office. Much of what has been written on Garner, with a few exceptions, has come from journalists or contemporaries.1
Despite his critical role in passing legislation in the early New Deal and transforming, in the words of some scholars, the modern-day vice presidency, [End Page 255] many historians portray Garner negatively as a conservative Democrat who opposed much of the New Deal and Roosevelt's desire to forge a more liberal Democratic Party. They highlight his break with Roosevelt in the second term over budget issues, sit-down strikes, and the controversial "court-packing" plan. Journalist Joseph Lash, for example, noted that by 1939 Garner "had given way to a conservatism that placed him at the head of the anti-New Deal, anti-Roosevelt forces in Washington." Historian Otis Graham assessed Garner harshly as a "mediocre and unimaginative politician." The notion that Garner was an obstacle to Roosevelt may be a factor in why scholars have been less interested in studying his career. Lionel Patenaude, in his account of Texans and New Deal politics, stated, "Garner's role during the New Deal has been underplayed by most historians. Whether this results from a favorable bias to Roosevelt or a lack of standard types of evidence is debatable."2
A closer examination of Garner's role indicates that while his conservativism and commitment to party regularity were important, other issues were equally significant in bringing about his break with FDR. Differences in temperament and personality, differing perceptions about his role as a legislative leader, concerns about the direction of the Democratic Party, particularly the influence of organized labor, as well as personal ambition all contributed to his disenchantment with the president. These issues were intertwined. No one disagreement or issue caused the break, but collectively they were instrumental in shaping, at least from Garner's perspective, the notion that his advice, experience, and leadership were being ignored. Roosevelt's use of executive authority, his desire to broaden the base of the party, and the unprecedented scope of the New Deal, which expanded the role of the federal government in the economy, all challenged Garner's long-standing ideals about government and how politics worked. He would later state that his decision to challenge Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination in 1940 was based on opposition to a president standing for a third term; yet, a case can be made that numerous personal and political differences were paramount in his decision.
Of special importance in assessing Garner are his many letters to his friend and Democratic National Committee chairman James A. (Jim) [End Page 256] Farley, who served as Roosevelt's postmaster general from 1933 to 1940. Farley, like Garner, held similar beliefs about the party and its direction. Their candid letters, coupled with Farley's numerous personal memos, shed further light on the relationship between Garner and Roosevelt, the issues that divided them, and the many changes occurring within...