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  • Burning Bridges: Senator Rush Dew Holt and the Guffey Coal Acts of 1935 and 1937
  • C. Lloyd Tomlinson

The legislative session was drawing to a close on the evening of June 20, 1936, the day after Rush Dew Holt’s thirty-first birthday. The United States Senate was ready to vote on a replacement bill for the Guffey-Snyder Act, a law intended to stabilize the bituminous coal industry. The Supreme Court overturned the 1935 law barely a month before with its decision in Carter v. Carter Coal Company. The court ruled that local wages and hours did not fall within the federal government’s powers to regulate interstate commerce, thereby rendering the law null and void. The Senate worked hastily to churn out a replacement and essentially stripped the labor protections from the new bill. The amended legislation had the support of the majority of the Senate as well as the president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW), John L. Lewis. The new bill was almost guaranteed to pass.1

Holt, the “Boy Senator” from West Virginia, had other plans. The junior senator took the floor and declared that he would spend his unlimited time reading from Aesop’s Fables. In addition to reading Aesop, Holt attacked Lewis for siding with the coal companies over the miners, lambasted West Virginia’s senior senator Matthew Neely for ignoring the miners in their state, and ripped into the Works Progress Administration for acting as a tool of political patronage. By the time he concluded his filibuster and the Senate adjourned, it was 11:55 p.m., and the bill was dead.2

The filibuster left an undeniable impact on Holt’s image and political career. Rush Holt Jr., in the inaugural lecture named for his father, notes that the senator “became a man without a party” that some viewed as “fearlessly honest, while others perceived him as quixotic, unreliable, and ungrateful to those who had supported him.”3 Through the remainder of his term, Holt grew increasingly isolated. The results of the 1940 primary election ensured that Holt would not return to the Senate for the next term.4

While the filibuster remains an excellent piece of political theater, as well as the defining moment of Holt’s Senate career, it merely scratches the surface of his fight against legislation that he believed did not help working [End Page 29] West Virginians. The 1936 filibuster began Holt’s shift toward becoming more critical of the New Deal. It also created a deep personal and political rivalry with Senator Joseph Guffey of Pennsylvania, who cosponsored the legislation, as well as Senator Matthew Neely of West Virginia. After the filibuster, their feud played out in the public sphere: political rallies, the press, and the airwaves all served as battlegrounds. Holt also managed to make enemies of John L. Lewis and UMW District 17 president Van W. Bittner. Though Holt found himself a pariah by the end of the decade, he nevertheless remained convinced that he was fighting for the best interests of coal miners throughout West Virginia.

Rush Holt has been covered by a handful of historians to date. Jerry Bruce Thomas takes a sharply critical view of Holt, pointing out his attempts to use New Deal programs as a form of political patronage to get a job for his brother, Matthew, and his persona as a reckless maverick who “took any sort of disagreement on issues as a personal attack and tended to respond in kind.”5 A doctoral dissertation by William Coffey remains the most thorough study of Holt’s life and career to date. It functions as a fairly evenhanded biographical treatment, though it does not examine his career past 1942.6 In 2011, Rush Holt Jr. delivered the inaugural Rush D. Holt lecture, which focused on the filibuster and its immediate consequences.7 The filibuster figures prominently in each of these works, revealing its importance in West Virginia and American politics, as well as its impact on the bituminous coal industry.

Bituminous coal mining had been a “sick industry” for decades before the passage of the Guffey Act. It was an industry bloated by excessive competition...


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