A Democratic Congressman and U.S. Senator, Furnifold M. Simmons was born on January 20, 1854 to Furnifold Green, Jr., and Mary McLendel Jerman Simmons of Jones County, North Carolina. Simmons, a member of a prosperous farm family, was educated at an academy in Wake Forest and attended Trinity College (now Duke University). He was admitted to the bar in 1875 and in 1876 moved his law practice to New Bern. (He earned an honorary LLD from Trinity in 1901 and from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1915.)
As a young politician, Simmons experienced victory and defeat. In 1886, when the Republican Party was divided, Simmons was elected to represent the second congressional district (also known as “The Black Second”). Two years later, when the Republican Party reunited, Henry P. Cheatham (1857-1935), a former slave, defeated Simmons.
From the beginning of his political career, Simmons was a staunch yet pragmatic Southern Conservative. Though generally opposed to the Farmers’ Alliance and the Populist Party, he became chairman of the State Democratic Executive Committee and oversaw the successful yet close gubernatorial victory of Elias Carr (1839-1900), an Alliance man. For Simmons’s work on behalf of the Democratic Party, President Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) appointed the New Bern resident as collector of internal revenue for the Fourth District of North Carolina; he served in this post from 1893 to 1897.
During the 1890s, blacks and whites formed a political alliance much to the chagrin of more than a few. In 1894, a combination of reform-minded Republicans and Populists, calling themselves “Fusionists,” captured control of the state legislature and numerous political offices at the local level and benefited from patronage. Fusionists immediately instituted a variety of educational and electoral reforms. In 1896, Fusionists won an even more impressive election victory, resulting in the election of Republican Daniel L. Russell (1845-1908) as governor. In response, Simmons in 1898 reluctantly resumed his former position as chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee and instigated the “White Supremacy Campaign” by issuing virulent addresses appealing to “Anglo-Saxon blood” and attacking “Negro domination.” During the 1898 state and local elections, Simmons promised leaders of denominational colleges no increased funding for public colleges, and told businessmen that for their support of the Democratic Party there would be no tax increases. “You have sold us out,” declared Dr. Charles McIver (1860-1906), a prominent educator and founder and first president of State Normal and Industrial School for Women, now UNC-Greensboro. Simmons, however, later explained that he only did what was absolutely essential to win the election and secure a return to white governance. With the help of the Red Shirts—a group reminiscent of the Reconstruction Ku Klux Klan—the Democratic Party intimidated black Republican voters and regained power in the Tar Heel state.
After the Democratic Party regained power, Simmons was a prominent leader within the state who was catapulted to the national stage. In 1900, despite Democrat pledges to the contrary, Simmons prepared a disfranchisement amendment in 1901 that was introduced into the legislature and later passed in a state referendum. Aimed particularly at eliminating the black vote, the amendment weakened the Republican Party so much that North Carolina remained solidly Democratic for over half a century. In 1900, the General Assembly also elected Simmons to replace Marion Butler (1863-1938) as United States Senator from North Carolina. In this position, he oversaw federal patronage for the state and developed what has often been called the “Simmons machine”—a loosely organized network of grateful office holders. Nevertheless, the Senator faced a serious challenge for his seat in 1912 when Charles B. Aycock (1859-1912), William W. Kitchin (1866-1924), and Judge Walter Clark (1846-1924) announced their intentions to run against him in a preference primary. Aycock, a formidable threat, died unexpectedly before the primary vote, and Simmons won easily.
As a Senator, Simmons wielded great authority. The Tar Heel served on the Committee on Commerce and obtained funding for the Intercoastal Waterway from Boston to Wilmington—considered his crowning achievement. He also served as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, 1913-19, and played a major role in securing lower tariff rates and the passage of the Underwood-Simmons Tariff Act. Although a fiscal conservative, he helped pass bills regarding increased taxes on incomes, corporations, and excess profits to fund American participation in World War I. After the Democrats lost many seats in Congress 1918, Simmons also lost his chairmanship yet remained the ranking member on the Finance Committee. His influence continued well into the 1920s.
Later in his political career, changing times made Simmons question his party loyalty. In 1928 the Democratic Party nominated Alfred E. Smith (1873-1944) of New York for president. Smith was a Catholic Tammany Hall politician and a “wet”–an opponent of the prohibition of alcohol. Simmons was not anti-Catholic, but as a long-time proponent of prohibition, he especially objected to Smith’s nomination. He likewise was suspicious of Smith’s connections with the corrupt Democratic Tammany Hall of New York, his seeming racial tolerance, and his support for open immigration policies. Although Simmons did not officially endorse Republican Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), his refusal to vote for Smith encouraged other Democrats to vote for Hoover, who won the presidential election. In 1930, Simmons was opposed by Josiah W. Bailey (1873-1946), who had the support of the latest kingmaker in North Carolina politics, Governor O. Max Gardner (1882-1947). Although Simmons after thirty years in the Senate misunderstood a younger generation of politicians, he lost his Senatorial seat to Bailey primarily because he deserted Alfred Smith in 1928 and because he was in office when America’s economic depression began.
According to historian Richard L. Watson, Jr., Simmons “lacked a consistent worldview” on such issues as alcohol and urban development and saw no inconsistency between his views of white supremacy and democracy. He sometimes criticized President Woodrow Wilson’s progressivism, but being a loyal Democrat, he pushed Wilson’s legislative agenda to the best of his ability. In the end, the Senator produced an impressive legislative record, including acts regarding “waterways, roads, forest reserves, tariffs, taxes, the postal system, and agriculture.”
Simmons was married to Eliza Hill Humphrey and fathered three children. He died on April 30, 1940 and was buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery, New Bern.
Eric Anderson, Race and Politics in North Carolina, 1872-1901: The Black Second (Baton Rouge, 1981); Stuart C. Deskins, “The Presidential Election of 1928 in North Carolina,” (Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, 1944); Pocahontas Wight Edmunds, Tar Heels Track the Century (Raleigh, 1966); “Furnifold McLendel Simmons,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-2005 (Washington, D.C., 2005); William T. Moye, “The North Carolina Senatorial Primary of 1900 Between F.M. Simmons and Julian S. Carr” (MA thesis, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, 1969); J. Fred Rippy, ed., F. M. Simmons, Statesman of the New South: Memoirs and Addresses (Durham, 1936); The State, 25 Nov. 1933; Richard L. Watson, Jr., “A Political Leader Bolts: F. M. Simmons and the Presidential Election of 1928,” North Carolina Historical Review (1960) 37: 516-43, “Furnifold M. Simmons: ‘Jehovah of the Tar Heels’?” North Carolina Historical Review (1967) 44: 166-85, “Furnifold McLendel Simmons,” in William Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, vol. 5 of 6 (Chapel Hill, 1979-96), and “Furnifold M. Simmons and the Politics of White Supremacy,” Race, Class, and Politics in Southern History (Baton Rouge, 1989); Daniel J. Whitener, Prohibition in North Carolina (Chapel Hill, 1946).