O. Max Gardner served as governor of North Carolina from 1929 to 1933, but more importantly, his political organization dominated state politics from the 1920s to the 1940s. As a result, Gardner and his allies controlled the Democratic Party when it dominated the state and the South. Although initially he endorsed publicly the New Deal, Gardner privately criticized some New Deal programs. By the late 1930s, as the New Deal became more pro-labor and anti-business, Gardner privately opposed it and fought to prevent the implementation of Roosevelt’s “court-packing scheme” and supported New Deal opponents during the 1938 election.
Author: Douglas Carl Abrams
Carl Abrams, Professor of History at Bob Jones University and Chair of the Department of Social Studies Education, has written about American political and religious history of the 1920s and 1930s. His works include Conservative Constraints: North Carolina and the New Deal (Jackson, 1992) and Selling the Old-Time Religion: American Fundamentalists and Mass Culture, 1920-1940 (Athens, 2001). He is currently writing a history of the ideology of the first generation of fundamentalists.
Thomas W. Bickett, a native of Monroe and graduate of Wake Forest College, studied law at the University of North Carolina. After a brief tenure in the state House of Representatives, he served as North Carolina attorney general from 1909 to 1917. In 1916 he was elected governor. Inaugurated on January 11, 1917, Bickett’s gubernatorial administration included the beginning of a juvenile court system, the expansion of the state’s roads and improvements in education, and the prison system.
The administration of Clyde R. Hoey as governor from 1937 to 1941 reaffirmed conservative rule in the state and also the power of the "Shelby dynasty," the label given to the political organization of former governor Max Gardner, Hoey’s brother-in-law and fellow resident of Shelby.
John C. B. Ehringhaus served as a Democratic governor in the most important era’s in the state’s history since Reconstruction—the Great Depression and New Deal. Ehringhaus intended to maintain the conservative, pro-business policies of his predecessor, O. Max. Gardner, yet like other conservative Democrats in the state, he supported President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was very popular, and favored some New Deal policies–ones that did not threaten the fiscal conservatism of state government. Overall, Ehringhaus limited the impact of the New Deal in the state.
This major public works program represented one failure of the New Deal to end the Great Depression. The WPA spent over $60 million in North Carolina, but critics charged that relief weakened the work ethic. North Carolina farmers and industrialists resented the competition for labor; the unemployed could work for the WPA rather than in the fields and factories. Conservatives also fought power shifting from the state and local levels to Washington, D.C. Despite the WPA’s existence, the Great Depression worsened by the late 1930s. But by the early 1940s, market forces and wartime demand had rejuvenated the economy.
At times conservative, at times progressive (as defined in the early 1900s), Cameron Morrison rose to political prominence in North Carolina as an ally of Furnifold M. Simmons, Democratic stalwart who dominated the state’s politics in the early decades of the twentieth century. During the late 1800s, Morrison started gaining statewide fame for leading the “Red Shirts." But he is most known for being "The Good Roads Governor" (1921-1925) and opposing the teaching of evolution in public schools. After his gubernatorial career, Morrison served as a United States Senator and Congressman.
North Carolina’s conservatism in the 1930s contradicts the state’s progressive image, or rather, the myth of its progressivism, born of developments before and after the 1930s. The conservative opposition to the New Deal created momentum for a postwar conservatism and a viable two-party competition in the state. Genuine liberalism, New Deal or otherwise, one could argue, has yet to capture the Tar Heel state.
Federal programs to fight the Great Depression brought almost $440 million by 1938 to North Carolina. Conservative Democrats who had fought the reforms in the state, nonetheless, eagerly accepted the largesse from Washington, D.C. The most important New Deal program in the state was the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), which essentially paid farmers a modest amount to grow less tobacco, the state’s largest crop, as well as controlling other crops.
After his gubernatorial victory in 1928, with no opposition in the Democratic Party, Gardner chose his successor, John C. B. Ehringhaus, who won the governor’s race in 1932; Gardner’s brother-in-law and fellow citizen of Shelby, Clyde R. Hoey, also won in 1936. As a result, Gardner and his allies controlled the Democratic Party when it dominated the state and the South.