Graham A. Barden (1896-1967)

Written By Will Schultz

Graham Arthur Barden represented North Carolina’s Third Congressional District, which covered the Outer Banks and several coastal counties, from 1934 until 1960. His reaction to the New Deal was a typical North Carolinian one: initial support, giving way to deep suspicion.

Barden was born September 25, 1896, in Turkey Township, Sampson County. After a stint in the United States Navy, he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was admitted to the North Carolina bar in 1920. In 1932 he was elected to the North Carolina House of Representatives. Two years later, he ran for Congress against the incumbent Democrat, Charles L. Abernethy, and narrowly won the seat in a runoff.

At first Barden was a strong supporter of the New Deal. He and several other North Carolina congressmen—John Kerr, Frank Hancock, and William Umstead, to name three—recognized that the New Deal was very popular in their home state. Barden voted for the Wagner Act, the Social Security Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. He praised Franklin D. Roosevelt as “the greatest man to ever sit in the White House.” When Charles L. Abernethy, Junior, tried to reclaim his father’s seat in 1936, Barden campaigned—and won—on a pro-New Deal platform.

Barden’s first concern was always his home district. He used his seat on the House Committee on Rivers and Harbors to expand the district’s canals and waterways. During World War II he helped bring Camp Davis, Camp Lejeune, and Cherry Point Air Station to the district. One reporter summed up the congressman’s philosophy: “Anything that does not concern the Third District of North Carolina can’t be too important.”

This philosophy led Barden to oppose parts of the New Deal. Barden feared that the minimum wage established by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) would hurt farmers in his heavily rural district. Consequently, in 1939 he tried to amend FLSA to exempt agricultural workers from the minimum wage. He claimed that the current law “straitjacketed” agriculture. New Dealers accused him of trying to destroy FLSA. Barden’s amendment failed, as did a similar one offered in 1940. In the following years he distanced himself from the Roosevelt administration. During the 1940 election Barden rarely mentioned his support for the New Deal.

In time, Barden grew more and more conservative. Unions became his greatest enemy. He helped write the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. This law greatly restricted the ability of unions to organize. After becoming chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, Barden proposed an anti-union bill that required union officers to win a secret-ballot election before starting a strike. Barden also opposed most federal aid to public education. By the time he retired in 1960, Barden was voting against his own party more than half the time. He died in New Bern, North Carolina, on January 29, 1967.