Robert L. Doughton (1863-1954) represented North Carolina’s ninth congressional district (centered in Alleghany and Ashe counties) from 1933 until 1953. Although he had a reputation as a fiscal conservative, Doughton was nonetheless an important ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.
Robert Lee Doughton was born in Laurel Springs, North Carolina on November 7, 1863. His father, a Confederate veteran, named him in honor of General Robert E. Lee. Doughton spent several years as a banker and farmer; he also served in some minor state offices, including the Board of Agriculture and the Prison Board. His political career began in 1910, when he defeated incumbent Republican congressman Charles H. Cowles. He had an unremarkable congressional career until 1932, when he ascended to the chairmanship of the powerful House Ways & Means Committee.
Doughton’s political support for the New Deal seemed at odds with his personal beliefs. He personally opposed policies like the pro-union Wagner Act. Yet he allowed New Deal legislation like the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Social Security Act to pass through his committee unchallenged. Indeed, Doughton is credited with writing the country’s first social security law.
He also tried to use New Deal policies to benefit the North Carolina Democratic Party. When he learned that Annie L. O’Berry, chair of the North Carolina Emergency Relief Administration, was giving government jobs to Republicans, he tried to oust her from office.
Doughton’s expertise was in tax policy. He generally favored low taxes, and in 1932 he led a congressional rebellion that defeated a proposed national sales tax. As chair of the Ways & Means Committee, however, he approved most of the taxes recommended by President Roosevelt. This was partly due to his admiration for FDR; he once claimed, “The President is the finest man to work [with] I ever saw.” In 1936, Doughton approved a bill to raise taxes on large corporations. And in 1940, his committee passed a $656,000,000 tax increase to pay for national defense.
Over the course of his career, Doughton cultivated a down-home image. His nickname “Muley Bob” referred to his stubbornness, and in regards to taxes, the congressman said his philosophy was to “get the most feathers you can with the fewest squawks from the goose.” Doughton was not above trading blows with his opponents—literally. A North Carolina Republican named J. S. Blalock made the mistake of punching Doughton after the Democrat had delivered a speech. The seventy-one-year-old congressman hit back; he then chased the fleeing Blalock down the street while shouting, more than likely with raised fist: “Come back and let’s finish this thing.”
Doughton retired from Congress in 1952. He died October 1, 1954, in Laurel Springs. His name lives on in Doughton Park, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Anthony J. Badger, North Carolina and the New Deal (Raleigh, 1981); Baltimore Sun, October 2, 1954; Chicago Daily Tribune, March 7, 1936; “Doughton, Robert Lee” http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=D000448 (Accessed June 7, 2010); Philip A. Grant, “Southern Congressmen and Agriculture, 1921-1932,” Agricultural History, Vol. 53, No. 1 (January, 1979); Randy Johnson, Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway (Guilford, 2003); Mark Leff, The Limits of Symbolic Reform: The New Deal and Taxation, 1933-1939 (Cambridge, 1984); New York Times, October 5, 1934; March 17, 1937; Jordan A. Schwarz, “John Nance Garner and the Sales Tax Rebellion of 1932,” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 30, No. 2 (May, 1964); Time, July 15, 1935; June 10, 1940; April 19, 1943; Wall Street Journal, October 21, 1932; Washington Post, October 2, 1954; February 21, 1935