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Theodore Gilmore Bilbo was a politician who was widely hated, even in Mississippi, but loved by his followers, at least well enough to win elections. The Mississippi State Legislature passed a resolution that said among other things that "the Senate pronounces Bilbo unfit to sit with honest, upright men in a respectable legislative body." Others said that granted you would not want him to associate with your hound dog he was a good man to have in government. Others said of him, "He is a slick little bastard," but that statement usually meant approval when spoken by his "redneck" constituents. Perhaps the kindest, most honest appraisal of Bilbo was the statement, "He wasn't always as bad as he sometimes was." Bilbo wrote of himself in his campaign literature for his first race for the U.S. Senate that he (Bilbo) is "A wonder in sustained power of endurance, and a marvel of intellectual brilliance!" He seemed to have no sense of shame. Bilbo referred to himself as The Man.
Theodore G. Bilbo was born in Pearl River County, Mississippi in 1877. His father was a farmer and Bilbo grew up on the farm and attended school in Poplarville. In 1898 he married. Shortly after a daughter was born Bilbo's wife died. Soon after Bilbo went away to Nashville to study for the Baptist ministry at Peabody College, but later he switched to law at Vanderbilt University. In 1900 he dropped out of law school to help run a girl's boarding school in Wiggins, Mississippi. There was an accusation of an affair with one of the students, an orphan girl from Mississippi. Bilbo was accused of numerous affairs throughout his career. He never denied them and seemed to encourage the rumors as a way of enhancing his masculinity. He was relative short, five foot two inches tall, and he may have had trouble getting people to accept him as an equal.
After leaving the girl's boarding school he returned to law school at Vanderbilt. He attempted to win the position of circuit clerk of his home county in 1903 but failed. His opponent was a one-armed Baptist minister. Bilbo came to appreciate the power of a sympathy vote when he found himself thinking about the empty sleeve of his opponent when he went to vote.
He then pursued his law studies at Vanderbilt, but there is doubt that he graduated.
In his race for the state senate in 1907 he and his opponent agreed to travel together to all the meetings to make it easy for the voters to hear both candidates. On one occasion Bilbo found that his opponent had left early for a speaking engagement at a church. Not to be out foxed Bilbo took a short cut and arrived before opponent and preached a sermon, played the organ and sang with the church congregation. By the time his opponent arrived the congregation had bonded with Bilbo. His opponent had little chance in the political debate which followed. Bilbo won the race and joined the Mississippi State Senate in Jackson.
Although Mississippi was a one-party state there was political rivalry within the Democratic Party between the Delta region bordering the Mississippi River and the combined regions of the Red Clay Hills on the east and the Piney Woods region of south Mississippi. The Delta region had a plantation economy and a predominantly Black population with political power in the hands of the White plantation class. The Red Clay Hills and Piney Woods regions were populated by poor White farmers. Political reforms in the late nineteenth century led to an emergence of a populist movement in the poor White areas.
James K. Vardaman
This movement was led by James K. Vardaman, a resident of the Delta area. Vardaman encouraged his supporters to wear a red bandana around their necks. Some say that this was the origin of the term, "redneck." The other term used for a poor White farmer is "peckerwood." Peckerwood is the Southern term for woodpecker, a bird that lives in the woods like the poor White farmers do.
The political faction of the Black counties of the Delta was led by members of the Percy family, a political dynasty of Mississippi. The Black counties of the Delta had political power in proportion to their total population but this power was wielded by the White minority. It was relatively easy for the Delta plantation class like the Percy family to control Mississippi politics until Vardaman came along around the turn of the century.
Political events in the early part of the twentieth century were dominated by the power struggle between the Percy faction and the Vardaman faction. Bilbo naturally joined the Vardaman faction. Soon after Bilbo entered the legislature he captured attention by introducing bill after bill. Most of them were intended to benefit his constituents in south Mississippi. Some were sarcastic such as the one to build a trunk line to the capitol building so that the railroad could deposit legislators there after they had been entertained and lobbied by the railroad. One bill he introduced was to show his dislike for the soft-drinks that were then becoming popular. His bill was to
forbid the manufacture, sale, barter, or giving away of coca cola, afri cola, ala cola, caffi cola, carre cola, celery cola, chan cola, chera cola, coca beta, Pilsbury colke, cola coke, cream cola, dope, four cola, hayo cola, Heck's cola, Kaye cola, koca nola, loke, kola ade, kola kola, kola phos, doloko, dos dola, lime kola, mellow nip, nerve ola, revive ola, rocola, tye ola, standard cola, toko tona, tokola, vim-o, french wine of coca wise ola,...
This bill shows his impish sense of humor and his verbosity which he claims to have inherited from this Huguenot (French Protestant) and Irish ancestors.
In the 1910 legislative session there was a political crisis precipitated by the death of one of Mississippi's U.S. Senators. The legislature had to select someone to fill the remaining term of the dead senator. Vardaman was the favorite and natural choice but Leroy Percy entered the contest. On the first ballot Percy received only 23 votes to Vardaman's 73. Percy did not have nearly enough votes but his strategy was to keep other candidates in the picture who would keep Vardaman from garnering the required majority. As the other candidates dropped and Percy picked up their votes the vote eventually split evenly between Percy and Vardaman. The balloting went on for 55 days. A switched vote on the fifty sixth day made Percy the victor with 83 votes to Vardaman's 81. The next day Theodore Bilbo held up $645 in cash and announced that he had been bribed by one of Percy's men to vote for Percy. The grand jury investigation found holes in Bilbo's story and what actually happened is still uncertain. If the balloting was by secret ballot Bilbo might not have been the one who changed his vote. Bilbo confession of being bribed could have been a clever ploy to invalidate Percy's victory. Bilbo claimed he took the bribe to catch the opposition. However the taking of such a bribe would not have necessitated his actually voting for Percy.
The State Senate after considering the evidence voted for Bilbo's impeachment. The vote fell short of the required two-thirds by one vote. A majority of the Senate approved the following resolution:
Resolved, in view of the unexplained inconsistencies and inherent improbabilities in the testimony of Senator Bilbo, his established bad character and lack of credibility, that the Senate of Mississippi does hereby condemn his entire bribery charge, and the statement of the role he played as detective and decoy, as a trumped-up falsehood, utterly unworthy of belief; resolved further that as a result of the conduct of Theodore G. Bilbo in this matter, and the testimony produced in this investigation, the Senate pronounces Bilbo as unfit to sit with honest, upright men in a respectable legislative body, and is hereby asked to resign.
Bilbo not only did not resign but campaigned for the office of Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi. Incidentally, Bilbo stayed on good terms with Vardaman, an unlikely relationship if Bilbo had actually been bribed and voted for his opponent.
The campaign was marked by Bilbo's opponents questioning Bilbo's character and generally heaping insults upon him. At one speech the speaker said something about Bilbo who was in the audience. Bilbo jumped to the speaker's platform and shouted "That's a lie!" at which point the speaker knocked Bilbo down. Bilbo, at five feet two inches in height, got sympathy in the campaign and credit for courage. Bilbo himself was prone to hurling insults. One state senator from Yazoo City whom he called a "renegade Confederate soldier" felt his honor demanded satisfaction. When Bilbo showed up in Yazoo City the senator broke a walking cane over Bilbo's head. The skirmish ended with Bilbo seeking medical attention. Fred Sullens, the editor of the Jackson Daily News announced the event with the headline:
WAR HORSE OF YAZOO BROKE GOOD WALKING STICK OVER THE HEAD OF POPLARVILLE PERVERT
Bilbo's tongue got him into even more trouble when at Blue Mountain College he called a political opponent, J.J. Henry, a cross between a hyena and a mongrel dog begotten in a graveyard at midnight, suckled by a sow and educated by a fool. This was too foul for J.J. Henry to bear. He boarded a train Bilbo was riding and found Bilbo. Bilbo apparently tried to escape and Henry hit him several times with the butt of a pistol from behind. Henry then asked Bilbo to apologize and Bilbo refused. Henry then hit Bilbo six more times giving him a concussion and an open wound which left a scar. Henry surrendered himself to the police at the next station and Bilbo was taken to Jackson for medical treatment. Bilbo did not press charges against Henry but he used the incident to elicit sympathy for him in the rest of the campaign.
Bilbo easily won his primary race for Lieutenant Governor, as did Vardaman who was running for the U.S. Senate. The victory in the Democratic primary was usually automatically equivalent to victory in the regular election. Bilbo did also win the regular election, but he was so detested in the Delta that many voted for the Socialist candidate instead, enough that the Socialist candidate carried two counties and almost another one. After victory Bilbo then proceeded to build a powerful political machine that was seldom, if ever, rivaled in Mississippi history.
As Lieutenant Governor, Bilbo was the presiding officer of the Senate. He arranged to have the resolution condemning him expunged from the record. Sixty days after Bilbo assumed office the Senate passed another resolution praising Bilbo as "one of the fairest and best lieutenant governors...a man who knows his duty, and who has the courage of his convictions, and especially, who has at all times, been fair."
In 1913 Bilbo became involved in a controversy over the state prison system. Later in 1913 Bilbo and a state senator were indicted by a Vicksburg grand jury on charges of bribery in connection with a plan to create a new county in the Mississippi Delta. The plan would have divided Washington County, Percy's home county. It was even proposed that the new county be named after Vardaman, a further insult to Percy. The proposed bill failed. The jury hearing the bribery case acquitted Bilbo and his codefendant.
In 1915 Bilbo entered the race for the Governorship against four other candidates. His four opponents campaigned primarily on Bilbo as an issue. Bilbo, however, campaigned on a progressive liberal platform that included:
The Democratic Party electorate gave Bilbo a majority in the primary and thus there was no need for a second, runoff, election. Fred Sullens, the editor of the Jackson Daily News suggested in print that with Bilbo as governor the eagle on the dome of the state capitol should be replaced with a "puking buzzard."
After four years of Bilbo governorship Fred Sullens had to admit in print, "We must give the devil his due and frankly admit that Theodore's administration has been one of substantial achievement." Bilbo developed a good relationship with the legislature and pushed through a program unequaled in modern Mississippi history. The elements of Bilbo's program that were achieved were:
After his term as governor Bilbo ran for the U.S. Congress. There was an unfortunate episode during this time, but Bilbo could not be faulted for it. There was an outbreak of Texas fever among cattle in Mississippi. Texas fever is carried by a tick and the way to eradicate the disease is to dip the cattle in tanks containing an insecticide. Bilbo backed the compulsory dipping program, but many farmers believed their cattle would die from the dip as well as the ticks. Some dipping tanks were dynamited. As a result of this episode Bilbo was defeated in his race for Congress.
Although Bilbo was unsuccessful in getting himself elected to Congress, he was able to help a friend of his, Lee Russell, get elected governor.
In 1923 Governor Russell was involved in legal problem concerning a young woman in Jackson. The young woman charged that Governor Russell had seduced her and made her pregnant and as a result she underwent an abortion which left her unable to ever have children. Russell asked Bilbo to negotiate with the young woman. Bilbo was not able to dissuade her from filing a $100,000 suit against the Governor. Her attorneys subpoenaed Bilbo but he dodged the subpoena servers until one day they caught him at his farm house. He ran out of the back of the house and hid in a nearby barn behind a heifer calf. The young woman lost the suit but Bilbo was sentenced to thirty days in jail. The editor of the Jackson Daily News commented, "Some people feel sorry for Governor Russell, others for the girl, and some even for Bilbo; but I, personally, feel sorry for the heifer calf."
Bilbo had to spend only ten days in jail. He emerged from jail to launch his campaign for a second term as governor. His campaign was unsuccessful and he spent four years editing a paper he founded, the Mississippi Free Lance.
At the next election, in 1927, Bilbo campaigned for governor again and this time he was successful. Bilbo's second term as governor was largely a failure. He did, however, have success in keeping Mississippi from being carried by Republican Herbert Hoover in the 1928 presidential race. The Democratic Party in 1928 nominated Al Smith of New York. Al Smith was a Catholic and against prohibition. Normally with these two strikes against him in Mississippi he would not carry the state. But Bilbo came up with the story that Herbert Hoover, while traveling through Mississippi during the flood of 1927, made a social visit to see Mary Booze, a Black woman who was a member of the Republican National Committee. Not only did Hoover visit Mary Booze, but, according to Bilbo's story he danced with her. The idea of socializing with a Black woman not only shocked White Mississippians racial sensibilities, but dancing was a forbidden sin for Mississippi Baptists, a major element of the population.
While governor Bilbo undertook a campaign to fire many educators in Mississippi state institutions of higher education and replace them with his selections. Bilbo claimed that he was trying to bring to life the University of Mississippi at Oxford. He apparently replaced 54 individuals but the figure of 179 was widely cited. This led to problems of accreditation.
As Bilbo left office the state finances were in disarray and his personal finances were even worse. He lost his $75,000 dream house because of a $500 judgment he couldn't pay.
Bilbo couldn't survive on what he could make as a lawyer so he went to Washington to get a job in the Federal bureaucracy. He looked up Pat Harrison, a Senator from Mississippi, and asked for his help. Senator Harrison talked to the head of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration and Michie and Rhylock in their book, Dixie Demagogues, quotes the following admonitions of Senator Harrison:
Mr. Bilbo is an extremely able man. He is very talented and one of the most brilliant and magnetic personalities in politics. As a speaker I have never seen his match. Of course, I don't think it would be wise to place Bilbo in a position of financial responsibility. He is as honest as the day is long, you understand, but it wouldn't be fair to put him under any temptation. Furthermore, Bilbo is an extremely energetic man, but I wouldn't give him a job that called for too much work. At the same time, it might be wisest not to subject him to contact with distracting feminine influences.
Under these constraints the administrator could not find a job for Bilbo but he told Bilbo to formulate the specifics of his own job and the administrator would create it. The Man Bilbo then invented a job of cutting out newspaper articles having to do with the Agricultural Adjustment Administration and pasting them into a notebook. At first Bilbo was content with his job with good pay and little responsibility. He was content until he read in a Mississippi newspaper a reference to himself as the "Pastemaster General." He was indignant and decided to quit and go back to Mississippi to run for the U.S. Senate.
Bilbo carried out a vigorous campaign against the incumbent Senator. He started his day at 4 A.M. and gave eight to ten speeches a day. He traveled thirty thousand miles. He charged his opponent with being tied to the lumber and utility interests. He charged him with having found a job for a Damned-Yankee Republican economist in the Department of Commerce. He called for a redistribution of wealth and the return of the two-cent postage stamp.
Bilbo came in a close second in the Democratic Party primary but because his opponent did not get a clear majority there was a runoff between himself and the incumbent. Bilbo won this second primary and went on to win the election to the U.S. Senate.
As a Senator, Bilbo strongly supported the New Deal program of Franklin Roosevelt. Bilbo was a strong liberal. The area where he differed from other liberals was on racial issues. Bilbo felt that there was no dispute between himself and Roosevelt as that both wanted to help the poor while maintaining the existing relationship between Blacks and Whites in the South. It was only later when Bilbo chose to promote the plan of Marcus Garvey and his followers to seek voluntary migration of African Americans to West Africa that Bilbo became unacceptable to the Washington Establishment. Bilbo introduced a bill for a billion dollar funding of such a resettlement plan. It did not pass. He introduced it again from time to time although he knew it had no chance of passage because it enhanced his political status in Mississippi.
After World War II the Republican Party gained control of Congress. When Bilbo won his third term in the Senate the Republicans in the Senate with the help of some Democrats chose to refuse to seat Bilbo in the new Senate. By that time Bilbo was ill with cancer and died some months later before the question of his membership in the Senate could be finally resolved.
Bilbo was an example of a politician who was a conservative on social issues but a liberal on economic issues. Those who are conservatives on both social and and economic issues are known as conservatives. Those who are liberal on both issues are known as liberals. Those who are liberal on social issues but conservative on economic issues are known as libertarians. There does not seem to be an accepted term for politicians who, like Bilbo, are conservative on social issues but liberal on economic issues. Some suggest populist; others suggest fascist.
For the story of other poliical bosses and their machines click on Bosses
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