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Mr. Democrat: Jim Farley, the New Deal,

and the Making of Modern American Politics


Daniel Scroop


Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2006. 275 pp.

ISBN-13: 978-0-472-09930-6 (hardback)


Reviewed by Terry Golway

Kean University


More than three decades after his death, Jim Farley’s name comes up quite often in his native New York, but perhaps not in a way he’d enjoy. The general post office building on Manhattan’s West Side is named in his honor, and it is being converted, at a scandalously slow pace, to a commuter rail terminal. So the news media in New York periodically give updates about the latest snag at the James Farley Post Office building. It seems fair to assert that most people who follow these reports haven’t a clear idea of who Farley was, never mind why New York named a grand building for him.

Daniel Scroop knows exactly why Jim Farley merited a building in his honor, and why it just happened to be a post office. Farley was, after all, the nation’s Postmaster General during Franklin Roosevelt’s first two terms as president. More to the point, he was an extremely important political figure in national politics from the late 1920s until he broke with FDR in 1940, serving as chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a key political advisor to the president. He was an indefatigable correspondent, organizer, traveler, and glad-hander, an old-school politician to his very marrow. And he enthusiastically embraced the moniker of “Mr. Democrat,” taking an active interest in the party until his dying day in 1976.

Scroop seeks to rehabilitate Farley as one of the architects of a new style of politics which took hold during the Roosevelt years, and as an important but often-ignored operative in the Roosevelt political machine. In doing so, he is self-consciously arguing against Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s portrayal of Farley as a limited, bewildered ward-level pol who may have been able to count votes in New York, but who was in over his head in the issues-driven, ideological politics of the New Deal.(1) Scroop argues that Farley was an active participant in the New Deal’s transformation of American politics, a transformation which, ironically, swept away the ward-style politics of personal loyalty and service in which Farley specialized. “Farley was relatively open to the inclusion of women, the recruitment of African American voters, and the use of national interest groups (rather than local machines) as the building blocks of party strength, even if he underestimated what the long-term consequences of this openness might be,” Scroop writes [4-5].

This is an important argument, because Farley very much represents a type, indeed, a stereotype, which is in desperate need of revision. Despite the scholarship of historians such as J. Joseph Huthmacher, John Buenker, and Nancy Jo Weiss, among others, Irish-American political operatives like Farley continue to be thought of as reactionary hacks – gregarious and often well-lubricated, parochial in outlook and quick to demand a kickback, a favor, a piece of the action.(2)  During the Roosevelt years, Farley and his type (Frank Hague of Jersey City, Edward Kelly of Chicago, Tom Pendergast of Kansas City, just to name a few) often were portrayed as necessary evils, providers of electoral brawn to support the progressive ideas of the Brains Trust. Scroop notes that one Pennsylvania newspaper characterized Farley as a “man who would apply the practices of ward politics to the State and Nation” as chairman of the DNC [133]. This, of course, was not meant as a compliment. The progressive critique of urban politics, Scroop notes, emphasized the depredations of ward politics, and has influenced the historiography of the Progressive Era and New Deal [132]. Farley, in the eyes of his critics, was seen as a symbol of machine rule, never mind that, as Scroop points out, he was not a member of New York’s most-famous machine, Tammany Hall, and, in fact, he actively opposed Tammany on FDR’s behalf [133]. Schlesinger, Scroop writes, saw Farley as “emblematic of ‘old-line’ bossism” and “ignorant of the issues that defined the New Deal” [145].

Scroop sees Farley as a very different figure. During his tenure as chairman of the DNC, Scroop writes, “the Democratic Party [attracted] new support from organized labor, urban voters (especially various groups of first- and second-generation immigrants), and African Americans …” [142]. Farley was not always a champion of this new coalition – he was considered pro-business and not especially sympathetic to labor – but, in Scroop’s view, “Farley’s position at the helm of the Democratic Party’s organizational apparatus was pivotal” because it was “one of the key sites at which the tensions between the ideological thrust of the New Deal and the competing demands of the myriad local elites in the states was played out” [122]. Farley’s mediating role, the book argues, helped smooth the transition from a ward-based party based on neighborhood service to a national party based on ideology and group interest.

Scroop notes that Farley was a stickler for what he called “the rules of the game” [45]. But he also helped change the rules. He and Edward Flynn, boss of the Bronx and another neglected political figure from the Roosevelt era, conspired to create something called the Recovery Party in 1933 when they were dissatisfied with the choice of their fellow Democrats in that year’s mayoral election in New York City. By putting up a third-party candidate, Farley and Flynn – at FDR’s behest – in essence ensured the election of a Republican, Fiorello LaGuardia. Farley starved Tammany of federal patronage after 1933, steering it instead to LaGuardia. This sort of behavior was nothing less than treachery under the old rules of the game, rules that emphasized party discipline and cohesion, but Farley went along with it.

Why? Scroop believes that Farley shrewdly saw his opportunities with Franklin Roosevelt and took them. He came to FDR’s attention in the late 1920s because of his success in organizing upstate New York for the Democratic Party – the region had been reliably Republican until the New Deal. As a member of the Roosevelt team beginning with FDR’s first gubernatorial term in 1929-30, Farley dutifully did the boss’s bidding and gained national fame as first-rate political organizer. Scroop sees Farley as an organization man, pragmatic and hard-working, but without a philosophical core. “His brand of politics was neither ideological – at least not consciously so – nor especially geared toward interest-group or issue-oriented politics (though he did make some concessions in this direction during the New Deal),” Scroop writes [26].

His talents as an organizer surely were impressive. Referring to a 19-day, 18-state intelligence-gathering trip Farley made for FDR in 1931, Scroop writes, “In addition to maintaining a hectic schedule of handshaking, luncheons, dinners, and late-night convocations, the tireless Farley also found time to write eighteen reports, one for each state he visited” [63]. These reports were forwarded to the equally indefatigable Louis Howe, a man who generally receives more credit than Farley does for putting FDR on the road to the White House.

This picture of a capable operative with no genuine beliefs of his own is in keeping with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s argument, made in his essay on the Irish in Beyond the Melting Pot, that “the Irish did not know what to do with power once they got it.”(3) Scroop describes Farley’s politics as “localized” and “nonideological,” a competition between two teams rather than a contest of ideas [198]. Farley chose the Roosevelt team because it offered him a chance to succeed, not necessarily because he was enamored with FDR’s progressive policy goals.

Arguments made decades ago by Huthmacher and Buenker ought to inspire contemporary historians to wonder if there were more going on in the wards of Irish America than the simple exchange of service and power. It was, after all, Irish-run Tammany Hall which supported reforms from worker’s compensation to industrial regulation to minimum wages in the second decade of the twentieth century. Buenker’s book, Urban Liberalism and Progressive Reform, analyzes the ways in which mostly Irish-American politicians in seven states implemented sweeping social reforms during the Progressive Era. Farley was not, to repeat, a member of Tammany Hall. Nor was he an urban pol – he hailed from Rockland County, twelve miles north of New York City. But he was, to be sure, a Tammany type: He was Irish and Catholic, he was a Democrat, he believed in party discipline and personal outreach and, it seems clear, he believed in his party’s policy goals and ideals.

As Scroop notes, Farley was not a rabble-rousing leftist, and surely was more comfortable with mid-level businessmen than he was with the urban proletariat of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Nevertheless, he considered himself a liberal. Indeed, when an off-again, on-again Tammanyite named Jeremiah Mahoney ran for mayor of New York in 1937, Farley delivered a radio address on his behalf, assuring New Yorkers that Mahoney was a “militant liberal” who fervently supported the New Deal.(4)

Within three years, however, Farley was an embittered critic of Franklin Roosevelt, sounding very much like another Irish-Catholic New Yorker, Al Smith, who also broke with FDR. Farley believed he ought to be the Democratic nominee in 1940, but was outmaneuvered by his boss, who was nominated for a third term without ever publicly announcing his intention to run again. Farley felt personally aggrieved, returned to New York, and later complained that FDR had never invited him to spend a night in the White House “although everyone agreed I was more responsible than any single man for his being in the White House.”(5) Farley gave voice to a very Irish and somewhat justified sense that they remained outsiders in a world controlled by non-Catholic elites. That grievance, multiplied a million times, begins to explain the Irish-American exodus from Farley’s Democratic Party after World War II.

Farley, however, remained Mr. Democrat until his death, regularly regaling political reporters with stories about the old days and insights into the changing nature of American politics in the 1960s and into the 1970s. Scroop reminds us that Jim Farley helped bring about the changes he lived to witness – even if, at the end of the day, he didn’t always like what he saw.



1.  See Schlesinger, The Age of Roosevelt, vol. iii (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), for his treatment of Farley.

2. See J. Joseph Huthmacher, “Urban Liberalism and the Age of Reform,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 44 (September 1962) : 231-241; John D. Buenker, Urban Liberalism and Progressive Reform (New York: Norton & Co., 1978); Nancy Jo Weiss, Charles Francis Murphy : Respectability and Responsibility in Tammany Politics (Northampton, Mass.: Smith College Press, 1968).

3. Nathan Glazer & Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1963) : 229.

4. See Mahoney’s comments in “The Reminiscences of Jeremiah T. Mahoney,” Columbia University Oral History Research Office. For Farley’s use of the phrase “militant liberal,” see The New York Times, Oct. 27, 1937.

5. James A. Farley, Jim Farley’s Story : The Roosevelt Years (New York: Whittlesey House, 1948) : 63.







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