Ellison D. Smith

Ellison D. Smith
United States Senator
from South Carolina
In office
March 4, 1909  November 17, 1944
Preceded by Frank B. Gary
Succeeded by Wilton E. Hall
Dean of the United States Senate
In office
January 19, 1940  November 17, 1944
Preceded by William Borah
Succeeded by Kenneth McKellar
Chairman of the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry
In office
Preceded by Charles L. McNary
Succeeded by Elmer Thomas
Chairman of the Committee on Interstate Commerce
In office
Preceded by Albert B. Cummins
Succeeded by James E. Watson
In office
Preceded by Francis G. Newlands
Succeeded by Albert B. Cummins
Member of the South Carolina House of Representatives from Sumter County
In office
January 12, 1897 January 8, 1901
Personal details
Born (1864-08-01)August 1, 1864
Lynchburg, South Carolina
Died November 17, 1944(1944-11-17) (aged 80)
Lynchburg, South Carolina
Political party Democratic
Residence Lynchburg, South Carolina

Ellison DuRant "Cotton Ed" Smith (August 1, 1864 November 17, 1944) was a Democratic Party politician from the U.S. state of South Carolina widely known for his virulently racist and segregationist views and his advocacy of white supremacy. He represented South Carolina in the United States Senate from 1909 until 1944.

Early life

Smith was born near Lynchburg, South Carolina, the youngest child of William Hankin Smith and Marry Isabella Smith, at his ancestral home, Tanglewood Plantation (formerly Smith's Grove).[1] He was of English, French, and German descent. Throughout his life, he would reside in Tanglewood.[1] Smith attended the University of South Carolina, where he was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity,[2] and graduated from Wofford College in 1889. He first married at the age of 28 to Martha Moorer of St. George, South Carolina.[1] She died giving birth to their son Martius Ellison.[1] At 19 Martius was accidentally shot by his own gun while drinking water at the barnyard well.[1] He died five days later.[1]

In 1906 Ellison married Annie Brunson Farley.[1] Her uncle Henry Farley fired the first shot in the Confederate Army, serving under J.E.B. Stuart, and gave his life for the Southern cause. Ellison and Annie had four children of their own, two boys and two girls.[1] Their eldest daughter, Anna, was married to L.L. Smith, vice president of Kohler Plumbing Co. of Wisconsin.[1] Isobel Smith Lawton moved to Florence, South Carolina, when she married.[1] Ellison DuRant, Jr. married Vivian Manning, daughter of Governor John Lawrence Manning.[1] Charles Saxon Farley, a past member of the South Carolina legislature from Lee County, married Laura Douglas.[1] Laura was the daughter of Oscar Douglas (co-founder of the F.W. Woolworth empire.)[1] All five of Smith's children are now deceased.[1]

Smith served in the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1896 to 1900. He was unsuccessful in his bid to become a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1900. In 1901, Smith helped organize the Farmer's Protective Association[3] and eventually became one of the principal figures in the formation of the Southern Cotton Association in 1905.[3][4] Between the years 1905 and 1908, He served as a field agent and general organizer in the cotton protective movement.[4] Smith received the nickname "Cotton Ed" after he declared "Cotton is king and white is supreme."[5]

Election to the U.S. Senate

Smith was elected to the United States Senate in 1908. He was re-elected five times, although from 1920 until 1944, he had four close elections, with three of them leading to run-off elections because he failed to capture a majority. Smith never won more than 61% in Democratic party primaries in this time. During his time in Congress, he had a goal to "keep the Niggers down and the price of cotton up."[6] Known for being a reputed showman,[7] Smith would publicly promote this goal by riding to Washington on a wagon-load of cotton waving the banner of white supremacy.[7] He also developed a reputation for having a violent temper while speaking in Congress and would at times stand on his feet and try to get the floor speaker's attention by repeatedly hacking his armchair with a penknife whenever the speaker angered him.[6] Smith was not fond of his fellow Senators and often described the Senate Chamber as "the Cave of the Winds."[6]

Senate career

Between 1909 and 1933, Smith was regarded as a fairly effective senator, though admittedly not of the first rank.[7] A tireless champion of agriculture,[7] he opposed most of the economic legislation of the Progressive Era but supported most of its social efforts, having written a small part of them.[7] He authored the Smith-Lever Act and sponsored the Muscle Shoals project, a forerunner to the Tennessee Valley Authority.[3] Smith, however, would not favor legislation he felt would largely diversify the Southern economy and reduce the need for the vast presence of the plantation system in the South,[6] and endanger the old Southern way of life.[6][8] In the 1930s, Smith became Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry and would imperiously summon the fellow Senators on the Committee by saying "tell those butt-heads we will assemble tomorrow morning."[6] When he spoke, Smith would usually chew tobacco and keep a spittoon next to him.[6]

Smith opposed the women's suffrage movement, and specifically the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Tying the amendment to black suffrage, he warned on the Senate floor, "Here is exactly the identical same amendment applied to the other half of the Negro race. The southern man who votes for the Susan B. Anthony Amendment votes to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment."[9]

Time called Smith a "conscientious objector to the 20th Century."[6] One observer claimed he "taxed neither his brain nor the voters with a new issue."[7] He had at first welcomed US President Franklin Roosevelt[8] but soon emerged as an opponent to the New Deal, which he dubbed as "the Jackass Age"[6] when he noticed that Roosevelt's programs were leading the Southern economy in a new direction.[6][8] Although he voted for a draft of the Revenue Act of 1935, he condemned the soon added provisions that aimed for heavy taxes on the wealthy and redistribution of income.

At the 1936 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Smith walked out of the convention hall once he saw that a black minister was going to deliver the invocation.[6] Smith recalled, "He started praying and I started walking. And from his great plantation in the sky, John C. Calhoun bent down and whispered in my ear 'You done good, Ed.'"

Ellison Smith filibustered against the minimum wage provision of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, believing that wages should be determined by market value and skill of labor. Saying "South Carolinians are willing to work for less than 50 cents/hour." Smith's opposition to the New Deal led to Roosevelt's decision to make an unsuccessful attempt to have him defeated in the 1938 primary by supporting the candidacy of Governor Olin D. Johnston. Smith won re-election in a close race in that year, thanks mainly to the unpopularity of Roosevelt's interfering in the primary,[6] Johnston's inability to please either the state's powerful textile mill owners or staunch white supremacists[10] and an endorsement from Smith's fellow South Carolina senator, James F. Byrnes,[11] a highly popular outspoken New Dealer who had been re-elected in 1936 with over 87% of the vote.[12] Byrnes, however, despised Smith and only endorsed him because he was opposed to Johnston's strong support for Roosevelt's new push for vast labor reform,[13] which was evident in the Fair Labor Standards Act,[13] and hoped that Smith would retire in 1944 and his friend Burnet R. Maybank, the mayor of Charleston who was running for governor of South Carolina that year, would then go on to win Smith's Senate seat[11] and build a powerful political machine with Byrnes that would control the South Carolina political scene.[11]

While the 1938 election would mark the first time since 1914 where he faced no runoff, it was also believed that the vast majority of the people in South Carolina at this point in time were fed up with Smith, who would probably have easily lost the primary if Roosevelt had not interfered.[6] In 1940, a survey found that there was no great admiration for Smith among the people in South Carolina and that his 1938 victory was symbolic because it showed that an unpopular person was elected because "the president picked him out as the victim."[10]

During World War II, Smith opposed the national war mobilization efforts,[8] which consisted of programs that developed a vast number of factories across the states that manufactured and supplied the U.S. military with munitions, metal, fuel and other materials needed in order to win the war.[14] During this time, the aged senator would violently criticize Americans for supporting both the war effort and the New Deal.[15]

Last election and death in office

In 1944, Olin D. Johnston again challenged Smith in the Democratic primary. During the campaign, Johnston, once again governor of South Carolina, was strongly supportive of Roosevelt's foreign policy,[16] but was now lukewarm towards the New Deal and was able to the snatch the "flag of white supremacy" from Smith by boasting how he countered the U.S. Supreme Court's recent Smith v. Allwright decision, which ruled that racial segregation in state primaries was unconstitutional, by passing a series of laws making the South Carolina Democratic Party a private club which could keep blacks from voting in the state's primary.[16] During the campaign, Smith presented himself as an aged and tired old man and during at least one debate with Johnston,[16] he spoke for only a few minutes and then played a recording of a speech he had made six years earlier.[16] Johnston would go on to win the primary with over 55% of the vote, thus achieving the majority needed to avoid a run-off, and Smith would only receive just over 35% of the vote. After hearing word of his defeat on his 2,500-acre farm near Lynchburg,[16] Smith stood up in frustration and said "Well, I guess I better go out and look at the pigs."[16]

On November 17, 1944, a month and a half before the end of his term, Smith died at Tanglewood Plantation in the same bed in which he was born.[1] He is buried at St. Luke's Cemetery near Wisacky in Lee County.[1]


United States Senate
Preceded by
Frank B. Gary
U.S. Senator (Class 3) from South Carolina
March 4, 1909 November 17, 1944
Served alongside: Benjamin Tillman, Christie Benet, William P. Pollock, Nathaniel B. Dial, Coleman Livingston Blease, James F. Byrnes, Alva M. Lumpkin, Roger C. Peace, Burnet R. Maybank
Succeeded by
Wilton E. Hall
Honorary titles
Preceded by
William E. Borah
Dean of the United States Senate
January 19, 1940 November 17, 1944
Succeeded by
Kenneth McKellar
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