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Oscar Underwood

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Title: Oscar Underwood  
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Subject: United States presidential election, 1912, United States presidential election, 1924, 1912 Democratic National Convention, John William McCormack, Steny Hoyer
Collection: 1862 Births, 1929 Deaths, Alabama Democrats, Democratic Party Members of the United States House of Representatives, Democratic Party United States Senators, Majority Leaders of the United States House of Representatives, Members of the United States House of Representatives from Alabama, Politicians from Louisville, Kentucky, United States Presidential Candidates, 1912, United States Presidential Candidates, 1924, United States Senators from Alabama, University of Virginia Alumni
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Oscar Underwood

Oscar Underwood
Senate Minority Leader
In office
Preceded by Office Created
Succeeded by Joseph T. Robinson
House Majority Leader
In office
Preceded by Sereno E. Payne
Succeeded by Claude Kitchin
House Minority Whip
In office
Preceded by Office Created
Succeeded by James T. Lloyd
United States Senator
from Alabama
In office
March 4, 1915 – March 3, 1927
Preceded by Francis S. White
Succeeded by Hugo Black
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Alabama's 9th district
In office
March 4, 1897 – March 3, 1915
Preceded by Truman Heminway Aldrich
Succeeded by George Huddleston
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Alabama's 9th district
In office
March 4, 1895 – June 9, 1896
Preceded by Louis W. Turpin
Succeeded by Truman Heminway Aldrich
Personal details
Born Oscar Wilder Underwood
May 6, 1862
Louisville, Kentucky
Died January 25, 1929 (aged 66)
near Accotink, Virginia
Political party Democratic
Education University of Virginia
Alma mater University of Virginia
Profession Attorney, politician

Oscar Wilder Underwood (May 6, 1862 – January 25, 1929) was an American politician from Alabama and candidate for President of the United States.


  • Early life 1
  • Political career 2
  • Later life 3
  • Notes 4
  • Sources 5
  • External links 6

Early life

Underwood was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 6, 1862. He was the grandson of Joseph R. Underwood, a Kentucky Senator circa 1850. He attended the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. After studying law, he was admitted to the bar in 1884 and practiced law in Birmingham, Alabama.

Political career

Underwood was elected from Alabama as a Democrat to the United States House of Representatives in 1894. He resigned in the middle of his term, leaving office on June 9, 1896, after his election was successfully challenged by Truman H. Aldrich.[1]

Underwood then served nine terms in the same position from 1897 to 1915. He served as the first Democratic House Minority Whip from about 1900 to 1901.[2] He was then House Majority Leader from 1911 to 1915. He was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1912 and had some strength at the national convention among southern delegates but he could not compete with Champ Clark and Woodrow Wilson. At the convention that year in Baltimore, Wilson's managers offered Underwood the vice-presidential nomination, which he declined.[3] Following the election, he supported the progressive reforms of Wilson's first term,[4] using his position as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee to manage legislation and maintain party discipline. In return, Wilson granted him considerable control over patronage and appointed Albert S. Burleson Postmaster-General at Underwood's recommendation.[5] The Revenue Act of 1913 is also known as the Underwood Tariff Act or Underwood-Simmons Act in recognition of Underwood's role in writing and managing the bill as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He stood with a small minority of House members in opposition to the President when he voted, as the Democrats had promised in their last campaign, to maintain an exemption from Panama Canal tolls for American ships traveling between American ports, despite British protests that the policy violated the Hay–Pauncefote Treaty.[6]

Underwood served as president of the University of Virginia Alumni Association in 1913 and 1914.[7]

He was twice elected to the United States Senate, in 1914 and 1920, and served there from March 4, 1915 to March 3, 1927. He was Senate minority leader from 1920 to 1923.

He opposed federal Prohibition as "an attempt to rob the states of their jurisdiction over police matters" and advocated local control of liquor regulation because "the improved conditions which we may naturally expect to find in the lives of the men and women who practice Temperance are not found to predominate in the state where Prohibition laws have been on the statute books for years as compared to those states where liquor is sold under a license system or where Temperance laws are controlled by the sentiment of the local communities."[8]

Underwood led the anti-William Gibbs McAdoo.[11] He then determined to embarrass McAdoo by putting the party on record against the Klan.[12] Even before the Convention considered its platform, the speech nominating Underwood called for the condemnation of the Klan and produced a lengthy floor demonstration.[13] The attempt to modify the platform to condemn the Klan by name produced rousing demonstrations and speeches, many, including that of William Jennings Bryan, interrupted by the anti-Klan crowds that filled the galleries. The Convention's final vote, though contested, defeated the minority proposal naming the Klan by a vote of 542 3/20 to 541 3/20. The fight proved a polarizing battle that made each of the Convention's two major candidates unacceptable to large segments of the party, without enhancing Underwood's chances in the least.[14]

The Convention was marked by a deadlock between the supporters of the Irish Catholic New York Governor Al Smith and McAdoo, while the Convention's rules required a two-thirds vote to secure the nomination. Several delegations declined to support either of the leading candidates and persisted in voting for their state's "favorite son" instead. Like the other favorite son candidates, Underwood resisted efforts to remove the convention's two-thirds rule.[15] As the Convention labored through 103 ballots, Alabama, as the first state alphabetically, cast its votes first. The delegation's leader, Governor William W. Brandon, reported the state's unanimous vote tally each time without variation: "Alabama casts 24 votes for Oscar W. Underwood." Underwood became a symbol of the Convention's deadlock.[16] His vote totals were meager, fewer than 50, until the deadlock broke and on the 101st ballot he won 229.5, but his anti-prohibition, anti-Klan stances made him a most unlikely compromise candidate and the Convention turned to John W. Davis of West Virginia, whose work as a Wall Street lawyer proved less of a political hurdle for the delegates.[17]

Underwood did not run for reelection to the Senate in 1926 because he faced daunting opposition from the Klan and a formidable candidate in Hugo Black.[18]

He supported New York Governor Al Smith for President in 1928.[19]

Later life

In retirement he wrote an analysis of the transformation of American government in the 20th century, Drifting Sands of Party Politics, which appeared in 1928. He decried federal legislation aimed at regulating morality, government by commissions, and excessive American engagement in foreign affairs.[20]

He died on January 25, 1929, and was buried in Birmingham's Elmwood Cemetery.[21]

Underwood's former home in Washington, D.C., the Oscar W. Underwood House, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976.


  1. ^ Thomas McAdory Owen and Marie Bankhead Owen, History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography, vol. 1 (Chicago: S.J. Clarke, 1921), 358, available online, accessed February 7, 2011
  2. ^ See notes at Party whips of the United States House of Representatives for details on the ambiguity.
  3. ^ John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (NY, 2009), 150-1, 157-8
  4. ^ Cooper, 213
  5. ^ Scott C. James, Presidents, Parties, and the State: A Party System Perspective on Democratic Regulatory Choice, 1884-1936 (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 142, available online, accessed February 7, 2011
  6. ^ Cooper, 249-50
  7. ^ John Shelton Patton, Sallie J. Doswell, and Lewis Dabney Crenshaw, eds., Jefferson's University: Glimpses of the Past and Present of the University of Virginia (1915), 81, available online, accessed February 7, 2011
  8. ^ Lamar Taney Beman, ed., Selected Articles on Prohibition of the Liquor Traffic (NY: H.W. Wilson, 1915), 120, 127-8, available online, accessed February 7, 2011
  9. ^ Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins, ed., From Civil War to Civil Rights–Alabama, 1860-1960 (University of Alabama Press, 1987), 316n, available online, accessed February 7, 2011
  10. ^ Murray, 23
  11. ^ Murray 53-4
  12. ^ Murray, 90
  13. ^ Murray, 123-4
  14. ^ Murray, 151, 153ff.
  15. ^ Murray, 113
  16. ^ Murray, 194
  17. ^ Murray, 204-5
  18. ^ George Brown Tindall, The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945 (A History of the South vol. 10) (Louisiana State University Press, 1967), 194, available online, accessed February 7, 2011
  19. ^ New York Times: "Underwood Lauds Smith," December 10, 1927, accessed February 7, 2011
  20. ^ New York Times: "Who Rules the United States?", June 3, 1928, accessed February 7, 2011
  21. ^ Findagrave: Oscar Wilder Underwood, accessed August 3, 2011


  • Oscar Underwood at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
  • James S. Fleming, "Oscar W. Underwood: The First Modern House Leader, 1911—1915," in Raymond W Smock and Susan W Hammond, eds. Masters of the House: Congressional Leadership Over Two Centuries (1998), 91–118
  • James S. Fleming, "Re-establishing Leadership in the House of Representatives: The Case of Oscar W. Underwood," in Joel H. Silbey, The United States Congress in a Nation Transformed, 1896-1963, vol. 1 (Carlson, 1991), 235-52
  • Evans C. Johnson. Oscar W. Underwood: A Political Biography (Louisiana State University Press, 1980).
  • Robert K. Murray, The 103rd Ballot: Democrats and the Disaster in Madison Square Garden (NY: Harper & Row, 1976)

External links

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Louis Washington Turpin
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Alabama's 9th congressional district

March 4, 1895 – June 9, 1896
Succeeded by
Truman Heminway Aldrich
Preceded by
Truman Heminway Aldrich
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Alabama's 9th congressional district

March 4, 1897 – March 3, 1915
Succeeded by
George Huddleston
United States Senate
Preceded by
Francis S. White
U.S. Senator (Class 3) from Alabama
Served alongside: John H. Bankhead, B. B. Comer, J. Thomas Heflin
Succeeded by
Hugo Black
Party political offices
Preceded by
None (new office)
House Democratic Whip
Succeeded by
James T. Lloyd
Preceded by
Sereno E. Payne
House Majority Leader
Succeeded by
Claude Kitchin
Preceded by
Champ Clark
House Democratic Leader
Succeeded by
Claude Kitchin
Preceded by
None (new office)
Senate Democratic Leader
Succeeded by
Joseph T. Robinson
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