Graham Barden

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Graham A. Barden (25 Sept. 1896-29 Jan. 1967), U.S. congressman, was born in Sampson County, North Carolina, near Turkey township, the son of James Jefferson Barden and Mary James. After Graham's early years on the family farm, the Bardens moved to Burgaw so the children could attend high school. Following graduation from Burgaw High School, Barden enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. World War I intervened, and he enlisted in the navy about a month before the armistice. Discharged after five months of service, he returned to the university, where he earned his LL.B. in 1920. After passing the state bar examination, he taught and coached at New Bern High School to earn money for a law library. The next year he established his first law practice with a friend. He married Agnes Foy in 1922. They had two children. In 1931 he left his law firm to practice with his wife's brother-in-law.

In 1932 Barden was elected as a Democrat to the North Carolina House of Representatives. There he built a statewide reputation both for supporting adequate funding for all levels of education and for being economy-minded. He won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1934.

When Barden arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1935 as the freshman representative of coastal North Carolina's Third District, he was assigned to the Committee on Education, which allowed him to pursue his primary interest, and the Committee on Rivers and Harbors, which enabled him to secure tangible benefits for his coastal constituents. Because of his loyalty to the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, Barden was chosen by the House leadership in the Seventy-fifth Congress (1937-1938) as an "official objector" to monitor all bills on the private and consent calendars in order to weed out those lacking merit. He was rewarded for his diligence with an assignment to the Labor Committee. As a champion of Roosevelt's efforts to cut domestic spending and increase defense outlays, he rejected the "idea that the Federal government is some sort of spiritual Santa Claus having a treasury without bottom and always full of money" (Puryear, p. 27). He maintained this philosophy throughout his career.

During World War II, as the wounded came home and as work-related injuries increased, Barden began to advocate vocational rehabilitation. After disputes among veterans groups in the Seventy-seventh Congress (1941-1942) derailed his bill to fund rehabilitation, he revised it and saw it enacted in the next Congress as the Barden-La Follette Vocational Rehabilitation Act.

By 1943 Barden had enough seniority to chair either the Library Committee or the Education Committee. He chose the latter, because it positioned him to push his interests in both education and vocational rehabilitation. It was combined with the Labor Committee in 1947 to form the Committee on Education and Labor. In May 1950 John Lesinski, Sr. (D.-Mich.) died, and Barden became the third chair of the committee, a post he first held until January 1953, when the Republicans took control of Congress, and again from 1955 until he retired in 1961.

Barden left his imprint on the nation and on Congress as Education and Labor chair. By both deed and reputation he was staunchly conservative. "Suspicious of bigness in any form," he distrusted bureaucracy, big government, and "giveaway" programs (Puryear, p. 227), consistently opposing legislation that embodied those characteristics. Holding traditional southern attitudes toward labor, he regarded unions as "inherently evil organizations interfering with free enterprise" (Reeves, p. 57) and supported legislation allowing state "right to work" laws, which were antithetical to unions. His views on states' rights coincided: "The federal government has a job to do, but it must not interfere in the business of state governments" (Reeves, p. 57). The U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) reinforced his convictions that with federal aid came federal interference, thus leading to charges of bigotry from his detractors. Barden joined nearly one hundred southern congressmen in signing the "Southern Manifesto," a pledge to use all lawful means to reverse the Brown decision. In 1956 he wrote to a constituent, "The action of the Supreme Court has almost frightened me away from any type of Federal assistance to public schools" (Puryear, p. 112). Nevertheless, when such aid was forthcoming, he fought efforts to deny it to schools in states that allowed racial segregation in education, especially since North Carolina was among them. Columnist Drew Pearson cited Barden as "the biggest headache for Democrats in Congress" because he was "sitting directly in the path of new school houses" (Puryear, p. 109). To counter the accusations of racial prejudice, Barden emphasized his record of opposition during his law practice to the Great Tiger Klan, one of eastern North Carolina's "imitators and emulators of the Ku Klux Klan" (Puryear, p. 5).

His views on separation of church and state led to allegations that he was anti-Catholic. His resolute stance against federal aid to private and parochial schools led to a well-publicized dispute in which Francis Cardinal Spellman, archbishop of New York, labeled him "a new apostle of bigotry" (Puryear, p. 83). As chair of Education and Labor, Barden had the ability to block legislation and did so with gusto. Many people thought he used his position to impede progress on important social problems by thwarting all federal aid to education and working to restrain the activities and power of labor unions (Reeves, p. 58).

Presiding in an era when committee chairs had few limits on their power, Barden employed a variety of tactics to obstruct. They included calling few committee meetings or hearings, controlling the committee's agenda, refusing to recognize his opponents to speak, stacking hearing witnesses in his favor, declaring the absence of a quorum and adjourning committee meetings to preclude legislative consideration, conspiring with other committee chairs to block legislation if it emerged from committee despite his opposition, controlling staff, failing to appoint certain members to subcommittees, and killing legislation by declining to refer bills to subcommittees or assigning them to hostile subcommittees. Barden's actions precluded most legislation of any national significance from emerging from the committee. With few exceptions, most reported bills either amended previous laws or were narrow in scope and only benefited small groups, such as longshoremen, agricultural workers, or people with particular disabilities (Reeves, p. 49).

In the late 1950s, to counteract Barden's obstructionism, the House leadership stacked the committee with liberal Democrats. They revolted against Barden in 1957 and again in 1959, forcing the adoption of committee rules to make the process more democratic and to weaken the chairmanship. Four significant pieces of legislation soon emerged, including two landmark education bills and two labor bills concerning labor-management reporting and disclosure and welfare and pension benefit plans.

As chair, Barden was instrumental in stopping or delaying legislation that embodied principles contrary to his philosophy of minimal federal involvement. He used the resources of the chairmanship masterfully to bottle up federal aid to education bills and legislation favorable to organized labor. Barden died in New Bern, North Carolina.


Barden's papers are in the Duke University Library, Durham, N.C.

  • Elmer Puryear, Graham A. Barden: Conservative Carolina Congressman (1979), is the most comprehensive source of biographical information.
  • Barden's activities as chair are detailed in Andrée E. Reeves, Congressional Committee Chairmen: Three Who Made an Evolution (1993).
  • An obituary is in the New York Times, 30 Jan. 1967.

American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Copyright © 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press.