Oscar Underwood, U.S. Senator

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Oscar Wilder Underwood

Birthdate: (66)
Birthplace: Louisville, Jefferson County, Kentucky, United States
Death: Died in Fort Belvoir, Fairfax County, Virginia, United States
Place of Burial: Birmingham, Jefferson County, Alabama, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Eugene Underwood and Frederica Virginia Underwood
Husband of Bertha Underwood and Eugenia Underwood
Father of John Lewis Underwood and Oscar W Underwood
Brother of William Thompson Underwood

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About Oscar Underwood, U.S. Senator


Oscar Wilder Underwood (May 6, 1862–January 25, 1929) was an American politician.

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.

He was elected from Alabama as a Democrat to the U.S. 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.

He then served 9 terms in the same position from 1897 to 1915. He served as the first House minority whip from about 1900 to 1901. He was then House majority leader from 1911 to 1915. He was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1912 and won primaries in several Southern states, though he did not become a major contender. At the nominating convention that year in Baltimore, Wilson's managers offered Underwood the vice-presidential nomination, which he declined. Following the election, he supported the progressive reforms of Wilson's first term, 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. 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.

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

He was twice elected to the 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."

Underwood led the anti-Ku Klux Klan forces at the 1924 Democratic National Convention. He was a longtime opponent of the Klan. In 1914, when the Klan organized a parade in Birmingham during that year's National Democratic Convention, Underwood called it an effort "to intimidate me, the Alabama delegation and the democratic party....It will not succeed....I maintain that the organization is a national menace....It is either the Ku Klux Klan or the United States of America. Both cannot survive. Between the two, I choose my country." By 1924 Underwood was one of very few anti-Klan officeholders left in the South. He blamed the Klan's opposition to his candidacy for his loss in the Georgia presidential primary to former Secretary of the Treasury McAdoo. He then determined to embarrass McAdoo by putting the party on record against the Klan. Even before the Convention considered its platform, the speech nominating Underwood called for the condemnation of the Klan and produced a lengthy floor demonstration. 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 prove 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.

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. 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. 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.

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

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

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.

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

Oscar Underwood was born on May 6, 1862, in Louisville, Kentucky, the first of three boys born to Frederica Virginia Wilder and Eugene Underwood, son of Joseph Roger Underwood. Oscar Wilder Underwood (1862-1929) was a state and Oscar W. Underwood, a U.S. representative and senator from Kentucky. It was the second marriage for both Virginia Wilder and Eugene Underwood, whose first wife, Catherine Thompson, died in 1857, leaving him with three boys. Oscar Underwood thus also had three older half-brothers from his father's first marriage and a half-sister from his mother's first marriage.


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Oscar Underwood, U.S. Senator's Timeline

May 6, 1862
Louisville, Jefferson County, Kentucky, United States
January 25, 1929
Age 66
Fort Belvoir, Fairfax County, Virginia, United States
Birmingham, Jefferson County, Alabama, United States