James Farley (1888-1976)

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James Farley was chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1932 to 1940 and Postmaster General from 1933 to 1940. He was a key figure in Franklin Roosevelt’s 1932 and 1936 presidential campaigns and he was once described as “the master political organizer and salesman of the nineteen-thirties,” with a “dazzling attention to detail” and an “imperturbable geniality” [1].

James Aloysius Farley was born in Rockland County, New York on May 30, 1888, to James and Ellen Farley. Even at a young age, James was interested in politics. In 1896, when he was only eight years old, he joined a parade for presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. In recognition of his father’s politics, he once declared, “I was born a Democrat” [2]. James’ father died in 1898, leaving Ellen Farley to raise her five sons alone. With a modest inheritance, a small insurance policy, a grocery and saloon business, and James helping out with odd jobs, the family persevered.

James graduated from Stony Point High School (Rockland County, NY) in 1905, studied bookkeeping for nine months at the Packard Commercial School (New York City), and shortly thereafter started a lengthy career as a bookkeeper and salesman at the Universal Gypsum Company. During those early working years, he also became more involved in politics as the town clerk for Stony Point and as the Rockland County Chairman for the Democratic Party. In 1920, Farley married Elizabeth Finnegan, with whom he fathered three children: Elizabeth, Ann, and James, Jr. [3].

James Farley continued moving up the political ladder, eventually becoming a New York state assemblyman, 1922-1924, and chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, 1925-1933. In the latter role, he was remembered by a New York Times sports writer as a “fair and honest commissioner, always on the level… a pleasure to deal with.” Indeed, Farley’s integrity was such that the famous1926 heavyweight championship fight between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney was put in jeopardy because Farley demanded that Dempsey make good on an earlier, but controversial fight obligation to African American boxer Harry Wills (at the time, many people did not approve of mixed-race boxing matches) [4]. Dempsey’s promoters refused and the fight was moved to Philadelphia. Today, the Boxing Writers Association of America has a “James A. Farley Award” for honesty and integrity [5].

During the 1930s, Farley’s organizing skills and salesmanship made him an invaluable asset to Roosevelt, the Democratic Party, and the nation. He brought in voters, presided over a rejuvenated Post Office [6], and vigorously promoted the New Deal [7]. When the American Liberty League [8] attacked the New Deal, Farley set his geniality aside and called them “the center and soul of the predatory powers,” who would “perpetuate the sorry business of the Mellons and the Morgans in reducing 95 percent of the people to the status of serfs” [9].

Farley left the New Deal and the Democratic National Committee in 1940 after his disagreement with Roosevelt’s decision to run for a third term. Their friendship had decayed by that point, and Roosevelt’s decision thwarted Farley’s own ambitions for the White House. Later, he remarked that were it not for Roosevelt, “I might have been Vice President or even President.” Farley went on to have a prosperous career with Coca Cola from 1940 to 1973. He died on June 9, 1976, at the age of 88, after a work life that spanned eight decades [10].

Sources: (1) Alden Whitman, “Farley, ‘Jim’ to Thousands, Was the Master Political Organizer and Salesman,” New York Times, June 10, 1976. (2) Ibid. (3) Ibid. (4) Ibid. (5) See, e.g., “Boxing Writers Association of America, 90th Annual Awards Gala NYC – 2015,” https://www.bwaa.us/category/events/, BWAA, accessed February 11, 2016, and “Writers to honor Mills Lane with award,” Associated Press, ESPN, https://espn.go.com/sports/boxing/news/story?id=4968402, accessed February 11, 2016. (6) See, e.g., “Farley Hails Postal Gains,” New York Times, March 24, 1937, and “Christmas Mail Records Set in Size and Revenue,” New York Times, December 26, 1937. (7) See, e.g., James A. Farley, “For the New Deal,” New York Times, November 4, 1934. (8) An organization ostensibly set up to promote freedom for the common man, but in reality made up of a “narrow class united by wealth and fear of its confiscation.” Michael Hiltzik, The New Deal: A Modern History, New York: Free Press, 2011, p. 333. (9) “Farley Denounces Liberty Leaguers,” Associated Press, New York Times, February 6, 1936. (10) “James A. Farley, 88, Dies; Ran Roosevelt Campaigns,” New York Times, June 10, 1976.

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