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Harvey Parnell - Twenty-Ninth Governor of Arkansas

HARVEY PARNELL (28 February 1880—16 January 1936), merchant and farmer, was born on a farm near Orlando, Cleveland County, Arkansas, the son of southern Arkansas farmers, William Robert and Mary Elizabeth (Martin) Parnell. He shared farm chores with four brothers and two sisters, attending rural schools until he was eighteen. He then moved to Warren, Arkansas, to attend high school and clerked in a hardware store. In 1900 he moved again, taking a position with E.P. Remley and Company in Dermott as a clerk and bookkeeper. After two years with that firm, Parnell struck out on his own and for the next eight years operated a dry-goods business in Dermott.

On 2 June 1903 he married Mabel Winston who bore him two daughters, Martha and Mary Frances. In 1904 Parnell acquired 150 acres of farmland in Chicot county and returned to farming on a part-time basis. By 1910 he had increased his holdings to 1,750 acres and listed his occupation as cattle raiser. Parnell periodically added to Old Crooked, as he called his place near Crooked Bayou, so that at the time of his death the farm consisted of 3,000 acres. The businessman-turned-farmer took pride in his agricultural background, stating once, “the people of Arkansas called me from the farm to serve as their chief executive.” Parnell was a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, a Mason, and a Democrat.

Parnell’s initiation into state politics began in 1919 when he was elected to the forty-second general assembly as a representative from Chicot County. Though his voice was seldom heard on the floor, Parnell early demonstrated a tendency to support progressive measures such as health and safety standards for coal miners and an act granting women the right to hold civil office. After serving two terms as a representative, Parnell won election to the upper chamber of the Arkansas legislature in 1923. By this time he had matured as a legislator and for the next three years the senator from Chicot and Ashley counties not only supported by also introduced various reform bills. Labor leaders across the state urged his appointment to the Labor committee. Even suffragettes could call him a friend. He was one of fifteen state senators to vote for ratification of the Child Labor Amendment and was a consistent if not outspoken advocate of woman
suffrage. In November 1931, during his second elected term as governor, Parnell appointed Hattie M. Caraway to fill the unexpired term of her late husband, Sen. Thaddeus H. Caraway. Mrs. Caraway would later earn the honor of being the first woman elected to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Parnell’s legislative record met the requirements for inclusion in that genre of Southern politics called “business progressivism.” Political leadership throughout the South in the 1920s took an opportunistic approach to reform by insisting that public-health programs and social reforms would attract business and industry into the region. Parnell joined this crusade in 1923 when he attached his name to the cigarette-tax law that provided revenue for public schools. Typical of a business progressive, however, Parnell regarded such an act as a means, not an end; as he told the Arkansas Education Association, “all manufacturing establishments are in states with good school systems.”

A court decision and a surprise federal appointment allowed Parnell to advance rapidly from a state senator to governor of Arkansas. On 12 April 1926 the Arkansas Supreme Court settled a dispute on state constitutional law, declaring that the office of lieutenant governor had indeed been approved by a majority of those voting on the measure in 1924. For twelve years, it had been assumed that the amendment creating that office had not passed since it had not received a majority vote of all the electors at the general election. A constitutional issue was resolved, the office of lieutenant governor was proclaimed vacant, and Parnell announced his decision to seek the post. What was described as a “Parnell machine” over the next few years began in 1926 as a collection of friends and acquaintances whom he had made as a member of the general assembly. Their support assured Parnell of a successful race for lieutenant governor, a race in which he was virtually unopposed. Furthermore, Parnell gained political mileage from his dual career: during his 1926 campaign he claimed that his background as both businessman and farmer gave him the distinct advantage of being the candidate representing both major elements of the Arkansas populace. In November 1926 he became Arkansas’s first elected lieutenant governor. In the same election John E. Martineau was chosen governor.

As lieutenant governor Parnell’s duty was to preside over the senate and his primary concern was enactment of the Martineau Road Law. Crisscrossing the state with a modern highway system fit squarely into Parnell’s avowed mission to change the image of a benighted Arkansas. The lieutenant governor was to play an even greater part in the road program, however, for on 14 March 1928, Governor Martineau resigned to accept an appointment to a federal judgeship.

Parnell’s message to the people of Arkansas on assuming the office of governor was a promise to continue the Martineau program. Between 1928 and 1933, however Parnell emerged as a leader of a two-pronged attack on the political and economic structure of the state, seeking not an overhaul of the system, but a realignment. The failure to bring many of his plans to fruition was due more to economic and environmental disasters than to political obstacles. Surely no other chief executive in Arkansas’s history dealt with the problems of weather more than Parnell did. Only a year before he succeeded Martineau as governor, Arkansas had experienced an extremely cold, harsh winter followed by unprecedented spring flooding. The spring of 1929 brought several tornadoes that caused severe and widespread property damage. The Red Cross had barely finished administering aid to the flood victims when the southwestern portion of the United States suffered a draught in the summer of 1930. By all accounts the state hardest hit was Arkansas. The economic forecast was no better than the weather. With the stock-market crash of 29 October 1929 and the resulting Great Depression, Arkansas, a state that ranked forty-sixth in per capita income, sank for the next decade into a quagmire of unemployment, bankruptcy, farm foreclosures, and dire poverty. But in 1928 few people predicted clouds over the economic horizon, and Parnell’s concerns were focused on highways and politics of an election year.

After taking office Parnell called a special session of legislature to authorize $18 million in bonds each year to expand the Martineau road program. A state highway toll-bridge-construction program also passed in that session, calling for the sale of $7.5 million in bonds. Other than increasing state indebtedness for highways, Parnell refrained from energetic and costly programs until he had been elected governor in his own right.

The August primary of 1928 gave Arkansas voters a choice of four candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, and in a race that hinged largely on personalities, Parnell received the greatest support. Shortly after the returns were tabulated, however, Parnell was charged with violating the Corrupt Practices Act by spending more than the $5,000 campaign limit. He denied the allegation, explaining that the attempt to disqualify him was the work of an interest group opposed to his toll-bridge program. Whether Parnell had correctly identified the opposition, or even whether the accusation could be substantiated is unknown because in the course of two weeks the whole matter was dropped.

Arkansans had other events claiming their attention. In the months between August and November the state was alive with feverish political activity. Since the Democratic presidential candidate, Alfred E. Smith, had chosen U.S. Senator Joseph Taylor Robinson of Arkansas as his vice-presidential running mate, candidates for office in Arkansas felt compelled to state their opinions and preference in terms of national issues. State and local politicians pooled their efforts in order to win a total Democratic victory. The 1928 election was composed of such a hybrid combination of characters that Parnell, a Protestant, urged Arkansas voters to ignore Smith’s Catholicism and expressed his belief that the Irish politician and governor of New York would enforce the Eighteenth Amendment. To a predominantly rural population who abhorred urban bossism, Parnell delicately explained that even Smith’s Tammany Hall connections were not brewed in the same kettle as Teapot Dome.

Running against the Republican party locally and nationally, Parnell was in league with other Democratic candidates who sought victory over the party of big business by rediscovering the electoral strength of the farmers. The gubernatorial hopeful who since first entering public office in 1919 had promoted industrial expansion and development declared in 1928, “the Governor’s office can be made a strong force in securing legislation which will really benefit the farmer.” The November Arkansas voters approved a measure forbidding the teaching of evolution in state-supported schools at the same time that they voted for Smith and returned Parnell to the governor’s office.

Parnell had no set program geared to fit any one special interest. Instead he defined state development in terms of specific areas that needed attention. Only after the Great Depression, when the Arkansas farmer’s plight was magnified and publicized, was the legislation for that group forthcoming from the governor’s office. For the time being Parnell was satisfied that farmers and other elements of the population could be taken care of by an attack on what he called the three outstanding problems in Arkansas: taxation, education, and rural highways.

The newly elected governor sought to more equitably distribute the burden of paying for state government and services by instituting a tax on occupations. Previously, the tax load had only been shouldered by people with property that could be assessed; hence, the farmer or property owner was a frequent stop for the tax assessor. Perhaps Parnell did nothing directly to aid the distressed condition of agriculture in his first elected term, but he was at least familiar enough with the farmers’ history of tax grievances to realize that he must find another source of revenue for his proposed construction projects. To citizens such as the Taxpayers’ Protection Association who protested the income tax, Parnell replied in a speech made in 1929, “this state was ninety-three years old the other day and it seems to me that we have waited long enough before requiring those with large incomes and no property or practically none, to pay something for the support of our institutions.

Tax reform proved to be a bitter struggle and the occupational-tax bill that Parnell first sent to the general assembly was thought to be so discriminatory and oppressive that the whole measure was in danger of being dropped. A compromise was reached, however, with passage of the Hall Net Income Tax Law in February 1929 that placed a reasonable tax on all net incomes.

With the funds provided from this “reasonable tax” Parnell forged ahead with his favorite projects. Construction began on a new hospital for the mentally ill near Benton, Arkansas. Additional buildings were authorized on Parnell’s recommendation for the Arkansas Tuberculosis Sanitorium at Boonville, and a glaring deficiency was rectified with the completion of a new school for deaf children at Little Rock. The auditorium at that school, Parnell Hall, was named for the governor whose tax program had helped to build it.

Due to his own rural background and meager formal education, Parnell was particularly sensitive to the needs of rural school districts. With newly found revenue he undertook programs to upgrade the state school system. The one-room schoolhouses that operated barely six months out of a year were consolidated into larger school districts maximizing the use of money and resources. Seventy-two such mergers occurred in the 1929-1930 school year. Streamlining the public-school system could hardly have taken place, however, if the school bus had not been put to optimum use. In that same period the number of children being transported nearly tripled. High-school enrollment across the state increased 20 percent and the school term was lengthened to eight months. Attention was also given to higher education with the creation of Henderson State Teachers College at Arkadelphia in 1929. Parnell’s plans for education were
more ambitious than the economy would allow in 1930 and thereafter the changes he wrought were of a cosmetic and less-expensive nature. For example, in 1931 the office of superintendent of public schools was renamed state commissioner of education and the position obtained by appointment from the state board of education, rather than popular vote.

Parnell had worked in state government for over ten years and knew the difficulties of legislating and administering the state’s needs within the constitution of 1874. His attempts to improve the state’s departmental and bureaucratic machinery offered additional clues to his business progressivism. In his own words, “state government is a business organization for the people of the state, providing services which the people need and demand.” Parnell wanted state government reorganized along the lines of corporate management and to this end he commissioned in August 1930 a New York City Firm, the Bureau of Municipal Research, to conduct a survey and make recommendations for a more efficient and coordinated system of administration. By extending an invitation to “outsiders” to walk into Arkansas and rearrange state government, Parnell encountered a regional bias that put him on the defensive. Though he maintained that many progressive states such as New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Virginia operated under similar plans, the majority of Arkansans resented those “slick brain trusters” from New York City. Once the bureau’s recommendations were submitted to the general assembly, the house of representatives refused approval because under the new plan only the governor, Lieutenant governor, and attorney general would be elective officers, with the governor appointing twelve department heads. A bill calling for a constitutional convention passed both houses in 1931 only to be vetoed by Parnell because in the midst of economic distress, the state simply could not bear the expense of a constitutional convention. Once again, the Great Depression had thwarted business progressivism.

In fact business progressivism contributed to the Great Depression. Parnell’s energetic efforts to improve state services and facilities meant that the state treasury had no reserve funds for emergency relief. The state’s bonded indebtedness became a much debated issue in the August 1930 Democratic primary between the two leading contenders, Brooks Hays and Parnell. To Hay’s charges that further bond issues for highway construction would bankrupt the state, Parnell responded with a promise to appoint a commission to audit the highway department. Arkansans did not seem concerned about bonded indebtedness; they were interested in roads and gave Parnell a decided majority over Hays in the primary.

The drought of the previous summer and election-time rhetoric induced the governor to remind his fellow Arkansans, “I am just a plain farmer.” Throughout the fall of 1930, Parnell campaigned against the Republicans at home by blaming the Republicans in Washington for the farmers’ distress and for the depression in general. No Republican was in danger of being elected governor of Arkansas during the Great Depression

Yet the relief that Parnell offered was neither immediate nor direct; it bore a striking resemblance to federal aid, Herbert Hoover-style. Parnell argued that agriculture had ceased to be profitable in Arkansas because the farmer had not kept up with the times. “The farm is strictly a business institution,” lectured the governor, and failure to apply the marketing tactics of modern business resulted in poor returns on the farmer’s investment. To help the farmer modernize, Parnell suggested construction of county roads to get the goods to market. This was the last of Parnell’s bond issues because in 1931 the state economy precluded additional bond sales.

The winter of 1930-1931 was Arkansas’s lowest point in the depression. In 1930 alone over a hundred banks across the state closed their doors. Without the Red Cross or federal funds the state would have been unable to help its destitute and homeless. In November 1930 Governor Parnell established the state committee on unemployment to study and make recommendations. He asked for contributions to charitable organizations and urged employed persons to contribute one day’s pay per month to the needy. Encouragement of voluntary programs, however, was simply not sufficient. On Saturday, 3 January 1931, around three hundred farmers marched into England in Lonoke County, Arkansas, and demanded food from the local merchants. There was some shouting, a store window was broken, but after bread had been given to them, the farmers dispersed. The national press recorded the incident as a full-scale bread riot and for a time the nation’s eyes were turned on what one periodical called, “Famine in Arkansas.” As a governor who had spent nearly three years sprucing up his state to make it attractive to industry and immigration, Parnell resented the unfavorable publicity. A comedy of errors ensued when he sent telegrams to certain national newspapers denying that Arkansas was experiencing serious economic difficulties. To Senators Robinson and Caraway the England riot was just the publicity
they needed to secure congressional approval of an additional $5 million relief appropriation for Arkansas drought victims. Hence, after assuring readers of the Baltimore Sun and the New York Times that Arkansas was fully capable of handling relief, Parnell had to send a telegram to Congress stating that he did not mean to imply that Arkansas did not need assistance.

The situation in Arkansas demanded that the 1931 session of the general assembly be sensitive to the severe economic problems, yet neither the legislature nor executive branch expressed much interest in public-relief projects. Like President Hoover who saw prosperity around every corner, Parnell announced in 1931 that there were “signs of the dawn.”  The governor cut the wages of state employees 10 percent and called for a 20 percent reduction in state spending. In August Parnell attended a conference of Southern governors in New Orleans and agreed to promote a cotton-acreage-reduction program in Arkansas. He called a special session of the legislature to deal with the deepening financial crisis but showed more interest in the debates over how much authority should be vested in the highway audit commission. The legislature, however, enacted a cotton-control measure that restricted the cultivation of crops in 1932 to 30 percent of the previous year’s acreage.

In that year agriculture received increasing attention. First, Parnell joined other Southern governors in advocating crop diversification and in pointing out the devastating economic and environmental effects of the one-crop farm system. Acreage previously taken up with unprofitable, soil-depleting cotton was put into corn and grains. Parnell also joined the back-to-the-land movement of the 1930s by advising his constituents to practice the self-sufficient farming of the Arkansas pioneers. Each family, he proposed, should be an independent unit, raising enough vegetables and livestock to feed and clothe its members. Certainly the Great Depression had altered the governor’s opinion of just how farming in
Arkansas should be conducted. Back-to-the-land was a far cry from agribusiness.

No appreciable economic gains were made in 1932, either in agriculture or industry. The average annual farm income had fallen to $230, and only 62.7 percent of the labor force remained employed. Deposits in state banks fell from $137 million to $62 million, yet the state’s bonded indebtedness was over $105 million. Seventy-five percent of the revenue the government did receive that year went to the highway department. In March 1932 Parnell again called a special session of the legislature, but he presented no emergency-relief programs and the issues raised, whether to refund the highway debt or to raise taxes, were futile in dealing with financial chaos. As many schools closed as banks and by October 1932 private charities had exhausted their funds. Between February and August Arkansas received more farm loans from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) than any other state. Parnell created an emergency-relief commission to disburse RFC money for public-works projects in every Arkansas county; that agency depleted its financial resources in eight months.

As far as Parnell was concerned, the situation was improving. The charismatic governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had just won the Democratic nomination for president and pledged a new deal for the American people. The Arkansas governor was honored with a position on the platform committee of the Democratic party. In a speech to the Rotary Club, Parnell concluded that the only obstacle left to be overcome in Arkansas was unemployment; the financial, agricultural, and industrial outlook was bright. The greatest factor contributing to this economic upturn was, Parnell insisted, the Martineau Road Law.

The people of Arkansas did not share Parnell’s optimism and the action of the house of representatives revealed that many blamed Parnell for much of the suffering in the state. One 20 February 1933 the lower chamber of the general assembly adopted a resolution describing the Parnell administration as “the most corrupt since the days of reconstruction and the most extravagant and wasteful in the history of the state.” Furthermore, the representatives asked in this memorial that Parnell’s name be deleted from President Roosevelt’s patronage list. Parnell had fallen from grace but the legislature in a moment of passion had acted as a grand jury. Cooler and calmer heads prevailed in the house and a few days later the resolution was rescinded.

When Parnell left public office on 10 January 1933 and returned to his large farm near Halley in Chicot County, he did not retire from public service. The ex-governor whose attitude toward relief had resembled the self-help philosophy of ex-President Hoover, spent his remaining three years as an appraiser for the RFC. He traveled throughout Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and other sections of the country reviewing the applications of levee-and-drainage districts for refunding loans. The transition in career for the twenty-ninth governor represented a political and economic transition for Arkansas as well. State government for the remainder of the depression was headed by a New Deal governor whose predecessor was now employed by a New Deal agency. Parnell died 16 January 1936 in St. Vincent’s Infirmary in Little Rock after suffering two heart attacks. He is buried in Roselawn Memorial Park in the capital city.


Reprinted from THE GOVERNORS OF ARKANSAS by permission of the University of Arkansas Press. Copyright 1981 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Arkansas.

Submitted by Pamela Web