Byrd succeeded to what had been the Virginia Democratic Party organization of U.S. Senator Thomas Staples Martin (who died in 1919). Elected the 50th Governor of Virginia in 1925, initially Byrd reorganized and modernized Virginia's government. His political machine dominated state politics for much of the first half of the 20th century.
Financial conditions in Virginia during Byrd's youth conditioned his thinking on fiscal matters and "pay-as-you-go" financial policies. Byrd was vehemently opposed to racial desegregation of the public schools, and was leader of "massive resistance", a campaign of opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education that led to closure of some public schools in Virginia in the 1950s. Students who were denied their education in several Virginia counties became known as the "lost generation." Byrd was perceived as a racist and avowed white separatist. Although paying his black and white workers similarly, Byrd was vehemently opposed to racial desegregation even early in the New Deal, and later opposed Presidents Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy despite their also being Democrats (as well as losing Democratic Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson) because they opposed racial discrimination within the federal workforce. The Byrd Organization also benefitted from limiting the political participation of blacks and poor whites in Virginia by means of poll taxes and literacy tests, but managed to crush opposition ranging from New Deal Governor James H. Price to gubernatorial and senatorial candidate Francis Pickens Miller. Although Byrd never announced as a presidential candidate, he received many votes in the 1956 presidential election and 15 electoral votes in the 1960 presidential election.
Harry Flood Byrd was born in Martinsburg, West Virginia in 1887 (just two weeks after future fellow Virginia Senator Absalom Willis Robertson was born in the same community). His parents, Eleanor Bolling (Flood) and Richard Evelyn Byrd, Sr., moved the young family to Winchester, Virginia the same year.
Young Harry Byrd's father became a wealthy apple grower in the Shenandoah Valley and published the Winchester Star newspaper. Harry initially attended the public schools, but received most of his education from the private Shenandoah Valley Academy in Winchester.
Byrd's ancestors included the First Families of Virginia. His paternal ancestors included William Byrd II of Westover Plantation (who established Richmond), Robert "King" Carter of Corotoman, and Pocahontas.
One of his younger brothers became famed Naval aviator and Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd (1888-1957). His other younger brother Thomas Bolling Byrd (1890-1968) became an infantry captain during World War I. His uncle Henry De La Warr Flood served in the House of Representatives of the U.S. Congress from Appomattox County, Virginia (1901 to 1921). Another uncle from Appomattox County, Joel West Flood, served as that county's Commonwealth Attorney (1919 to 1932), in the U.S. Congress (beginning in 1932 to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Henry St. George Tucker), as a Federal appellate Judge (of the Fifth Circuit based in Richmond), 1940 to 1964).
Born only twenty-two years after the end of the American Civil War, Byrd grew up in an era when "the Shenandoah Valley was still a place of genteel poverty ... Harry Byrd never lacked food, but he had no money for luxuries. No one had any money. If a man got into debt, there was small chance of getting out of it."
Even worse in Byrd's eyes was the dilemma of the state itself, which was also heavily in debt during Byrd's youth. Before the Civil War, Virginia had taken on debt to help finance many internal public improvements (canals, turnpikes, and railroads) through the Virginia Board of Public Works. Most had been destroyed during the War, although the debt remained and the infrastructure needed to be rebuilt to get crops and goods to market. Virginia's first postwar legislature had affirmed those debts at original terms (highly favorable to bondholders, which by then were mostly out-of-state purchasers at rates a small fraction of par value). Some related to improvements in the area that separated during the war to form the new State of West Virginia; those were litigated for decades until the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1915 that West Virginia owed Virginia $12,393,929.50. After the Reconstruction period, most of Virginia's governors insisted upon paying state bondholders, rather than pay for public education (newly added in Virginia Constitution of 1869) or other government services. The Readjuster Party, which briefly challenged the Conservative Party of Virginia which became the Virginia Democratic Party, advocated adjusting the terms of the prewar bonds, but had a relatively brief lifespan. Thus, the issue of Virginia's public debt was far from resolved during Byrd's formative years.
Byrd married Anne Douglas Beverley, a childhood friend, on October 7, 1913. They lived with her parents in Winchester until 1916, when he built a log cabin, named Westwood, in Berryville at a family-owned orchard, and they moved there. The cabin was constructed from chestnut logs and remains one of the few examples of natural chestnut bark existing in the United States due to the chestnut blight. The Byrds had three sons: Harry F. Byrd, Jr., Bradshaw Byrd, and Richard Byrd, and one daughter, Westwood Beverly Byrd. In 1926, Byrd purchased Rosemont, an estate outside Berryville, adjacent to the family apple orchards. The family moved in 1929, at the end of Byrd's term as governor, after some renovations.
As a businessman, Byrd had several operations: publishing newspapers, running a local turnpike, and selling apples and apple products.
In 1903, Harry Byrd took over his father's newspaper, the Winchester Star. Under his father's ownership, it came to owe $2500 (equivalent to $66,000 in 2015) to its newsprint supplier, the Antietam Paper Company. The company refused to ship more newsprint on credit, so Byrd cut a deal to make daily cash payments in return for ownership. As Byrd would later say, "when you have to hunt for them that way, you get to know how many cents there really are in a dollar." He eventually bought the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record and several other papers in the Shenandoah Valley; his family still owns these papers today.
Thus started what would become Byrd's famous "pay-as-you-go" policy. He developed a lifelong aversion to borrowing money and any indebtedness. "I stand for strict economy in governmental affairs," Byrd proclaimed. "The State of Virginia is similar to a great business corporation ... and should be conducted with the same efficiency and economy as any private business." In a fifty-year political career, no statement of Byrd's ever more succinctly spelled out his view of government.
In 1907, he founded The Evening Journal in nearby Martinsburg, West Virginia. He sold the paper in 1912 to associate Max von Schlegell.
In 1908, at the age of 21, he became president of The Valley Turnpike Company, overseeing the Valley Turnpike, a 93-mile (150-km) toll road between Winchester and Staunton. Earning $33 a month, he was required to drive the entire route at least twice a month to inspect it and arrange any repairs. As automobile traffic increased, he ensured road conditions were maintained within the available revenues. He held that office for seven years until his election to state office.
Byrd also owned extensive apple orchards in the Shenandoah Valley and an apple packing operation which was among the largest on the East Coast. He later pointed out that he paid his African American workers the same wages as his white farm workers.
In the 1950s, Edward P. Morgan's assistant visited Byrd's Northern Virginia farm during the apple harvest and was outraged by the living conditions of the migrant workers. This prompted Morgan to take up the issue of migrant labor in his CBS Radio Network commentaries. Producer Fred W. Friendly then prompted his close associate Edward R. Murrow to produce the television documentary "Harvest of Shame" on this issue.
In 1915, while still heading the Valley Turnpike Company, at the age of 28, Byrd was elected to the Virginia Senate. That election was to begin his 50 years of service in various roles in the state and federal government.
At the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, as a new State Senator, Byrd was initially a progressive with an early interest in road improvements. He was a member of the Senate Committee on Roads, the Finance Committee, the Steering Committee, the Committee on Privileges and Elections, and the Committee of Schools and Colleges. He advocated a tax on gasoline as a fair method of raising revenue for road construction.
However, he first came to prominence in 1922, when he led a fight against using bonded indebtedness as a method to pay for new roads. He feared the state would sacrifice future flexibility by committing too many resources to paying off construction debt. In 1923, Byrd was sued by the Virginia Highway Contractors Association because he said their activities "by combination and agreements may be very detrimental" to the State. The court dismissed the suit, stating the criticism was legal, imposing all costs upon the association. The publicity helped him to be elected Governor of Virginia in November 1925, easily defeating Republican Samuel H. Hoge in the general election.
In 1923, he became a member of the Virginia Society of the Sons of the American Revolution.
As governor, serving a term from 1926 to 1930, Byrd pushed through constitutional amendments that streamlined the state government and allowed for more efficient use of tax dollars. He also made property taxes solely a county responsibility. When it was obvious that increased spending on road construction was not enough to "get Virginia out of the mud," he pushed through a secondary roads bill that gave the state responsibility for maintaining county roads. These measures made Byrd seem like a New South progressive at first. However, many of his measures were more to the benefit of rural areas more interested in low taxes than better services. He instituted a "pay as you go" approach to spending, in which no state money was spent until enough taxes and fees came in to pay for it. Highways and tourism were his primary pursuits, says his biographer. "He advocated building roads to state shrines such as Jamestown and Monticello and called for historical markers along roadways, the first of which appeared in Fredericksburg. He held regional meetings to bring about closer cooperation between state and county road officials, prophesying that the road system could be completed within ten years through such cooperation... A tour of the highway system convinced him of the progress being made in extending the arterial network. Indeed, over 2,000 miles would be added to the system during Byrd's governorship, 1,787 of these miles in 1928. Road building was one way to keep the voters happy and prove the efficacy of pay-as-you-go."
While he was governor, Byrd built up contacts with the "courthouse cliques" in most of Virginia's counties. He curried support from the five constitutional officers in those counties (sheriff, Commonwealth's attorney, clerk of the court, county treasurer, and commissioner of revenue). This formed the basis of the Byrd Organization, which dominated Virginia politics well into the 1960s. They carefully vetted candidates for statewide office, and Byrd only made an endorsement, or "nod," after consulting with them. Without his "nod," no one could win statewide office in Virginia. While he was governor, he shortened the ballot so that only three officials ran statewide: the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. This limited opportunities to challenge the candidates that he wanted to run. His secondary roads bill in 1932, which became known as the Byrd Road Act, did not apply to the state's independent cities.
Education was not on his agenda, and state spending for public schools remained very low until the 1960s. Byrd became one of the most vocal proponents of maintaining policies of racial segregation. Byrd authored and signed the "Southern Manifesto" condemning the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. His call for "massive resistance" against desegregation of public schools led to many Virginia schools closing rather than be forced to integrate.
He helped draft a series of laws, known as the Stanley plan, to implement his "massive resistance" policy. This led to closure of some public school systems in Virginia between 1959 and 1964, most notably a five-year gap in public education in Prince Edward County, Virginia.
In the 1928 U.S. presidential campaign, he supported Al Smith, the Democratic Governor of New York, who would go on to lose to Republican Herbert Hoover. Byrd himself was an early favorite for the 1932 presidential nomination but he opted to endorse Franklin D. Roosevelt at the right moment and became an official in Roosevelt's successful campaign.
In 1933 Byrd was appointed to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate; he won reelection as a Democrat in 1933, 1934, 1940, 1946, 1952, 1958, and 1964. Byrd and his colleague Carter Glass invoked senatorial courtesy to stop Roosevelt's nomination of Floyd H. Roberts to a federal judgeship in Virginia in 1939. Byrd broke with Roosevelt and became an opponent of the New Deal, but he was an internationalist and strongly supported Roosevelt's foreign policy. As war loomed in 1941 Congress approved his proposal for a joint House-Senate committee to look into ways of eliminating nonessential expenditures. By late September, the Joint Committee on Reduction of Non-essential Federal Expenditures was in operation with Senator Byrd as Chairman; it built his national reputation as an economizer.
By the 1950s Byrd was one of the most influential senators, serving on the Armed Services Committee, and later as chairman of the Finance Committee. He often broke with the Democratic Party line, going so far as to refuse to endorse the reelection of liberal President Harry S Truman in 1948. He also refused to endorse Adlai Stevenson in 1952. He voted against public works bills, including the Interstate Highway System, and played a key role in the passing of the 1964 Revenue Act. He had blocked the bill until President Lyndon Johnson agreed to decrease the total budget to under $100 billion. Subsequently, he helped push the Act through.
Byrd retired from the Senate for health reasons in November 1965. His son, Harry F. Byrd, Jr., was appointed his successor.
Although Byrd never formally sought the presidency nor became his party's candidate, Southern Democrats drafted him in several campaigns between 1944 and 1960. At the 1944 Democratic National Convention, Southern delegates opposed to Roosevelt's New Deal and racial policies nominated Byrd as the party's presidential candidate. He was nominated by Ruth Nooney of Florida, who said she did so without his knowledge or consent. He won 89 delegate votes to Roosevelt's 1,086 (James Farley of New York got one vote). All the convention delegates from Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia, and 12 of the 36 delegates from Texas voted for Byrd. In 1952, both the Constitution Party and the America First Party nominated Byrd for vice-president, and Douglas MacArthur for president, without the consent of either. The slate got 17,205 votes nationwide.
In 1956, the year that Byrd initiated the "massive resistance" campaign, the States' Rights Party of Kentucky named Byrd as a presidential candidate. He received 2,657 votes in that state; in South Carolina, in the same election, he received 88,509 votes as the choice of an independent (i.e. unpledged) slate of electors with the endorsement of former governor James Byrnes and Senator Strom Thurmond. In 1960, Byrd received 15 votes in the Electoral College: eight unpledged electors from Mississippi (all of that state's electoral votes), six unpledged electors from Alabama (the other 5 electoral votes from that state went to John F. Kennedy), and a faithless elector from Oklahoma (the other 7 electoral votes from that state went to Richard Nixon).
Byrd died in 1966. He was interred in Mount Hebron Cemetery in Winchester.
Possibly his greatest legacy was the creation of Shenandoah National Park, as well as the Skyline Drive, Blue Ridge Parkway and Virginia state park system. Shenandoah National Park's main visitor center is named in his honor. The Blue Ridge Parkway bridge over the James River in Big Island, Va was named and dedicated to him in 1985.
Virginia State Route 7, a historic road which leads from Alexandria past Berryville to Winchester and points west, is named the "Harry F. Byrd Highway" through much of its rural length. Byrd's home from 1926 until his death, Rosemont Manor, still exists and is surrounded by about 60 acres. Although many acres of Byrd's former orchards are now commercial and residential properties, Rosemont is now open to the public as a bed and breakfast, as well as event venue. Although probably eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places and Virginia Landmarks Register, Rosemont appears outside the current Berryville Historic District as added in 1987.
Harry F. Byrd Middle School, a National Blue Ribbon School located in Richmond was renamed Quioccasin Middle School in July, 2016 in response to a campaign by the local community; board members agreed "that having a school named after a man who supported school segregation was inappropriate." Quioccasin is the name of the road the school sits on, as well as the name of an historically black village in the area.