Attorney, state representative, U.S. senator, and U.S. representative, Claude Denson Pepper (1900-1989) worked tirelessly as the champion of the working class, the poor, and the elderly.
Claude Denson Pepper was born September 8, 1900, on a farm near Dudleyville, Alabama. He spent his youth working at home and attending public school, then went off to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, graduating in 1921. His early years were marked by ambition and desire—he carved "Claude Pepper, United States Senator" on a tree at the age of ten. Pepper worked his way through college hauling coal and ashes before sunrise at a power plant. This did not interfere with his enterprises at the university, however. He was a member of the track squad, the debate team, and Phi Beta Kappa. After college he was admitted to Harvard Law School (he was a classmate of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter), from which he graduated in 1924. After graduation he taught at the law school of the University of Arkansas for a year (one of his students, J. William Fulbright, later became a colleague in the U.S. Senate).
Pepper established a law practice in Perry, Florida, and was elected in 1928 to the Florida Democratic Executive Committee and then to the Florida House of Representatives. He was defeated in his reelection bid two years later, however. Pepper resumed his law practice in 1931, but returned to electoral politics in 1934, attempting to unseat U.S. Senator Park Trammell. Even though he had little statewide recognition, he forced a run-off in the Democratic primary and lost the election by a mere 4, 050 votes. Fate bespoke Pepper when both U.S. senators died within months of each other in 1936. Pepper filed for the seat previously held by Duncan Fletcher, and because of his showing in 1934, won the election without opposition.
Pepper was reelected in 1938 and again in 1944, but was defeated by George Smathers in 1950. Pepper was an avid "New Dealer" and supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He advocated the views of labor, fought for minimum wages, urged the adoption of a national health insurance, and supported Social Security—positions which he maintained 40 years later as a member of the House of Representatives. Pepper's allegiance to liberal causes never weakened, and the elements of his 1950 electoral defeat were evident early in his career. Because he was an interventionist, he unpopularly advocated early entry into World War II (and was hung in effigy for running against the isolationist fervor of the times). Following the war he met with Joseph Stalin and advocated a softer approach in dealing with Russia. His attitude toward Russia, coupled with his positions favoring labor, opposing business, and favoring integration of the races, left him too vulnerable in the conservative backlash following World War II. A strong opposition group led by Edward Ball, a DuPont executive, accumulated a huge campaign war chest and plotted six years for his election defeat.
Ironically, it was someone whom Pepper had helped several times in his political career, George Smathers, who dealt Pepper his defeat in the 1950 Senate race. Smathers turned his back on his old patron and waged a well-orchestrated and well-financed campaign that utilized the fear of communism evident in the days of Joseph McCarthy (The "Red Pepper" tag was used). The tactics and strategies employed by the Smathers campaign led to the election being called one of the dirtiest campaigns in the history of politics in the United States. After that devastating defeat Pepper resumed the practice of law. He attempted to run for the Senate again in 1958, but lost soundly in the primary.
He remained at his law practice until 1962 when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (from a newly created liberal district in Miami). Pepper was reelected to each succeeding Congress into the mid-1980s. His first committee assignment in the House of Representatives was to the banking and currency committee. Within two years Pepper was appointed to the prestigious rules committee. In addition, he served as chairman of the select committee on crime in the late 1960s, and during the late 1970s and early 1980s he was chairman of the select committee on aging. Within this latter capacity he assumed a role as advocate for the elderly and gained national prominence in working to protect the interests of America's senior citizens. He was instrumental in getting the Social Security program through its financial crisis in the early 1980s, saving the program from bankruptcy and fighting to prevent cuts in benefits. In 1983 he was appointed chairman of the rules committee.
Pepper served in office until his death in Washington, D.C., on May 30, 1989. Following a memorial service, his remains were lain in state at the Rotunda of the United States Capitol, considered the most suitable place for the nation to pay final tribute to one of its most eminent citizens.
Further Reading on Claude Denson Pepper
Robert Sherrill, in Gothic Politics in the Deep South (1968), devotes a chapter to the Pepper-Smathers election of 1950. Pepper appeared on the cover of Time magazine twice—once during his reelection campaign of 1938, when the race was covered as a referendum on Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal policies, and once as advocate of the elderly in 1983. He was the subject of numerous articles in the Wall Street Journal, Harpers, and the New Republic, among others.