James A. Farley (1888-1976) served President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the New Deal's patronage-dispensing postmaster general and official political prophet.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for reelection in 1936, Democratic National Committee Chairman Jim Farley wrote him a note saying, "I am still definitely of the opinion that you will carry every state but two, Maine and Vermont." F.D.R., master politician though he was, had predicted a loss of 171 electoral votes for himself. Farley's estimate of a mere eight vote loss, and his ability to pick the very states, confirmed him as one of America's most brilliant politicians.
Born on May 30, 1888, in upstate (Rockland County) Grassy Point, New York, James Aloysius Farley was the son of brick maker James and his wife Ellen (Goldrick), both children of Irish immigrants. He resembled F.D.R., six years his senior and his Dutchess County neighbor, in being born a Democrat in a heavily Republican county. There the resemblance ended, however. Where Roosevelt was well-born, rich, and Harvard educated, Jim Farley lost his father as boy of nine, spent much of his spare time as a brickyard worker or helping his mother in a family-owned combination grocery-bar, and after graduation from local schools attended Packard Commercial School in New York City.
His early interest in politics confirmed his attachment to the Democratic Party, and despite the Republican voter preponderance he served several terms as the elected (unsalaried) town clerk. An affable manner, dedication to extra service (he refused his share of license fees and saved prospective brides the embarrassment of an office visit by bringing the marriage license to their homes), and a phenomenal memory for names and faces made him one of Rockland County's best-liked citizens. These traits never left him, and when coupled with an uncanny capacity for political predictions would earn him his reputation as a political seer.
A Power Behind the Scenes
During his lifetime Farley won several positions in general elections, the highest being one term to the New York State Assembly. But despite his ability to win elections, Farley's forte became that of king maker. He recalled in later life how as an unknown Rockland County Democratic chairman he brashly urged Alfred E. Smith to run for governor in 1918, making light of the doubts of Smith and his advisers. Farley voted for him at the state convention and campaigned actively for the Smith ticket. Smith's victory changed his fortunes, bringing him appointment as a New York City port warden, a post he later frankly described as a sinecure and from which he was eliminated by Republican legislative cut-backs.
At the beginning of the 1920s Farley became a power in Rockland County; by the end of the decade he was a power in the state. His political career brought him little financial security and in this respect was only an avocation. To support himself, Elizabeth A. Finnegan (whom he married in 1920), and their three children, he was first a salesman in the building materials field and later a partner in a firm called General Builders Supply Corporation.
Farley was a strong supporter of Governor Smith's reelection bids, but he also felt a great admiration for Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he first met in 1920. At the illstarred Democratic convention of 1924, Franklin Roosevelt, then a private citizen recovering from polio, nominated Smith for the presidency, proclaiming him "the Happy Warrior." Smith did not get the nomination in 1924 but was renominated by Roosevelt in 1928, at which time F.D.R. also ran for the governorship of New York.
Farley, by this time secretary to the state Democratic committee, worked tirelessly for both Smith and Roosevelt, but only the latter won, and he by a mere 25,000 votes. During the next two years Farley became chairman of the state Democratic committee, rebuilt the Democratic Party in New York State, and was gratified by Roosevelt's landslide reelection plurality of over 700,000 votes. At that point, in November 1930, Farley and Louis Howe, another Roosevelt supporter, predicted in public that the governor would be the Democratic nominee for president in 1932.
Building Up a Candidate
Farley, Howe, and a few other faithful workers created over the next two years what for the time was an astonishing organizational effort based on personal meetings, letter writing, and telephoning. Building up county by county in the state, the organization was expanded into other states with a whirlwind national trip taken by Farley in mid-1931 covering 18 states in 19 days.
At the Chicago convention of 1932 Roosevelt was one of nine candidates, but under Farley's management his organization overwhelmed his opponents. The selection of Texas favorite John Nance Garner as running-mate added the last touch. Forty-four year old Jim Farley went to the Chicago convention a well-known New York politician. He left it a national figure whose guiding motive was to elect Democrats, not alienate them. Every characteristic he had possessed throughout life—his memory, personable qualities, party loyalty, organizational ability, and tireless energy—was taxed in the extreme in the 1932 campaign, but the result was victory. Farley predicted Roosevelt would defeat Hoover by 7.5 million votes, and came within a few hundred thousand of his estimate.
Farley's reward for this service was an invitation to join F.D.R.'s New Deal as postmaster general, an appointment which made him the first Catholic cabinet member in this century. As postmaster general Farley exercised the traditional patronage dispensing function with masterful skill, rewarding loyalty; cementing regional, ethnic, and occupational alliances; and providing the president with bargaining chips for congressional dealings.
The high point of Farley's career came with management of F.D.R.'s 1936 reelection campaign, which wrote Roosevelt and himself into history as record setters. Thereafter, disenchanted with some New Deal policies and angered by the third term bid, Farley lost Roosevelt's confidence and therefore his effectiveness.
A Break with F.D.R.
During 1940 he privately made no bones about his antipathy to a Roosevelt third term. Unable to avert it, he allowed a few stalwart friends to nominate him as presidential candidate in Chicago, gaining 72 votes to Roosevelt's 946. While this gave him great personal satisfaction, it further alienated him from the president, and he resigned his cabinet post and national party chairmanship a few weeks later.
In private life, he became chairman of a Coca-Cola division but remained active in public life, particularly in New York state.
His autobiographies, Behind the Ballots (1938) and Jim Farley's Story (1948), are valuable and candid insider accounts of vital days in the nation's history. A modest man, he knew what he was—a "political drummer," as he once put it—and never apologized for it. As Roosevelt's political spoilsman, he dispensed thousands of patronage jobs unabashedly to deserving Democrats but made no financial gain himself out of politics. He always had private business interests, and these he kept scrupulously separate from his government work. As a young man he refused to accept fees due him for his services as unsalaried town clerk, later observing "I never accepted the ten-cent fee from hunters and fishermen … and as a result they remembered me on election day." To Farley, good neighborliness and good manners were good politics.
After many years spent as a businessman and elder statesman Jim Farley died on June 9, 1976.
Further Reading on James A. Farley
James A. Farley's two autobiographies, Jim Farley's Story (1938) and Behind the Ballots (1948), remain the most complete accounts of his life and provide illuminating insights into American politics between the world wars. Also helpful is American Catholics and the Roosevelt Presidency (1968) by George Q. Flynn.
Additional Biography Sources
Farley, James Aloysius, Jim Farley's story: the Roosevelt years, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984.