John Little McClellan (1896-1977) served for 35 years as a U.S. senator from Arkansas. He was one of the old-time Southern senators, born at the turn of the century, who opposed all civil rights legislation and rose to power because of seniority.
John Little McClellan was born on a farm in southcentral Arkansas near Sheridan on February 25, 1896, the son of Issac Scott and Belle (Suddeth) McClellan. His mother died while he was a youth. Educated in the local schools, he graduated from the Sheridan High School. At age 12 he began five years of legal studies in his father's office and under a special Arkansas statute was admitted to the bar at age 17. He practiced law in Sheridan until he joined the army during World War I and rose to the rank of first lieutenant in the aviation section of the Signal Corps.
After the war he settled in Malvern, Arkansas, where he served as city attorney from 1920 to 1926, when he was elected prosecuting attorney for Hot Spring County. Active in local Democratic politics, he sought and won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1934 and again in 1936. Generally supporting the New Deal legislative program of Franklin D. Roosevelt when not inimical to Arkansas interests, he began his life long opposition to civil rights legislation when he voted against the anti-lynching bill. He also commenced his long term interest in flood control and soil reclamation.
In 1938 he abandoned his House seat and was one of three Democratic Senate candidates in the primaries seeking the seat held by Sen. Hattie Caraway, who eventually won renomination. Following his defeat McClellan resettled in Camden and helped form the law firm of Gaughan, McClellan and Gaughan. In 1942 he entered the Senate primary among a field of several candidates and won the nomination by 50,000 votes in a runoff election which assured his seat in the U.S. Senate. In January 1943 his initial committee assignments included banking and currency, expenditures in executive departments, manufactures, and post offices and post roads; in 1945 he joined the commerce and naval affairs committees.
During his first two terms in the Senate McClellan generally supported wartime legislation—except for the soldier's vote bill, which he opposed because it failed to require state registration or payment of state poll tax. Agricultural and slightly left of center liberal legislation received his approval. He similarly endorsed the move towards international cooperation by voting for the Connally Resolution favoring an international peace-keeping organization. He supported the Bretton Woods Agreements, the United Nations Charter, and extension of the lend-lease program; he joined those in the Senate, however, who opposed the British loan following the war. Thus his stance was that of a moderate in both domestic legislation and international cooperation.
When the Republicans gained control of the Senate in 1947, McClellan's committee assignments were reduced under the terms of the legislative reorganization plan which he had voted against in 1946. Except for unsuccessfully proposing amendments—such as one which would have prevented giving any aid to countries under Russian domination—McClellan went along with the bipartisan foreign policy of 1947-1948, which included aid to Greece and Turkey, the Marshall Plan, and the Vandenberg Resolution which led to the negotiation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
By the time of the 1948 elections, however, McClellan had become so disenchanted with the liberal program of the Harry S. Truman administration and by the civil rights plank of the Democratic Party that he declared himself an Independent Democrat and handily won reelection to the Senate. When the Democrats regained control of the Senate in 1949, McClellan became chairman of the expenditures of the executive departments committee, where he helped expedite the recommendations of the Hoover Commission on government reorganization, on which he had served as a member. He was also assigned to the public works committee, reflecting his expertise on flood control, and, most important, he joined the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, where he consistently supported measures designed to cut federal expenditures.
In 1953 McClellan came to national attention when he led a boycott by Democratic Senate members of the permanent investigations subcommittee chaired by Wisconsin's Joseph R. McCarthy, whom McClellan charged with dictatorial one-man control of the committee. McClellan became chairman of the committee in 1955 and began a decade of highly visible committee hearings which drew much attention. Under McClellan the committee conducted investigations of organized crime, labor union racketeering, student revolts, urban riots, the TFX aircraft, and service clubs located abroad. During these highly publicized hearings, McClellan exhibited a stern, judge-like manner. These investigations led to the imprisonment of Dave Beck and James R. Hoffa of the Teamsters Union. Another witness was Joseph Valachi, who thrilled the public with an insider's account of the Mafia.
A quiet unassuming senator widely respected by his colleagues, McClellan's personal life was marked by tragedy. His first marriage ended in divorce, his second wife died, and he married a third time. He lost two of his five children. He was active in bar association activities and as a life-long member of the Baptist Church.
In 1973 McClellan became chairman of the influential Senate Appropriations Committee, but his greatest contribution was in working on the Judiciary Committee, where he and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy completely overhauled the federal criminal code, which Attorney General Griffin Bell and others praised. After 35 years in the upper chamber, on November 27, 1977, a week after he had announced that at age 81 he would retire, McClellan died of cancer in Little Rock.
McClellan is listed in Political Profiles for Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter, whose biographies also provide much valuable information. McClellan's speeches are in the Congressional Record, and articles about him are cited in the New York Times Index and the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. There is no adequate biography of McClellan, but essential background information can be found in Arthur S. Link and William B. Catton, American Epoch (1980) and Lawrence S. Wittner, Cold War America (1974). McClellan is listed in the Biographical Directory of Congress. His obituary appeared in the New York Times.