Researching the Democratic Party at SCPC

By Thomas Hydrick

Hydrick

Thomas Hydrick at work in the reading room at the Hollings Library

For most of my life, I have been fascinated by South Carolina politics. Growing up in Columbia, I was raised in the center of political activity of our state and diligently followed developments in South Carolina’s political scene. As an undergraduate at Furman University in Greenville, I continued to pursue this passion, majoring in both political science and history. During my senior year at Furman, I participated in an independent study with the History Department, studying the career of South Carolina Governor and United States Senator Fritz Hollings. While working on this project, I made my first visit to South Carolina Political Collections at the Hollings Library. As an undergraduate, I was deeply impressed by the tremendous archival resources available at SCPC.

Following my graduation from Furman, I continued to pursue my interest in history by attending graduate school at the University of Cambridge, pursuing a Master of Philosophy degree in Historical Studies. I was attracted to Cambridge by the Historical Studies program itself but also by the opportunity to study under Professor Tony Badger. Professor Badger, the Master of Clare College and the Paul Mellon Professor of History, is widely recognized as a leading authority on the political history of the 20th century American South.

Dorn

William Jennings Bryan Dorn campaigning
from the bed of a pick-up truck

In deciding on a topic for my dissertation at Cambridge, the choice was therefore fairly obvious. Naturally, I hoped to focus on South Carolina politics, and given my earlier work on Senator Hollings, I hoped to continue to study of the transformation of South Carolina politics through a close examination of the lives of key political figures in the state’s history. While much of the historical research on South Carolina and southern politics has focused on the rise of the Republican Party in the 20th century, historians have paid less attention to the actions of southern Democrats during this time. Given this gap in the historiography, I hoped to study the careers of several South Carolina Democrats in Congress. Furthermore, in selecting congressmen, I sought to study Democratic Representatives whose careers spanned much of the 20th century.  Given these parameters, I chose to examine the careers of Representatives John L. McMillan, L. Mendel Rivers, and William Jennings Bryan Dorn. All three individuals served as United States Representatives from South Carolina from approximately the 1940s until the 1970s; all three held important leadership positions in the United States House of Representatives; most significantly however, all three remained loyal Democrats even as the Republican Party gained numerous converts in the state. In short, I asked myself: How did these figures survive politically as the landscape of southern politics radically shifted in front of their very eyes?

McMillan

John L. McMillan in 1968

In attempting to answer this question, I was naturally drawn to SCPC and the Hollings Library. Returning home to South Carolina for research trips in December and March, I attempted to spend as much time as possible in the archives. SCPC housed an abundance of valuable archival resources for my project, including the papers of John McMillan and Bryan Dorn. By reviewing their letters, papers, and other manuscripts, I was able to patch together a fairly comprehensive picture of the political lives of both McMillan and Dorn. Additionally, the staff of SCPC provided invaluable advice and perspective on my topic.

Reflecting back upon this research, I was struck by the heterogeneous nature of the Democratic Party during this time period. The diverse cast of characters and significant differences of opinion contained within the South Carolina Democratic Party during these years amazed me. During their time in public office, these men shared a party identity with figures as diverse as Olin Johnston, James F. Byrnes, Claude Stephens, Reverend I. DeQuincey Newman, James Clyburn, and Fritz Hollings. Within the span of their careers, the Democratic Party in South Carolina witnessed tremendous discontinuity, as the party’s platform and coalition of voters shifted dramatically. In responding to these changes, McMillan, Rivers, and Dorn sought to employ a wide array of strategies to survive politically. In doing so, they appealed to a diverse array of South Carolina constituents, ranging from unreconstructed white supremacists to progressive African American advocates of civil rights. Ultimately, this research greatly enhanced my own understanding of South Carolina and southern politics.

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