John McDuffie (1883-1950) was a farmer, lawyer, statesman, federal judge, and nine-term Democratic congressman from Alabama (1919-1935). He was an advocate of efficient government and conservative economic policies. McDuffie served in Congress for more than 40 years, through World War I, the Great Depression, and the New Deal. McDuffie is best known for his support of legislation that developed the nation's rivers and ports. Congressional colleagues noted his lifelong traits of hard work, self-reliance, and perseverance.
McDuffie was born in River Ridge, Monroe County, on September 25, 1883, to John, a planter, and Virginia Marian (Lette) McDuffie. He was the first of seven children born to the couple. In 1890, Rube Burrow, Alabama's most notorious train robber, spent the night at the McDuffie plantation, Oak Forest, as an uninvited guest before being captured in Marengo County the following day. Young McDuffie worked on the family plantation and was introduced to the world of politics at age 15 at a Democratic beat meeting at Upper Town, Monroe County. He received his early education from a private tutor before attending college at Southern University (now Birmingham-Southern College) in Greensboro in 1899. The following year, he attended Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API; now Auburn University) in Auburn, Lee County, where he earned a bachelor's of science degree in 1904. While at API, he won the Sophomore Declaimer Medal as the most outstanding military student and became captain of Company D as a senior. He was assistant editor-in-chief of the school yearbook, The Glomerata, and exchange editor of a student newspaper, The Orange and Blue. He was a member of the German Club, the Tennis Club, Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, and the Websterian Literary Society. He was a delegate-at-large to the Alabama Inter-Collegiate Oratorical Association, and won the Junior Oratorical Medal. The 1904 class prophet of the Glomerata foretold that McDuffie would one day accomplish great things in Congress. Following graduation, he returned to Oak Forest to assist with the family's 6,000-acre estate until the murder of his father on June 28, at which point he assumed responsibility for the three family plantations.
In February 1906, he ran successfully for the Democratic nomination for representative from Monroe County to the Alabama state legislature. His political views included opposition to state regulation of railroads, the Outlaw Act, and prohibition and the equalization of property taxes. After winning the election, he served on the Education Committee and supported public education and the creation of a textbook committee. McDuffie then attended the University of Alabama School of Law, graduating in 1908. He was admitted to the Alabama State Bar and practiced law in Monroeville. He became a freemason and a member of several other fraternal organizations.
McDuffie was reelected to the Alabama State House of Representatives in 1907 and was selected as a delegate from Alabama to the Democratic National Convention in 1908. In 1909, he sought the position of solicitor of the First Judicial Circuit and won a close election against incumbent Oscar Gray, and served in that capacity until 1919. That same year, he was made a captain and adjutant of the Alabama Second Infantry in the National Guard, in which he served until 1916. In 1918, he launched his campaign for Congress, winning the Democratic primary on August 13, 1918, against Gray by only 157 votes. On October 18, 1915, after a 15-year courtship, he married Cornelia Hixon, with whom he had one child.
McDuffie served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1919 to 1935 for Alabama's First District and was a member of the Flood Control and Patent committees. He favored government support for agriculture and thus voted in favor of both the Grain Futures Act of 1922 and the Agricultural Credits Act of 1923. He faced Republican opposition in 1924 and 1926 but easily won both elections. McDuffie supported financial and medical aid for disabled World War I veterans, as well as their widows and children, but opposed cash bonuses. In 1924, he was selected as an alternate delegate for Alabama to the Democratic National Convention. McDuffie supported the 1928 Muscle Shoals bill, which called for government operation of the valuable fertilizer industry located there.
McDuffie served as Minority Whip in Congress from 1929 to 1931 and, after the Democratic Party took control of Congress in 1931, served as Majority Whip from 1931 to 1933. He was an active member of the Rivers and Harbors Committee, through which he secured funding to improve the Port of Mobile and the Tombigbee River. In 1928, he spoke at the dedication ceremony for the Alabama State Docks. He routinely supported and defended government appropriations for merchant shipping. During the 1930s, McDuffie blamed Republican policies, including the Smoot-Hawley Tariff that raised U.S. tariffs on more than 20,000 imported goods to record levels, for the nation's economic struggles. On March 29, 1932, he was named head of the House Economy Committee and sponsored a bill to maintain the credit of the U.S. government during Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term. He became chairman of the Committee on Insular Affairs in the Seventy-third and Seventy-fourth congresses and coauthored the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934, which granted independence to the Philippines ten years after its passage.
On January 31, 1935, Pres. Roosevelt appointed McDuffie as a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama in Mobile, Mobile County. He took the oath of office on March 2, 1935, amid the critical illness of his wife, who died four days later. He would marry Mary (Clark) Maxon on September 18, 1941. On the bench, McDuffie balanced his concern with enforcing the rules of society with the defense of individual rights against abuses of the law. He participated in the Boswell Amendment case of 1948, in which the plaintiffs claimed Alabama registration boards possessed unlimited discretion to grant or deny the right to vote. The court determined the Boswell Amendment did not provide a uniform system for determining whether an applicant understood or could explain an article of the Constitution. McDuffie was critical of Roosevelt's appointees to the Supreme Court, especially Justices Felix Frankfurter and Stanley F. Reed, both of whom in 1949 appeared in court as character witnesses for accused spy Alger Hiss. He considered Hugo Black unqualified, and described the appointments of Frankfurter and Black as the New Deal turned into a misdeal. McDuffie only supported the New Deal out of party loyalty and became a severe critic after leaving Congress. He opposed the vast expenditures and continuation of relief rolls and disparaged the leadership qualities of Pres. Harry Truman and was strongly against American intervention in Korea. He was a strong supporter of the free enterprise system and expressed concern about the expanding authority of the federal government at the state and national level.
McDuffie served as a federal judge until his death from cancer in Mobile on November 1, 1950. He is buried in the Pine Crest Cemetery in Mobile. In 1951, Sand Island, located at the mouth of the Mobile River, was renamed McDuffie Island in his honor.
Brannen, Ralph Neal. "John McDuffie, State Legislator, Congressman, Federal Judge 1883-1950." Ph.D. diss., Auburn University, 1975.
McDuffie, John. To Inquiring Friends If Any: Autobiography of John McDuffie Farmer, Lawyer, Legislator, Judge. Mobile: Azalea City Printers, 1970.
Brett J. Derbes
Published June 29, 2012
Last updated September 27, 2012