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James Howard McGrath
McGrath was born November 28, 1903, in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and reared in nearby Providence. His father, James J. McGrath, worked as a knitter in a woolen mill before venturing into real estate and insurance. He rose to prominence through his association with the Independent Order of Foresters (a fraternal insurance organization), handling the company's affairs in the New England states. His mother, Ida E. May McGrath, used her training as a bookkeeper to manage the family's financial affairs while her husband was on the road.
As a young boy, McGrath set out to win a subscription contest at a Providence newspaper by targeting his father's business colleagues as potential subscribers. He sold a record number of new subscriptions and, in the process, captured the attention of the newspaper's owner, Rhode Island senator Peter G. Gerry.
When he was not selling newspapers, McGrath attended Providence's La Salle Academy. He completed his undergraduate studies in 1922 and enrolled at Providence College. During his college years, McGrath was a founding member and the first president of the Young Men's Democratic League of Rhode Island.
By graduation day in 1926, McGrath knew he wanted a career in politics. While waiting to attend law school, McGrath approached Senator Gerry and asked for a summer job. Gerry remembered the young man and put him to work in his senate office. McGrath worked for Gerry until his graduation from Boston University Law School in 1929. Following his admission to the bar, McGrath joined a Providence law firm and decided to marry. He and his wife, Estelle A. Cadorette McGrath, had one son, James David McGrath, in 1930.
Though 1929 and 1930 were years of change and new beginnings for McGrath, his interest in politics remained constant. He had been named vice chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic State Committee in 1928; by 1930, he was chairman of the committee and ready to make his own place in the political arena. McGrath's first political appointment came in late 1930 when he was named city solicitor of Central Falls, Rhode Island. He served in that post for four years before resigning to accept a second appointment as U.S. district attorney for Rhode Island in 1934.
With McGrath's growing prominence in legal and business circles came growing influence in Rhode Island's Democratic Party. From his position as chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic State Committee, he rose to chairman of the Rhode Island delegation at the Democratic National Convention in 1932. Age twenty-eight at the time, he was the youngest man ever to hold the job.
By 1940, he had laid the foundation for a successful bid for the state's highest office. He
sought and received the gubernatorial nomination from the Democratic party, and he defeated Republican incumbent William H.Vanderbilt by a large margin.
McGrath served as governor of Rhode Island for three consecutive terms. In that office, he revised the state tax structure, reorganized the juvenile court system, established a labor relations board, and started a workers' compensation fund. During World War II, he continued to serve as governor while chairing the Rhode Island State Council of Defense and assisting the U.S. Treasury department with war financing activities.
McGrath's work was noticed by national Democratic leaders including President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was not long before he was asked to serve on a committee to organize the 1944 Democratic National Convention and to help secure the presidential nomination for Roosevelt's vice president, Truman. McGrath, who had seconded Truman's vice presidential nomination at the previous convention, was an eager and hardworking member of the committee. He liked Truman—and the feeling was mutual.
After Truman's election, in October 1945, McGrath was rewarded with an appointment to the post of solicitor general of the United States. As solicitor general, he successfully defended the constitutionality of the Public Holding Company Act (15 U.S.C.A. § 79 et seq.) and fully supported an international military tribunal's conviction of Japan's General Tomoyuki Yamashita for war crimes.
In 1946 McGrath was elected to the U.S. Senate. While in office, McGrath fought the removal of wartime economic controls and the reduction of income taxes instituted during the war years. He thought the additional money should be used to broaden Social Security initiatives, under-write national health insurance, and fund education. He also encouraged his colleagues to speak out on human rights issues, charging that in the years before World War II, the United States almost encouraged the Nazis by not speaking out against them.
In September 1947, McGrath became Truman's handpicked candidate to chair the Democratic National Committee and to orchestrate the president's reelection bid. McGrath was formally elected to the post a month later.
Under McGrath's leadership, the party in 1948 waged a tough, and sometimes divisive, national effort that carried many state and local Democratic candidates into office and resulted in Truman's narrow victory over Thomas E. Dewey.
After the election, McGrath returned to the Senate. Almost immediately, the Rhode Island Charities Trust came under investigation by a Senate subcommittee. As a trustee, McGrath was called to explain the organization's financial practices. The investigation ran its course without result, but a cloud remained over McGrath's personal finances.
McGrath's declining sphere of influence was most evident when he tried to find support for his legislative initiatives. He continued to sponsor unpopular measures addressing social issues, including a civil rights bill supported by the administration in late 1949. His efforts to push the bill through the Senate further angered powerful southern Democrats he had offended during the presidential campaign by ending a policy of racially segregating the staff at Democratic national headquarters. (Though this change in policy had caused tremendous turmoil within the party and precipitated a loss of support in many southern states, it had also helped to deliver the crucial black vote needed in 1948 to carry Illinois, New York, and Ohio.)
It was in this climate that McGrath was appointed to replace Tom C. Clark as U.S. attorney general after Truman named Clark to the U.S. Supreme Court. The press blasted McGrath's appointment, saying it demonstrated a terrible lack of judgment on Truman's part. McGrath resigned his Senate seat in December 1949 to accept the appointment.
With Truman's blessing, McGrath continued to be a strong advocate for civil rights. During his term as attorney general, the Justice Department first challenged the constitutionality of racial segregation. McGrath argued a number of important cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in the spring of 1950, including a landmark case in which the High Court outlawed discriminatory dining arrangements in railroad cars (Henderson v. United States, 339 U.S. 816, 70 S. Ct. 843, 94 L. Ed. 1302).
Though he had a few bright moments, McGrath's subordinates and colleagues did not consider him a particularly effective attorney general. His most egregious error occurred when a House Ways and Means subcommittee uncovered evidence of corruption in the Bureau of Internal Revenue and in the Tax Division of the Justice Department. Truman's initial response, in January 1952, was to announce that the Justice Department would investigate and clean up any corruption in the government. When critics objected to the Justice Department's investigating itself, the president appointed New York Republican Newbold Morris to conduct an independent investigation of the charges.
Initially, McGrath promised full cooperation, but he had second thoughts when Morris asked him and other top Justice Department officials to complete a detailed financial questionnaire. Calling the questionnaire a violation of individual rights and an invasion of privacy, McGrath refused to complete or submit the document—or to order his subordinates to do so. Three days later, McGrath forced Truman's hand by firing the special investigator and resuming charge of the investigation. In the political uproar that followed, the president had no choice but to ask for McGrath's resignation.
After leaving office, McGrath continued to be active in Democratic politics. In 1956 he managed Senator Estes Kefauver's vice presidential campaign, and in 1960, he made an unsuccessful attempt to regain his old Senate seat. After retiring from politics, he practiced law and managed his many business interests. McGrath died on September 2, 1966, in Narragansett, Rhode Island.