Oscar Underwood
Senate Minority Leader
In office
April 27, 1920 – December 3, 1923
DeputyPeter G. Gerry
Preceded byOffice established
Succeeded byJoseph Taylor Robinson
Chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus
In office
April 27, 1920 – December 3, 1923
Preceded byGilbert Hitchcock (acting)
Succeeded byJoseph Taylor Robinson
United States Senator
from Alabama
In office
March 4, 1915 – March 3, 1927
Preceded byFrancis S. White
Succeeded byHugo Black
House Majority Leader
In office
March 4, 1911 – March 3, 1915
Preceded bySereno E. Payne
Succeeded byClaude Kitchin
House Minority Whip
In office
March 4, 1899 – March 3, 1901
LeaderJames D. Richardson
Preceded byOffice established
Succeeded byJames T. Lloyd
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Alabama's 9th district
In office
March 4, 1897 – March 3, 1915
Preceded byTruman H. Aldrich
Succeeded byGeorge Huddleston
In office
March 4, 1895 – June 9, 1896
Preceded byLouis W. Turpin
Succeeded byTruman H. Aldrich
Personal details
Oscar Wilder Underwood

(1862-05-06)May 6, 1862
Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.
DiedJanuary 25, 1929(1929-01-25) (aged 66)
Accotink, Virginia, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Eugenia Massie
(m. 1885; died 1900)
Bertha Woodward
(m. 1904)
EducationUniversity of Virginia, Charlottesville

Oscar Wilder Underwood (May 6, 1862 – January 25, 1929) was an American lawyer and politician from Alabama, and also a candidate for President of the United States in 1912 and 1924. He was the first formally designated floor leader in the United States Senate, and the only individual to serve as the Democratic leader in both the Senate and the United States House of Representatives.[1]

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Underwood began a legal career in Minnesota after graduating from the University of Virginia. He moved his legal practice to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1884 and won election to the House of Representatives in 1894. Underwood served as House Majority Leader from 1911 to 1915, and was a strong supporter of President Woodrow Wilson's progressive agenda and a prominent advocate of a reduction in the tariff. He sponsored the Revenue Act of 1913, also known as the Underwood Tariff, which lowered tariff rates and imposed a federal income tax. He won election to the Senate in 1914 and served as Senate Minority Leader from 1920 to 1923. He unsuccessfully opposed federal Prohibition, arguing that state and local governments should regulate alcohol.

Underwood sought the presidential nomination at the 1912 Democratic National Convention, but the convention selected Woodrow Wilson after forty-six ballots. He declined the vice presidential nomination, which instead went to Thomas R. Marshall. Underwood ran for president again in 1924, entering the 1924 Democratic National Convention as a prominent conservative opponent of the Ku Klux Klan.[2] One of the few prominent anti-Klan politicians in the South at the time, Underwood and his supporters narrowly failed to win adoption of a Democratic resolution condemning the Klan. He experienced a boomlet of support on the 101st presidential ballot of the convention, but the Democrats nominated John W. Davis as a compromise candidate. Underwood declined to run for re-election in 1926 and retired to his Woodlawn plantation in Fairfax County, Virginia, where he died in 1929.

Early and family life

Underwood was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 6, 1862, the eldest of three sons of lawyer and planter Eugene Underwood and his second wife, Frederica Virginia Wilder. Eugene Underwood also had three sons with his first wife before her death in 1857. His paternal grandfather, Joseph R. Underwood, served as U.S. Representative and Senator from Kentucky, as well as on the Kentucky Supreme Court. His maternal grandfather, cotton merchant Jabez Smith, once served as mayor of Petersburg, Virginia.[3]

In 1865, the Underwood family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, hoping the climate would help Oscar's chronic bronchitis, as well as his mother's health. After ten years, the family moved back to Louisville, where Oscar graduated from the Rugby University School, an exclusive private school, in 1879. He then attended the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, where he was president of the Jefferson Society, as well as excelled in debate. He also received a doctor of laws degree from Columbia College in New York by 1920 (possibly honorary). He served as president of the University of Virginia Alumni Association in 1913 and 1914.[4]

Oscar Underwood married twice, the first time in Charlottesville on October 8, 1885, to Eugenia Massie, daughter of Dr. Thomas Eugene Massie. They had two sons before she died in 1900: John Lewis Underwood (1888–1973) and Oscar Wilder Underwood Jr. (1890–1962). Underwood remarried on September 10, 1904, to Bertha Woodward (1870–1948), daughter of Union Army veteran Joseph Hershey Woodward (1843–1917) of the Woodward Iron Company and his wife Martha Burt (both of Ohio County in what became West Virginia), who survived him.[5]


After graduation, Underwood returned to Minnesota to begin his legal career. However, his older half brother William soon convinced him of better opportunities awaiting in Birmingham, Alabama. There, he moved in September 1884 and established a successful legal practice, working for a decade, including with James J. Garrett.

Political career

Alabama earned an additional seat after the census of 1890, and Underwood became chairman of the new 9th District's Democratic Committee in 1892. Two years later, voters elected him as a Democrat to the United States House of Representatives. However, Truman H. Aldrich successfully challenged that election result, forcing Underwood to resign in the middle of the term, on June 9, 1896.[6]

However, Underwood persisted, and campaigned for tariff reform. He won the seat again in the election at year's end, then re-election numerous times, serving nine terms (from 1897 to 1915).[7] Underwood became as the first Democratic House Minority Whip, serving from about 1900 to 1901.[8] He then became House Majority Leader from 1911 to 1915.

He was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1912 and had some strength at the national convention among southern delegates but could not compete with Champ Clark and Woodrow Wilson. At the convention that year in Baltimore, Wilson's managers offered Underwood the vice-presidential nomination, which he declined.[9] Following the election, Underwood supported the progressive reforms of Wilson's first term,[10] using his position as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee to manage legislation and maintain party discipline. In return, Wilson granted him considerable control over patronage and appointed Albert S. Burleson Postmaster-General upon Underwood's recommendation.[11] The Revenue Act of 1913 is also known as the Underwood Tariff Act or Underwood-Simmons Act in recognition of Underwood's role in writing and managing the bill as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He stood with a small minority of House members in opposition to the President when he voted to maintain an exemption from Panama Canal tolls for American ships traveling between American ports, despite British protests that the policy violated the Hay–Pauncefote Treaty.[12]

Underwood twice won election to the United States Senate, in 1914 and 1920, and served there from March 4, 1915, to March 3, 1927. He was Senate minority leader from 1920 to 1923. Underwood was part of the four-person American delegation at the 1921-22 Washington Naval Conference. There, he helped negotiate the Five-Power Treaty limiting American, British, Japanese, French, and Italian naval armament.[13]

He opposed federal Prohibition as "an attempt to rob the states of their jurisdiction over police matters" and advocated local control of liquor regulation because "the improved conditions which we may naturally expect to find in the lives of the men and women who practice Temperance are not found to predominate in the state where Prohibition laws have been on the statute books for years as compared to those states where liquor is sold under a license system or where Temperance laws are controlled by the sentiment of the local communities."[14]

Underwood led the anti-Ku Klux Klan forces at the 1924 Democratic National Convention. He was a longtime opponent of the Klan. In 1924, when the Klan organized a parade in Birmingham during that year's Democratic National Convention, Underwood called it an effort "to intimidate me, the Alabama delegation and the Democratic Party....It will not succeed....I maintain that the organization is a national menace....It is either the Ku Klux Klan or the United States of America. Both cannot survive. Between the two, I choose my country."[15] By 1924 Underwood was one of very few anti-Klan officeholders left in the South.[16]

He blamed the Klan's opposition to his candidacy for his loss in the Georgia presidential primary to former Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo.[16] He then determined to embarrass McAdoo by putting the party on record against the Klan.[16] Even before the Convention considered its platform, the speech nominating Underwood called for the condemnation of the Klan and produced a lengthy floor demonstration.[16] The attempt to modify the platform to condemn the Klan by name produced rousing demonstrations and speeches, many, including that of William Jennings Bryan, interrupted by the anti-Klan crowds that filled the galleries. The Convention's final vote, though contested, defeated the minority proposal naming the Klan by a vote of 542 3/20 to 541 3/20. The fight proved a polarizing battle that made each of the Convention's two major candidates unacceptable to large segments of the party, without enhancing Underwood's chances in the least.[16]

The Convention was marked by a deadlock between the supporters of the Irish Catholic New York Governor Al Smith and McAdoo, while the Convention's rules required a two-thirds vote to secure the nomination. Several delegations declined to support either of the leading candidates and persisted in voting for their state's "favorite son" instead. Like the other favorite son candidates, Underwood resisted efforts to remove the convention's two-thirds rule.[16] As the Convention labored through 103 ballots, Alabama, as the first state alphabetically, cast its votes first. The delegation's leader, Governor William W. Brandon, reported the state's unanimous vote tally each time without variation: "Alabama casts 24 votes for Oscar W. Underwood." Underwood became a symbol of the Convention's deadlock.[16] His vote totals were meager, fewer than 50, until the deadlock broke and on the 101st ballot he won 229.5, but his anti-prohibition, anti-Klan stances made him a most unlikely compromise candidate and the Convention turned to John W. Davis of West Virginia, whose work as a Wall Street lawyer proved less of a political hurdle for the delegates.[16]

Underwood declined to run for reelection to the Senate in 1926. His anti-Klan stance had upset some in his own party and as well as from the Klan, and Hugo Black was a formidable candidate.[17]

In 1927, Underwood was appointed to an international peace commission. In 1928, Underwood supported New York Governor Al Smith for president.[18]

Later life

In retirement, he and his second wife lived at Woodlawn plantation, a historic house associated with George Washington near Alexandria, Virginia. There, Underwood wrote his only published book, an analysis of the transformation of American government in the 20th century, Drifting Sands of Party Politics, which appeared in 1928. He decried federal legislation aimed at regulating morality, government by commissions, and excessive American engagement in foreign affairs.[19]

Death and legacy

Underwood suffered two disabling strokes in the winter of 1928–29. He died on January 25, 1929, at Woodlawn plantation.[5] Pursuant to his wishes, his corpse was returned to Alabama, and buried beside his first wife in Birmingham's Elmwood Cemetery. His second wife was later buried with him, as was his son John Lewis Underwood (1888–1973). His son Oscar Wilder Underwood Jr. (1890–1962), who served with distinction as a U.S. Army Captain in World War I, later became a law professor at the University of Virginia.

Most of Underwood's papers are held by the Alabama Department of Archives and History,[20] with some made available free online.[21] Some of the family's papers are also held by his alma mater, the University of Virginia.[22]

Future President John F. Kennedy mentioned Underwood as one of his Profiles in Courage for his stand against the Klan. Underwood's former home in Washington, D.C., the Oscar W. Underwood House, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Woodlawn plantation was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, and designated a national landmark in 1998. In 1990, Underwood was inducted into the Alabama Men's Hall of Fame.[23]

In the Netflix web series House of Cards, the main character, Frank Underwood, shares the same last name as Underwood. The name was chosen as Frank Underwood is the current Democratic House Whip, the same position which Oscar Underwood was the first to hold.


  1. ^ "U.S. Senate: Oscar Underwood: A Featured Biography". www.senate.gov. Retrieved 2 November 2017.
  2. ^ Charles C. Alexander (2015). The Ku Klux Klan in the Southwest. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 162–. ISBN 978-0-8131-6197-6.
  3. ^ Cruikshank, George M. (2 November 2017). "A History of Birmingham and Its Environs: A Narrative Account of Their Historical Progress, Their People, and Their Principal Interests". Lewis Publishing Company. Retrieved 2 November 2017 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ John Shelton Patton, Sallie J. Doswell, and Lewis Dabney Crenshaw, eds., Jefferson's University: Glimpses of the Past and Present of the University of Virginia (1915), 81, available online, accessed February 7, 2011
  5. ^ a b "Oscar Underwood - Encyclopedia of Alabama". Encyclopedia of Alabama. Retrieved 2 November 2017.
  6. ^ Thomas McAdory Owen and Marie Bankhead Owen, History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography, vol. 1 (Chicago: S.J. Clarke, 1921), 358, available online, accessed February 7, 2011
  7. ^ "S. Doc. 58-1 - Fifty-eighth Congress. (Extraordinary session -- beginning November 9, 1903.) Official Congressional Directory for the use of the United States Congress. Compiled under the direction of the Joint Committee on Printing by A.J. Halford. Special edition. Corrections made to November 5, 1903". GovInfo.gov. U.S. Government Printing Office. 9 November 1903. p. 3. Retrieved 2 July 2023.
  8. ^ See notes at Party whips of the United States House of Representatives for details on the ambiguity.
  9. ^ John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (NY, 2009), 150–151, 157–158
  10. ^ Cooper, 213
  11. ^ Scott C. James, Presidents, Parties, and the State: A Party System Perspective on Democratic Regulatory Choice, 1884–1936 (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 142, available online, accessed February 7, 2011
  12. ^ Cooper, 249–250
  13. ^ "LIMITATION OF NAVAL ARMAMENT (FIVE-POWER TREATY OR WASHINGTON TREATY)" (PDF). Library of Congress. 1923. Archived (PDF) from the original on 25 Jan 2021. Retrieved 26 April 2021.
  14. ^ Lamar Taney Beman, ed., Selected Articles on Prohibition of the Liquor Traffic (NY: H.W. Wilson, 1915), 120, 127–128, available online, accessed February 7, 2011
  15. ^ Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins, ed., From Civil War to Civil Rights – Alabama, 1860–1960 (University of Alabama Press, 1987), 316n, available online, accessed February 7, 2011
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h Murray, Robert K. (1976). The 103rd Ballot: Democrats and the Disaster in Madison Square Garden. Harper & Row. pp. 23 (1924), 53–54 (McAdoo), 90 (Klan record), 113 (two-thirds), 123–124 (floor demonstration), 151 (chances), 153 (fn), 194 (deadlock), 204–205 (hurdle). ISBN 9780060131241. Retrieved 17 May 2020.
  17. ^ George Brown Tindall, The Emergence of the New South, 1913–1945 (A History of the South vol. 10) (Louisiana State University Press, 1967), 194, available online, accessed February 7, 2011
  18. ^ New York Times: "Underwood Lauds Smith," December 10, 1927, accessed February 7, 2011
  19. ^ New York Times: "Who Rules the United States?", June 3, 1928, accessed February 7, 2011
  20. ^ "Underwood, Oscar Wilder (1862–1929) Guide to Research Papers". bioguide.congress.gov. Retrieved 2 November 2017.
  21. ^ "Alabama Textual Materials Collection". Retrieved 2 November 2017.
  22. ^ "A Guide to the Papers of Oscar Wilder Underwood, 1810-1955Underwood, Oscar Wilder, Papers 9292-a". ead.lib.virginia.edu. Retrieved 2 November 2017.
  23. ^ "Alabama Men's Hall of Fame, Oscar Wilder Underwood". www.samford.edu. Retrieved 2 November 2017.