A special anniversary: A declaration of independence

Posted: March 16, 2013

Editor’s note: Forty-three years ago Sunday, Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. issued this statement to the people of Virginia relative to the commonwealth’s 1970 U.S. Senate race.

My dear fellow Virginians:

I would like to think out loud with those whom I have the high honor — and the great responsibility — to represent in the Senate of the United States.

I love Virginia. I love every area of Virginia — every mountain, every valley, every seashore. And I love her people.

Our people are, I feel, forward-looking, responsible, and moderate. We realize, too, that those of us representing the public must be attuned to the 1970s. We realize that times and conditions change — but that fundamental principles do not.

As you know, I have spent most of my adult life serving the people of Virginia to the best of my capabilities. For 18 years I served in the Senate of Virginia. I am now in my fifth year in the Senate of the United States.

During the past four sessions of the Congress, I have cast more than 1,000 recorded votes. My votes, my speeches, my views are a matter of record. This is available to all.

I cannot change that record. I would not change it if I could. I realize that no one will agree with every vote, but in each of them I have voted my convictions.

I have fought for the programs of the President — Democrat or Republican — when I thought he was right. I have fought against the programs of the President — Democrat or Republican — when I thought he was wrong.

I have acted independently of party lines. But I feel I have acted in the best interests of Virginia and of our nation. I have maintained that independence because I believe Virginians are independent, free-thinking people.

My term as United States Senator expires next January. This coming November, Virginians will vote to determine whom they wish to represent them in the United States Senate for the following six years.

I have given considerable thought as to how I can best submit my record to the voters of Virginia for their approval or disapproval.

The problems which face our nation are immense — both at home and abroad. The war. Inflation. Civil Unrest. Crime. Pollution of air and water. Unrestrained government spending. Heavy taxation.

There is no Democratic solution to these problems; there is no Republican solution.

Party labels mean less and less to Virginians — and, indeed, to most Americans. They know that it is principle, rather than labels, upon which this nation was built.

In this modern age, more and more Virginians are thinking in terms of the general election. Fewer and fewer are participating in primaries. The best evidence of this was last year’s gubernatorial primary. It drew fewer than one-fourth of the qualified voters.

Another important factor must be taken into consideration.

During 1969, the various candidates for Governor spent a total of $3 million. This is a staggering sum. Never before in Virginia have such huge sums been spent to achieve public office.

This is a deplorable trend. It discourages many from seeking public office. It could lead to undue influence.

Virginia, long noted for its integrity in high office, must not go the way of other states where elections are decided by wild spending.

Obviously, two election campaigns — a Primary followed by a General Election — would be twice as expensive as one campaign. Is this in the best interests of the people of Virginia?

I have listed two factors in my thinking.

Now we come to the most important.

Last month the Democratic State Central Committee took an unprecedented step. For the first time in 40 years, a Virginia Senator, if he is to seek reelection in the Democratic Primary, will be required to sign an oath that he will support for President whoever is selected by the Democratic National Convention.

Veteran political writer John F. Daffron reported for The Associated Press the actions of the committee in these words:

“RICHMOND (AP) — The Virginia Democratic Party agreed yesterday to require candidates for office to pledge support of all Democratic nominees from the courthouse to the White House.”

The Committee is within its rights to require such an oath. I do not contest its action.

But this action has made it impossible for me to file in the Democratic Primary.

I cannot, and will not, sign an oath to vote for and support an individual whose identity I do not know and whose principles and policies are thus unknown.

To sign such a blank check would be, I feel, the height of irresponsibility and unworthy of a member of the United States Senate.

I have given this matter a great deal of thought since the Committee action three weeks ago.

I am told that I could sign such an oath and forget it.

Perhaps there is a technicality behind which I could hide, but the intent of the Committee requirement is clear.

Whatever I do, I want to do in good faith.

One reason Americans, and especially our young people, have become cynical about persons in public life is because too many politicians have become cynical, saying one thing prior to election and feeling free to do something else after election.

No one knows today who will be the Democratic nominee for President in 1972 — nor who will be the Republican nominee. No one knows what philosophy they will advocate.

The year 1972 will be a crucial one for our nation.

Before making a decision as to whom I shall support for President, I want to know the alternatives — and just where each candidate stands on the dominant issues.

To forfeit now my right to do this is to me unthinkable.

I had thought that this matter of a loyalty oath had been settled 18 years ago when Virginia’s Governor John S. Battle told the 1952 Democratic National Convention in these words: “. . . We in Virginia are not going to sign any pledge or any commitment which will prevent freedom of thought and freedom of action.”

Governor Battle made this statement in the convention four days before a presidential candidate was chosen. I would be required to subscribe to an oath two years before a candidate is chosen.

I am anxious to serve the people of Virginia in the United States Senate. I love our country, and I feel I can continue to make a contribution to Virginia and to the nation as a United States Senator.

Occasionally there comes a time when one must break with precedent, when one must do the unusual.

For me, such a time has come.

I shall take a fresh approach — to some, perhaps, a bold approach.

At this particular time — in this particular situation— in this particular election — I feel I can best serve Virginia by taking my record directly to all of the people of Virginia in November.

Now is not the time — it is too early — to announce my candidacy for the Senate. But being an independent Democrat I shall, at the appropriate time, file as an Independent in order to preserve my freedom of action.

I realize full well the difficulties I face in this decision. The course I am taking is an uncharted one.

But I would rather be a free man than a captive Senator.

I want and need the support of all Virginians — Democrats, Republicans, Independents.

At a later date — between now and November — I shall discuss in detail my Senate record, and I shall continue to make known my views on the great issues facing our nation.

I have been independent in casting my votes in Washington, and I shall take only one oath — and that to the people of Virginia: To conscientiously and impartially serve all the people of our great state.

Harry F. Byrd Jr., in a three-way race, won re-election to the U.S. Senate in 1970 as an Independent. He received 53.5 percent of the vote, or more votes than the total of the two major-party candidates combined (46 percent).