My son, like many young men of his age, has a tattoo. I suspect he will get others. Being a man of my generation, I am ambivalent about this, and that’s sugar coating it. He says that he would like to get one in honor of me, a humbling thought.
“What would it be?” I asked, half knowing the answer.
“A yellow dog,” he said, and we laughed.
I have described myself as a “Yellow Dog Democrat,” all my life, but William’s comment made me think once again of the origin of the term, common in my youth for one who was such a loyal Democrat that he would vote for “a yellow dog” if it were the nominee of the Democratic Party.
Most Americans were introduced to the term during the 1928 presidential election, when Alabama’s junior senator, the notoriously racist J. Thomas Heflin (great uncle of the much more moderate, though equally Democratic, Alabama Supreme Court Justice and later Senator Howell Heflin), declined to support Al Smith, the Democratic nominee, and bolted to the Republican candidate, Herbert Hoover.
Whether put off by Smith’s big city slickness, his Roman Catholicism, or his support for the repeal of prohibition, any of which would have been enough to turn the trick, Heflin could not bring himself to support Smith. The Encyclopedia of Alabama says:
“Thomas Heflin, the junior senator from Alabama, aroused anti-Smith fervor through speeches and pamphlets. Heflin denounced Democrats who voted party lines rather than choosing candidates based on their stands on issues. He claimed that such party members would vote for a ‘yellow dog’ if it ran on the Democratic ticket, giving rise to the label of ‘Yellow-Dog Democrats,’ which became popular as a negative term for describing southerners who remained staunchly loyal to the party, no matter the candidate.”
Though Heflin’s use of the term no doubt spread its currency beyond the South, in Kentucky, the term had been in more or less constant use for decades. We have seen in an earlier column the turmoil that arose when William Goebel, whom many thought had not legitimately been elected governor in 1899, was assassinated in February of 1900, after having been sworn in as governor of a divided state.
Goebel’s murder and the turmoil it created tends to drown this out, but low and behold, Caleb Powers, the very man convicted three times of Goebel’s murder, sets down a little story in his own autobiography, published in 1905, well over twenty years prior to Heflin:
[Powers described a series of campaign meetings leading up to the election of 1899.]
“The meeting at Bowling Green probably elicited more comment than any of the others. Theodore F. Hallam, of Covington, one of the most gifted men of the state, was the speaker of the occasion, and part of his speech was much commented on. He declared that he was a Democrat and held that there was much sacredness in the word ‘nominee.’
“’I have always,’ he said, ‘stood ready to vote for a yellow dog if he was nominated on the Democratic ticket. I stand ready and willing, to-day, to go that far, but lower you shall not drag me. ‘”
The great Kentucky author Irvin S. Cobb, is virtually unknown even in his home state today. But at the turn of the last century, Cobb was the highest paid magazine writer in America, and added his recollection of the event in his own autobiography, “Exit Laughing,” one of my favorite books written by a Kentuckian.
In Cobb’s version, Hallam is questioned about his choice. One of his interlocutors demanded if it were not true that Hallam had said that “if the Democrats of Kentucky, in convention assembled, nominated a yaller dog for governor you would vote for him.” Hallam affirmed this to be a true statement, and was then asked, “Why do you now repudiate the nominee of that convention, the Honorable William Goebel?”
“’I admit,’ Hallam answered, blandly, ‘that I said then what I now repeat, namely, that when the Democratic party of Kentucky, in convention assembled, sees fit in its wisdom to nominate a yaller dog for the governorship of this great state, I will support him — but lower than that ye shall not drag me!’”
Hallam, the Kentuckian, did not invent the term, either. Its origins are lost in the dim mists of history; an 1883 reference in the New York Times was also likely not its first use, though perhaps it is its first use in a national publication. Though I have no reference for this, the term seems vaguely Mark Twain-ish to me, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find a role for him in its creation.
The Heflin incident is often credited with making the term one of derision, rather than pride, but in the South, generations of Democrats – myself included – wore the term as a badge of honor. The so-called Yellow Dog Democrats were the backbone of FDR’s New Deal legislation, and staunchly voted with their party through the presidential elections of 1952 and 1956, when we saw the strange sight of the Yellow Dogs – largely segregationists – supporting the liberal Adlai Stevenson over the moderate Dwight Eisenhower. The only states carried by Stevenson in either election were the Yellow Dog southern states.
The term has spawned the equally colorful “Blue Dog Coalition,” a coalition of conservative Democratic Congressmen. Though stories of the origin of this term vary, most attribute it to Texas representative Pete Geren, who felt that the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party had choked the moderates til they were blue. William Safire, in his column about the wonders of the English language in the New York Times in 2009, adds another twist:
“In the mid-80′s, another term to describe maverick Democrats began to surface in Louisiana. According to W. J. (Billy) Tauzin, now a Louisiana Congressman, a local artist of expanding reputation named George Rodrigue began doing paintings of a blue dog with yellow eyes; a large signboard advertising his home and studio became familiar along Interstate 10 near Lafayette. On that sign was a picture of his favorite subject: the blue dog.
(Reached at home, the artist tells me: ‘The dog I paint was my dog for 10 years. He died, and I started to paint him as a ghost dog, on his journey to try and find me. I’ve been painting him now for about seven years. His name was Tiffany.’)
“A Louisiana constituent recently supplied local politicos with a representation of the Rodrigue dog on the aforementioned lapel pin, identifying the wearer as a ‘Blue Dog Conservative Democrat.’”
Central Kentucky’s own Congressman, Ben Chandler, is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, perhaps a necessity in an increasingly conservative state, though I didn’t see any blue dog paintings in his office the last time I was there, though Ben is a Big Blue fan. As they’d say in the country, no relation.
No profession has given us as many colorful phrases as politics, many of them unsuitable for a family publication, but my none has been so widespread in use, nor fraught with as much emotion – particularly in the South – as the Yellow Dog Democrat. Maybe I should get a tattoo of one, too . . .
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a lifelong interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award-winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Miller’s role as legal editor on ABC TV’s “Good Morning, America.” He writes, posts and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.