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By Ralph Grizzle
In 1908, friends prevailed upon Robert Lee Doughton to run for the North Carolina State Senate. A Democrat, Doughton knew that the district containing Alleghany, Ashe and Watauga counties usually went Republican. So he figured he would humor his friends, and when the incumbent beat him, Doughton would head back to his quiet work as a farmer and storekeeper.
But when Doughton discovered that his opponent had been present at only 24 of the 694 roll calls during the last legislative year, he became indignant. Doughton decided this was an election worth fighting for, and as he stumped the district with his opponent, as was the custom in those days, he would let the incumbent campaign, then Doughton would hold up a poster with the poor attendance record scrawled on it and say, "Look, where were you?"
That strategy won Doughton the State Senate seat and established the beginning of his long career in politics. An astute campaigner, the Democrat Doughton kept office, even when much of his district was voting Republican. He retired in 1953 having never been defeated for public office. Doughton was elected to 21 consecutive terms in Congress (from 1911-1953) and served under the administrations of seven presidents.
Doughton was born in Laurel Springs on November 7, 1863, the son of Jonathan Horton and Rebecca Jones Doughton. A Confederate captain serving under Robert E. Lee, Doughton's father was away at the time of his son's birth. Doughton later said that while his father was gone off to war scalawags robbed the homeplace of everything, including blankets off his baby bed. Named for the Confederate general that his father so admired, young Robert Lee quickly learned what it means to earn, and keep, a dollar.
The boy grew up a farmer. His big bony hands knew the feel of a hoe on hard ground. He rose early and worked until late in the evening. Later in life he joked that he considered himself to be on vacation anytime he wasn't in the fields from sunup to sundown.
Robert Lee attended Laurel Springs School two months out of the year. Later, his father and neighbors erected a mud-chinked building that they called Traphill Academy and hired a private tutor. Douhgton later credited an itinerant teacher with opening his mind to the marvels of mathematics. Later in life, Doughton was awarded honorary degrees by the University of North Carolina and Catawba College.
From high school, he started a farm and stock-raising business. His hard work made the farm a success. Some of his achievements in that realm, in fact, were remarkable. In the early 1900s, Doughton, a few men and a couple of well-trained dogs corralled "one of the largest droves of cattle [more than 500 head] ever driven" to Wilkesboro -- from Doughton's farm in Alleghany County.
The hard-working Doughton eventually acquired 5,000 acres, where he raised prize Hereford herds and Holsteins. His acumen in farming landed him on the State Board of Agriculture from 1903, the year that marked the beginning of his career in public life, to 1910.
From 1909 until 1910, the farmer served the state senate and was on the State Prison Board from 1909 until 1911.That same year, Doughton acquired the majority stock in the Deposit Savings and Loan Bank in North Wilkesboro. He served as the bank president until 1936, when it merged with other banks in Sparta, Boone and Spruce Pine to become the Northwestern Bank. After the merger, Doughton became chairman and director.
He demonstrated a knack for politicking. In 1910, during a Democratic primary for U.S. Congress, Doughton bought along a bag of hard apples, which turned out to be part of his campaign strategy. He knew his opponent would set up his main points by asking a leading question, then pause to allow a dramatic silence before delivering his punch line. During each pause, however, Doughton chomped down on an apple, breaking the silence and amusing the crowd. By the third pause, the crowd was roaring with laughter; the opponent, fully demoralized. From that day on, Doughton had only one primary opponent, in 1918.
At six feet two inches tall, the 215-pound Doughton was known as "Farmer Bob" and "Muley," the latter reportedly because of his stubbornness in Congress. "I don't like to change a decision, once made," he said. He wore size 15 shoe, and when he gestured, wrote a reporter for the News & Observer, "he waves a hand half the size of a ham at you."
With the ascendancy of the Democrats under Franklin D. Roosevelt, Doughton in 1933 became chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, where all tax bills originated. The first farmer to serve that post, his was the job of digging deeper and deeper into taxpayer's pockets to fund economic recovery and the money needed for World War II and the postwar rehabilitation throughout the world.
He held the post of chairman longer than any other man in history (1933-1947 and 1949-1953), and on his retirement, he was credited with authoring more tax bills than any other man in history. But even though his job was to fund the government, he always tried to keep the taxpayer in mind. He was fond of admonishing his colleagues with the notion that, "You can shear a sheep year after year, but you can take his hide only once."
Doughton drummed up funds for Roosevelt's New Deal, national defense and war. He did so gladly, But the North Carolina Congressman was not afraid to lock horns with Roosevelt's Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr., when he requested in 1934 a $10.5 billion budget with $6.5 billion to come from added levies on personal income.
Doughton's committee granted only $2 billion in additional revenue, with only $12 million of it from personal income tax. He commented to a reporter from the Asheville Times: "The taxpayer is up against about all he can take . . . If you strangle business and profits with taxes, you don't get anymore taxes."
Doughton is credited with the formulation and passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, an act that he considered the hallmark of his career. He wrote to President Harry Truman in 1952, "I take more pride in my successful efforts on Social Security legislation than any other legislation I have ever been responsible for or actively supported."
Not particularly loquacious, Doughton could be unusually alert and diplomatic. During a hot Senate race in Raleigh between William B. Umstead and Governor J.M. Broughton, a News & Observer editor asked Doughton what he made of the Senate race.
"The man we got [Umstead] is doing a fine job, a fine job! Don't see that there's any need of turning him out," Doughton said before discovering that Governor Broughton was standing at his elbow, at which point Doughton quickly added: "And I'd say the same thing for the other man if he already had the office."
Doughton went about his own work quietly, rising before daybreak to be the first congressman to get to work -- at 6 a.m. Doughton began the day with a hearty breakfast of cereal, bacon, eggs, fruit and coffee followed by a 30-minute walk to his office. Even at age 80, he maintained the same pace, claiming that he could walk 15 miles if he had to, without tiring.
His work ethic knew few bounds. The Asheville Times joked in a headline that "Rep. Robert Doughton Will Celebrate 80th Birthday Not Working," but only because November 7 fell on a Sunday. A Baptist, "Farmer Bob" held holy the Sabbath.
Doughton would work all night if he needed to, but he would not attend any formal function that lasted as late as 10 p.m. Being up at that late hour was all right for folks who could loaf in bed until 7 a.m. but Doughton had to get his work done. He did not know -- nor did he care -- how the rest of Washington lived.
One morning Doughton ran into a stenographer outside his office building. She was just heading for bed after a night of reveling. Not realizing the stenographer had been up all night, he said: "I wouldn't have asked you do come down so early, but now that you're here, we can go to the office and get a lot of work done before the others come in." A teetotaler, the strongest drink he would touch was buttermilk.
He did not always expect others to work as hard as he did, but at times he could be demanding. When an Asheville Times reporter asked for an interview, Doughton gave strict orders for the reporter to show at his Washington office at 8 a.m. sharp, else no interview. A storm tied up traffic, so the reporter called to say he could not get transportation.
"Walk!" Doughton roared into the phone.
"Walk 10 miles? Are you kidding?" the reporter responded.
"That's only a stroll," Doughton replied. "Now get here. The day's half gone."
The reporter failed to say how he made it to Doughton's office, but when he arrived, Doughton set the parameters of the interview: "I have made it a practice to think that any reporter who says anything good about me is a great writer."
Despite his gruffness, Doughton could be a fairly gentle man. He married twice: in 1893 to Belle Boyd Greer, who died in 1895; and in 1898 to Mrs. Lillie Stricker Hix, who died in 1946. He had two daughters and two sons.
In the late 1930s, friends and colleagues urged Doughton to run for governor. President Roosevelt, however, asked Doughton to stay in the House of Representatives. Doughton thanked the president and told him that he would seek reelection.
Doughton would not retire from public service until 1953. That year, he returned to Laurel Springs to share a big nine-room house with his daughter, "Miss Reba," who had been with him 20 of his 42 years in Washington.
Retired at age 90, he still started his day early. After breakfast, he walked to the post office and would stop to chat with the folks at the general store. He read the morning papers -- all North Carolina dailies -- then had a light lunch and a nap. Afterward, he might stroll the 3,000-acre farm, still stocked with the Herefords and Holsteins. Dinner was at 4 in the afternoon. Before retiring, his daughter read at least one chapter of the Bible to him.
Three miles away from his farmhouse was the Blue Ridge Parkway. It occupied a warm spot in his heart. "There's nothing like it in the world," he told a reporter for the Charlotte Observer. Doughton had sponsored a bill providing for construction of the parkway through North Carolina and Virginia. The 6,000-acre Doughton Park, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, was dedicated to him on October 10, 1953, an event that local papers called "the crowning honor accorded the beloved congressman." (Doughton also succeeded in his efforts to establish the Veterans Hospital in Salisbury after World War II.)
He died in his sleep on October 3, 1954, a month shy of his 91st birthday, of a heart attack at his Laurel Springs farmhouse. It was probably good genes that gave him long life. His brother, Rufus Alexander Doughton lived to be 88. Rufus served 17 different sessions of the state legislature and was the state's lieutenant governor from 1893 to 1897. By 1921, he was generally recognized as the most influential member of the house. In 1945, at his death, the News & Observer wrote that Rufus Doughton had "shaped" more legislation in North Carolina "than any man of his generation." One of his landmark achievements was cosponsoring the Highway Act in 1921, which committed the state to a $50 million highway construction program financed through the sale of state bonds.
The brothers were certainly doers. In a lengthy statement, Governor Umstead said Robert Lee Doughton "probably sponsored and influenced the passage of more good legislation and helped to kill more bad legislation than any other man in the history of this nation. Children yet unborn will be benefited by legislation sponsored by him, such as the Social Security Act and the Unemployment Compensation Act.
Doughton was buried at the cemetery of Laurel Springs Baptist Church, where he was a longtime member and deacon. His portrait hangs in the Ways and Means Committee office in Washington.
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Copyright © 2005 by Ralph
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