A US congressman and senator who was especially important during the New Deal years, Byron Patton Harrison was born in Crystal Springs to Robert A. Harrison, a disabled Civil War veteran, and Anna Patton Harrison, a housewife and later boardinghouse proprietor. Harrison received his education in the Crystal Springs public schools and entered Louisiana State University on a baseball scholarship but left after two years to begin work. He taught school and was a high school principal in Leakesville while studying law in the evenings. He was admitted to the bar in 1902 and soon entered politics, winning two terms as a district attorney. In 1905 Harrison married Mary Edwinna McInnis of Leakesville, and they went on to have three children.
At age twenty-nine, Harrison was elected to the US Congress from Mississippi’s 6th District after a campaign during which he became known simply as Pat. While in the House of Representatives (1911–19), Harrison strongly supported Pres. Woodrow Wilson but was too constrained by a states’ rights stance to support all New Freedom social legislation. In 1918, with the support of Wilson and Mississippi’s senior senator, John Sharp Williams, Harrison defeated Sen. James K. Vardaman, one of the “little group of willful men” who had opposed the president’s call for war in 1917. Harrison won reelection to the Senate in 1924, 1936, and 1940.
As a member of the Democratic minority from 1921 to 1933, Harrison garnered popular favor by harassing Republican presidential administrations. His witty yet effective style of debate aptly suited the role of a minority senator. When his party took the White House in 1933, Harrison assumed enormous power as chair of the Senate Committee on Finance. In that role, Harrison oversaw passage of major New Deal legislation: the National Industrial Recovery Act; the Reciprocal Trade Agreement Acts of 1934 and 1940; fourteen revenue bills, including the Wealth Tax Act (1935) and the undistributed profits tax (1936); and the 1935 Social Security Act and its 1939 amendments. Circumstances of the Great Depression and his loyalty to the Democratic Party motivated Harrison to support the New Deal, but the social engineering tendencies of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt and tax measures that redistributed wealth led Harrison to become disenchanted. He grew estranged from the president, a gulf exacerbated when Roosevelt supported Alben W. Barkley as Senate majority leader in 1937. Harrison lost that contest by one vote without the support of Mississippi’s other senator, Theodore G. Bilbo, a fierce opponent of Harrison. The breach between Harrison and Roosevelt healed in 1940 when the president turned to the senator, always a supporter of national defense efforts, to manage passage of what became the Lend-Lease Act.
In 1939 Washington correspondents named Harrison the most influential senator. His popularity with the press and his colleagues never waned. His seniority earned him the post of president pro tempore in January 1941, six months before he succumbed to colon cancer.
- Chester Morgan, Redneck Liberal: Theodore G. Bilbo and the New Deal (1985)
- James T. Patterson, Congressional Conservatism and the New Deal Coalition (1967)
- Martha H. Swain, Pat Harrison: The New Deal Years (1978)
- Martha H. Swain, Journal of Mississippi History (November 1976)
- Pat Harrison Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, J. D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi