Frederick Van Nuys

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Frederick Van Nuys
Sen. Frederick Van Nuys of Ind.jpg
Former U.S. Senator from Indiana
From: March 4, 1933 – January 25, 1944
Predecessor James Eli Watson
Successor Samuel D. Jackson
Former State Senator from Indiana
From: 1913–1916
Predecessor ???
Successor ???
Party Democrat
Spouse(s) Marie L. Krug

Frederick Van Nuys (April 16, 1874 – January 25, 1944) (pron. "van NIECE"[1]) was a prosecuting attorney, state senator, and moderate Democratic U.S. senator from Indiana spanning 1933 until his death in late January of 1944. He was known for his efforts to enact anti-lynching legislation and breaks from the excesses of New Deal liberalism, which contributed to intraparty tension resulting in left-wing efforts to defeat his 1938 reelection.

Political career

From 1913 to 1916, Van Nuys served in the upper body of the Indiana legislature, and as president pro tempore in 1915.

U.S. Senate

Van Nuys was elected to the United States Senate in 1932, riding the coattails of the national Democratic landslide that year and defeating incumbent "Old Guard" Republican leader James Eli Watson by a margin of thirteen percentage points.[2] Along with Republican congressional candidate William Henry Harrison, he was endorsed by the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment.[3]

1938 reelection: anti-renomination plot foiled, irregularity contesting failed

Along with Republicans and most of his Democratic colleagues, Van Nuys opposed the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937,[1] also known as the court packing plan, which sought to expand the number of seats on the United States Supreme Court for the appointment of additional pro–New Deal justices by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He became unpopular among the staunch liberal wing of the party as a result, denounced by the governor of his state:[1]

The people of our State will not tolerate . . . any one in public office who will not put his shoulder to the wheel and give his earnest support to the President.

—Gov. Maurice C. Townsend, July 26, 1937

Van Nuys was also opposed by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which in late November 1937 began an effort to deny Van Nuys the Democratic renomination and replace the incumbent senator with Alex Gordon, a labor leader of Indianapolis.[4]

FDR opposed Van Nuys for dissenting from his court packing scheme.

Roosevelt in particular, seeking to "purge" Democrats he viewed as insufficiently left-wing the midterm cycle, backed a primary challenge by Paul V. McNutt, high commissioner to the Philippines, to oust Van Nuys. However, the Indiana senator, who "knew the rank & file of the McNutt-Townsend machine," publicly proclaimed an ultimatum to run as an independent candidate if denied the Democratic renomination, wherein he could split the party vote and facilitate a Republican victory.[1] Gov. Townsend several weeks later backtracked, inviting Van Nuys as a candidate for renomination to an "open" state convention, and ultimately won renomination despite McNutt's primary challenge from the left backed by Roosevelt—the Indiana Democratic State Convention nominated Van Nuys and endorsed McNutt for the following 1940 elections.[5] The New York Times reported earlier in the month:[6]

A swing of State administration support in favor of the Democratic renomination of Senator Frederick Van Nuys, foe of President Roosevelt's Court and Governmental Reorganization Bills, flourished into "band wagon" proportions today and apparently eliminated the possibility of a confusing, three-way Senatorial struggle in Indiana.

The New York Times, July 6, 1938

In the general election, Van Nuys faced Republican opponent Raymond E. Willis, edging out a narrow victory by just over 5,000 votes despite a Republican wave the midterm cycle.[7] Two months after submitting his credentials and being sworn in, Willis filed a contest alleging irregularities, such as voting machine tampering and voting by improperly registered individuals, though clarified that Van Nuys himself had no activity in election fraud.[8]

The Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections took up the case, and reported favorably to Van Nuys, declaring Willis's allegations vague and doubtful, in addition to potential irregularities impacting only about 120 votes, insufficient to overturn the general election results with vote margin of around 5,100.[8] Per a voice vote held on April 13, 1939, Van Nuys retained his Senate seat, and Willis was elected to the U.S. Senate in the following election cycle.

Wagner–Van Nuys anti-lynching bill

Anti-Lynching Legislation

Major legislation:


For a more detailed treatment, see Gavagan–Van Nuys–Wagner Act.

Death, aftermath

Van Nuys announced in mid-August 1943 that he would seek reelection to a third Senate term "if the rank and file want me."[9] However, he died in office on January 25, 1944. Van Nuys is interred at Maplewood Cemetery, located in Anderson, Indiana.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 July 25, 1938. Advanced Astrology. TIME Magazine via Internet Archive. Retrieved May 20, 2023.
  2. IN US Senate Race - Nov 08, 1932. Our Campaigns. Retrieved May 20, 2023.
  3. October 24, 1932. WET LEAGUE FIGHTS WATSON IN INDIANA; Endorses Van Nuys, Democrat, for the Senate; Harrison, Republican, for Congress. BOTH ADVOCATE REPEAL Senator and Representative Ludlow Are Evasive on Question, the Association Says. The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2023.
  4. November 29, 1937. C. I. O. WARS ON VAN NUYS; Backs Indiana Labor Leader for Democratic Senatorial Nomination. The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2023.
  5. Michael, Charles R. (July 13, 1938). VAN NUYS RENAMED; M'NUTT FOR 1940; The Indiana Convention Ends Democratic Schism in Harmony Program BOTH RECEIVE AN OVATION Gov. Townsend, Who Formerly Opposed the Senator, Pleads for a United Party Van Nuys Also Gets Ovation Unity for McNutt Predicted Two Factions End Differences. The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2023.
  6. July 6, 1938. SWING TO VAN NUYS, FOE OF COURT PLAN; His Indiana Rivals, Following Governor's Lead, Back Him for Democratic Convention See Astrologer, Says President SWING TO VAN NUYS GAINS MOMENTUM. The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2023.
  7. IN US Senate Race - Nov 08, 1938. Our Campaigns. Retrieved May 20, 2023.
  8. 8.0 8.1 The Election Case of Raymond E. Willis v. Frederick Van Nuys of Indiana (1939). United States Senate. Retrieved May 20, 2023.
  9. August 12, 1943. VAN NUYS TO SEEK SENATE RE-ELECTION; Indiana Senator Plans Tour in Opposition to Schricker. The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2023.

External links

  • Profile at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
  • Profile at Find a Grave
  • Profile at The Political Graveyard