Joseph A. Gavagan

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Joseph Andrew Gavagan
Joseph A. Gavagan.jpg
Former Justice of the New York Supreme Court
From: 1943–1968
Predecessor ???
Successor ???
Former U.S. Representative from New York's 21st Congressional District
From: November 5, 1929 – December 30, 1943
Predecessor Royal H. Weller
Successor James H. Torrens
Former State Assemblyman from New York's 22nd District (New York County)
From: 1923–1929
Predecessor Michael E. Reiburn
Successor Benjamin B. Mittler
Party Democrat
Spouse(s) Mae Nolan
Religion Roman Catholic[1]
Military Service
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Army
Service Years 1917–1919 (active)
1920–1925 (reserves)
Rank Second Lieutenant (active)
First Lieutenant (reserves)
Unit Quartermaster Corps
Battles/wars World War I

Joseph Andrew Gavagan (August 20, 1892 – October 18, 1968) was a lawyer and liberal Democratic politician from New York who represented the state's 21st congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives for fourteen years, previously serving in the state assembly. He rose to prominence in the New Deal era as a crusader for the enactment of federal anti-lynching law, which never materialized due to a circle of senatorial Southern Democrats persistently blocking proposed bills.

Early life and education

Gavagan was born to a Catholic family in the "Hell's Kitchen" part of New York City on August 20, 1892. After attending both public and parochial schools, he enrolled in Fordham University, graduating from the law department in 1920 and admitted to the bar in the same year. Gavagan subsequently commenced law practice in New York City.

During World War I, Gavagan served from 1917–19, enlisting as a private and later promoted within the Quartermaster Corps to second lieutenant. In the postwar years, he was a first lieutenant in the Quartermaster Reserve Corps until 1925.

U.S. House of Representatives

Joseph Gavagan bioguide.jpg

Following the death of sitting congressman Royal H. Weller, Gavagan ran for the open seat in 1929 and soundly won, defeating Republican opponent Hubert T. Delaney.[2] He was subsequently reelected seven times.[3] Gavagan's House tenure was marked with a sharp liberal record,[4] and was endorsed for reelection in the 1938 midterms by the American Labor Party.[5]

In early September 1937, Gavagan's two year-old daughter Rosemary died from burns after overturning a boiling kettle in his summer home at Ludlow, New York.[6]

Rep. Gavagan was noted by The New York Times on September 18, 1938, as a defender of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "purge" campaign against intraparty centrists-to-conservatives who particularly opposed his court packing scheme.[5] The Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937 sought to expand the number of seats on the U.S. Supreme Court for the appointment of additional pro–New Deal justices, and was highly unpopular in Washington and among the American people.[7] The vast majority of Roosevelt's "purge" list were reelected, and the Democratic Party's majority shrank in the midterms as the result of increasing anti–New Deal sentiment.

Anti-Lynching Bill of 1937

Anti-Lynching Legislation

Major legislation:


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

On April 13, 1937, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 281–108 to take up consideration, the following day, the Anti-Lynching Bill of 1937 sponsored by Gavagan which would designate federal offenses for officers who enable mobs to injure and/or kill prisoners.[8] Despite a solidly affirmative vote in the House for the legislation,[9] it was blocked in the Senate by Southern Democrats.

Gavagan later noted "very little support from the White House" for his sponsored anti-lynching bill.[10] Roosevelt, prioritized with holding together the New Deal Coalition in appeasing Southern Democrats in return for their support of liberal initiatives, in practical terms consistently opposed the passage of a federal anti-lynching law.[11]

Anti-Lynching Bill of 1940

Rep. Hamilton Fish.

A few years later in 1940, Gavagan, along with conservative Republican colleague Hamilton Fish, III, sponsored another anti-lynching bill, the Gavagan–Fish Act.[11] It was placed on the congressional calendar to be taken up for consideration in the session following holidays, and lauded by civil rights groups such as the NAACP. Following a sound vote in the affirmative, the Act was taken up in the U.S. Senate.

Pending a Southern filibuster, Vice President John Nance Garner of Texas reversed his past opposition towards civil rights, expediently seeking Northern black support in the Democratic primary that year as he was preparing a presidential run against Roosevelt.[11] Although the press exposing Garner's true intents, civil rights forces welcomed the move as a potential deal-breaker to finally pass a federal anti-lynching law. Fish asserted that "[the American people] are entitled to know where President Roosevelt stands on the anti-lynching bill and what he proposes to do to help secure its passage in Congress," which Roosevelt declined to respond to.[11]

Amidst yet another Southern Democratic filibuster, the Gavagan–Fish Act was eventually tabled on October 8, 1940, by Senate Democratic leader and future vice president Alben Barkley.

Later life and death

In 1943, Gavagan was elected to the New York Supreme Court and resigned from the U.S. House of Representatives, shrinking the Democratic membership to 217 seats, under a majority.[12] He was reelected to another term as justice on the state Supreme Court, and later died at 1968 in Bennington, Vermont. Gavagan is interred at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York. He was a member of the American Legion and the Knights of Columbus.[1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Index to Politicians: Gateskill to Gayheart. The Political Graveyard. Retrieved May 19, 2023.
  2. NY District 21 Special Race - Nov 05, 1929. Our Campaigns. Retrieved May 19, 2023.
  3. Candidate - Joseph A. Gavagan. Our Campaigns. Retrieved May 19, 2023.
  4. GAVAGAN, Joseph Andrew (1892-1968). Voteview. Retrieved May 19, 2023.
  5. 5.0 5.1 September 18, 1938. PURGE' PLAN DEFENDED; Gavagan Backs President in Talks Before Labor Groups. The New York Times. Retrieved May 19, 2023.
  6. September 9, 1937. GAVAGAN BABY LOSES LIFE; Daughter of Representative Overturns a Boiling Kettle. The New York Times. Retrieved May 19, 2023.
  7. Zelizer, Julian E. (October 15, 2018). Packing the Supreme Court Is a Terrible Idea. The New York Times. Retrieved May 19, 2023.
  8. April 13, 1937. VOTES OUT LYNCHING BILL; House Brings Gavagan Measure to Floor for Debate Today. The New York Times. Retrieved May 19, 2023.
  9. April 15, 1937. TO PASS H. R. 1507, AN ANTI-LYNCHING BILL. Retrieved May 19, 2023.
  10. Weiss Malkiel, Nancy Joan (1983). Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR, p. 243. Internet Archive. Retrieved May 19, 2023.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Magness, Phillip W. (July 31, 2020). How FDR Killed Federal Anti-Lynching Legislation. American Institute for Economic Research. Retrieved May 19, 2023.
  12. January 12, 1944. House Democrats Down to 217 Seats. The New York Times. Retrieved May 19, 2023.

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