Don’t Miss the Boat

In 1937, Democrats held a majority in the House and Senate, yet their support for President Franklin D. Roosevelt was fracturing. Attempting to unite the splintering party and create legislative harmony, FDR invited Democratic Representatives, Senators, and Cabinet members to a weekend picnic. The President forbade open political talk at the Jefferson Islands Club picnic on the Chesapeake Bay. Legislators instead spent the weekend fishing, skeet shooting, playing baseball, and relaxing.

Representatives Travel by Boat to the Jefferson Islands Club/tiles/non-collection/6/6-20-photo-picnic-PA2015_02_0038.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Congressmen waved their hats in the air, about to set sail to the Jefferson Islands Club for a “stag party” picnic with President Roosevelt.
President Roosevelt tried to gain support for his controversial court reform bill, which proposed adding more justices to the nine serving on the Supreme Court. With Democrats split over the measure, Roosevelt hoped to use a party to unify his party. One photograph from the House Collection shows a “group of Congressional merrymakers,” as the caption explains, waving their hats as they set off from the Annapolis dock. The picnic was a three-day affair, from June 25 to 27, and attendance was by invitation only. Each day, a different group of more than 100 revelers went to the club to socialize with FDR and cavort with other Members.

President Roosevelt Speaking During a Joint Session in 1937/tiles/non-collection/6/6-20-photo-picnic-PA2012_09_0010.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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When President Roosevelt spoke to a joint session of Congress in January 1937, proper attire was required. But five months later, many of these men enjoyed an informal, relaxed picnic in the Chesapeake Bay.
The Navy helpfully provided transportation in the form of patrol boats and submarine chasers. Joseph Sinnott, stoic Doorkeeper of the House, checked each traveler’s invitation to prevent stowaways. Meanwhile, the Navy kept tabs on the politicians “for fear one of them might go A.W.O.L.” Three procrastinating Members were so late that they missed the boat. (Sailors eventually ferried congressional stragglers to the island along with food and other party supply reinforcements.) In contrast with the diligent order kept by their naval shepherds, Members injected disorder and humor into the proceedings. After Representative Scott Lucas proffered his invitation to the Doorkeeper, he joked, “Now that I’ve answered the roll call, can’t I go back?” Lucas was not the only troublemaker: The New York Times reported that Clarence Cannon of Missouri “made a flying jump at one of the patrol boats and nearly skidded over the side.” Fortunately, “there was not a single wetting” of any Member of Congress.

With a sociable smile glinting beneath his glasses, the President sat in the shade of an apple tree. Groups of politicians gathered around him each day. Tie-less and casual in an old pair of pants, FDR aimed to show how far they were physically, and politically, from Washington, D.C. Partygoers enjoyed potato salad, cold cuts, crabs, and beer. In their post-luncheon haze, they crooned ballads, including “The ‘Old G.O.P.’ She Ain’t What She Used to Be.” Representatives Tom Cullen and Matthew Merritt each took the lead and warbled a few Irish tunes.

Coats and Hats of Jefferson Islands Club Guests/tiles/non-collection/6/6-20-photo-picnic-PA2015_02_0039.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Although neither female Representatives nor Senators were invited to President Roosevelt’s weekend Democratic unity retreat, wives were invited beforehand for a planning luncheon. This image shows their hats and coats.
Though newspapers described the gathering as an all-inclusive “harmony picnic” for Democrats, a notable group was excluded from the shindig—women. Five female Representatives (Elizabeth Gasque, Nan Honeyman, Virginia Jenckes, Mary Norton, and Caroline O’Day) and Senator Hattie Caraway were not invited to the weekend. This was a significant omission that fit a larger pattern of exclusion. The invitations, sent to male Representatives, Senators, and Cabinet members, called each day’s fête a “stag party.” Female Members were left on the mainland, and male partygoers engaged in some dubious behavior, including skinny dipping and a card game that was called bridge, but reporters “suspected that the sport was poker.”

Despite its omission of women, FDR’s picnic tried to stir team spirit among Democrats. Members relished playing baseball, and on the second day of the bash the House played the Senate. In an echo of the President’s plan to add more justices to the Supreme Court, the Senators increased their team size from 9 to 11. The New York Times reported that despite their additional players, the Senate was “crushed” by the House with a final score of 13 to 2.

Yet FDR’s grand idea was unsuccessful. The next month, the Senate Judiciary Committee dashed the President’s court plan. Baseball and potato salad also failed to reverse a strong undercurrent that united conservative Democrats with Republicans in Congress, spelling the end of New Deal reforms. Not even a sun-drenched unity picnic could reunite the party.

Sources: Susan Dunn, Roosevelt’s Purge: How FDR Fought to Change the Democratic Party (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2010); New York Times, June 26, 1937 and June 28, 1937; Washington Post, June 26, 1937, June 27, 1937, and July 3, 2012.

This is part of a monthly series of blog posts exploring the art and history of photographs from the House Collection.