SUMNER, Jessie

SUMNER, Jessie
Image courtesy of Library of Congress
1898–1994

Biography

Few Members of Congress so vocally denounced the Franklin Roosevelt administration and American intervention in World War II as Illinois Representative Jessie Sumner. Sumner not only advocated American isolationism, she reveled in it—using her biting wit and animated floor speeches to skewer wartime policies, America’s major allies, and plans for U.S. participation in the postwar United Nations. By war’s end, however, as an internationalist mood took hold in the country, it was Congresswoman Sumner who found herself increasingly isolated.

Jessie Sumner was born in Milford, Illinois, on July 17, 1898, to Aaron Taylor Sumner and Elizabeth Gillan Sumner. Her ancestors included such distant relations as General Zachary Taylor, who became the 12th American President, and outspoken antislavery Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Jessie Sumner graduated from the Girton School in Winnetka, Illinois, in 1916. She earned an economics degree at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1920. Jessie Sumner never married and relished the freedom that unwed life afforded her.1 She studied law at the University of Chicago, Oxford University in England, and Columbia University and briefly at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In 1923 she passed the Illinois bar and commenced practice as a private lawyer in Chicago. On the eve of the Great Depression, Sumner took a job with Chase National Bank in New York City. By 1932, she had returned to Milford, Illinois, to resume her law practice and work as a director at Sumner National Bank, which her father had founded. Her move into politics was abetted, in part, by bank robbers who abducted her brother. After the kidnappers were apprehended, she worked feverishly to secure their convictions and was inspired to run for the office of state’s attorney. Sumner lost in the GOP primary but, with the passing of her uncle, John H. Gillan, the Iroquois County judge, she ran a successful campaign in 1937 to succeed him. Sumner received national notoriety by becoming the first woman to hold a county judgeship in her state.2

Iroquois County was one of six jurisdictions along Illinois’ eastern border with Indiana, incorporating the district once represented by “Uncle” Joe Cannon, the autocratic Republican leader and House Speaker. In 1938, Sumner used her new political influence to secure the district’s GOP nomination. In the general election, serving as her own campaign manager, she faced three–term incumbent Democrat James A. Meeks, a 74–year–old lawyer. Rather than smothering her audiences with platitudes, Sumner pledged nothing more than to work hard for good government.3 Her primary theme was a consistent attack against New Deal programs which, she argued, overtaxed Americans and intruded on their individual liberties. In particular, she singled out Roosevelt as practicing “one–man government,” a charge that resonated with an electorate outraged by the President’s ham–handed attempt to pack the Supreme Court with justices favorable to his programs. With the backing of the anti–Roosevelt Chicago Tribune, Sumner defeated Meeks with 55 percent of the vote. She joined 76 new Republicans when the 76th Congress (1939–1941) convened in January 1939.

Within weeks, Sumner emerged as a darling of the Washington press, tossing out “Sumnerisms” which provoked her opponents and delighted extreme proponents of isolationism and rolling back the New Deal.4 The day she was sworn in, reporters asked for her evaluation of President Roosevelt as a politician. “I am here to bury Caesar—not to praise him,” Sumner quipped.5 She referred to FDR as “Papa Roosevelt” and the “Great Spender.”6 Popular among Members for her self–deprecating style, Sumner even took to joking about her marital status and wardrobe.7 After failing to secure a seat on the Agriculture Committee, Sumner earned a spot on the Banking and Currency Committee—her single committee assignment during her eight years in the House. Though an Agriculture seat may have more directly benefited the many farmers in her district, voters did not seem to mind that Sumner’s committee assignment conferred fewer prizes. She made several speeches pressing the case that New Deal relief programs failed to alleviate the tax burden that beset American farmers.8

While opposition to domestic policies got her elected, the imperatives of military preparedness absorbed Sumner’s attention in Congress. After World War II erupted in September 1939, Sumner opposed amending the Neutrality Act to lift the arms embargo in favor of a “cash and carry” policy, whereby belligerents could buy American war materials and transport them in their own ships. In the fall of 1940 she opposed the Burke– Wadsworth Selective Service Bill, which established the first peacetime draft in the country’s history. A year later she voted against its extension and against the arming of American merchant ships ferrying war materials to Europe. She also rejected direct American aid to the British, expressing grave reservations that the President was nudging the country to war, having struck a secret alliance with London. Sumner laced her speeches with anglophobia and subtle admiration for Nazi Germany’s militarization.9 In 1939, she introduced a joint resolution to prevent U.S. participation in foreign combat without congressional consent. “We have more to fear from an American invasion of Europe,” Sumner declared, “than from a European invasion of America.”10

President Roosevelt was Sumner’s target of opportunity, but her attacks also sought to rouse Congress to preserve its oversight powers and prerogative to shape American foreign policy. Sumner hoped to rein in FDR’s powers by using the House’s authority to originate and pass appropriations, even over the President’s veto. “Today when the White House endeavors to control your votes as Representatives, by promising to approve or threatening to withhold projects for your district, they are using a power which you delegated to the Executive very recently,” Sumner warned colleagues. “It is an abuse of that power. It robs you of your right and duty to vote your convictions.”11

Sumner’s isolationism mirrored that of her constituency. In her first bid for re–election in 1940, Sumner again defeated Meeks with 53 versus 47 percent of the vote. She won against two other candidates by even wider margins in 1942 and 1944, with 62 percent and 57 percent, respectively.12 Increasingly, however, the Illinois Congresswoman found herself moving against the current in Washington.

Sumner’s strident attacks on the FDR administration were only amplified after America joined the war. Most significantly, she opposed opening a Western Europe front to relieve pressure on the Soviet Union. In March 1944, Sumner took to the House Floor to declare that it made no difference whether Hitler or Stalin dominated Europe and warned an invasion might cost a million lives. “The difference between these two ambitious tyrants is not worth the life of a single American boy,” she declared.13 That spring Sumner offered an amendment to postpone the long anticipated D–Day, calling the proposed invasion a “quixotism.” Simultaneously, she submitted a bill to enlarge the Pacific campaign, vesting all military authority in General Douglas MacArthur.14

One of Sumner’s few legislative achievements during the Second World War came during consideration of a $20 billion naval appropriations bill in January 1942, when she secured an amendment (passed without dissent) that prohibited the use of parties, champagne, or gifts during the launching of new ships.15 She introduced a bill for an Equal Rights Amendment with language modified to help women to enter the wartime workforce.16 Sumner also urged passage of a bill to provide childcare facilities in war industry factories, to permit more women to join the job market.17

As the debate shifted from waging war to structuring the peace, Sumner’s enthusiasm grew for withdrawing completely from world affairs and retreating into “fortress America.” She opposed American involvement in a world organization, echoing Joe Cannon’s reservations about the old League of Nations that it might become a “league of appropriations” financed by Washington.18 Sumner denounced Representative J. William Fulbright’s 1943 resolution endorsing U.S. participation in the establishment of international machinery to maintain peace, as “the most dangerous bill ever presented to an American Congress.”19 The House approved the measure, 360 to 29. In December 1945, the House overwhelmingly ratified participation in the postwar United Nations, 344 to 15. Sumner was one of 14 Republicans and one Progressive to vote against it.

In Stalin’s hands, Sumner insisted, such a world government would be put to more sinister uses. Fearing that the Soviet Union might use its supervisory power over relief operations to influence the policies of countries it had liberated from German occupation, Sumner also rejected the establishment of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).20 The House strongly supported UNRRA, which housed, clothed, and fed millions of refugees in Europe after the war. In June 1945, Sumner criticized legislation authorizing the Bretton Woods Agreements, which established the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Describing both agencies as the worst fraud in American history, she warned that foreign governments would have unrestricted access to American capital.21 Her former professor at Smith College, now fellow committee member, Chase Woodhouse of Connecticut, debated her on the merits of the Bretton Woods Agreements. When Sumner proposed to join the Bank but not the Fund, her amendment went down to defeat, 328 to 29. Sumner again was in the distinct minority when the measure to enter both agencies came before the House —just one of 18 Republicans in the “No” column.

Sumner had publicly announced in early 1944 that she would not seek re–election to the 79th Congress (1945–1947). “Being a Congressman in war–time is a heart–breaking job,” she observed, citing her “growing sense of frustration.”22 She lamented the fact that Congress exercised little power over foreign policy.23 Weeks later she recanted her decision, noting her determination to oppose administration policies she believed would precipitate war with Russia. Though she won re–election in November 1944, national results, including FDR’s re–election to an unprecedented fourth term, convinced Sumner that the President’s internationalist policies had triumphed.24 In 1946, she chose to retire to private life in Milford as a director and, after 1966, as president of Sumner National Bank. Jessie Sumner worked there until her death on August 10, 1994, in Watseka, near Milford.

Footnotes

1Current Biography, 1945 (New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1945): 579–581.

2“Illinois Woman Elected Judge,” 8 December 1937, Christian Science Monitor: 7.

3Christine Sadler, “Rep. Sumner Is Here With Quips Falling Everywhere—Principally on the New Deal,” 15 January 1939, Washington Post: B4.

4Pauline Frederick, “Epigrams Coined By Woman Solon,” 5 February 1939, New York Times: D4.

5Edward T. Folliard, “Chastened Air of Democrats Marks Opening of Congress,” 4 January 1939, Washington Post: 1.

6Congressional Record, House, 76th Cong., 1st sess. (19 June 1939): 7469.

7“Will Illinois M.C. Primp? No!” 16 November 1938, Christian Science Monitor: 1; Frederick, “Epigrams Coined By Woman Solon.”

8Congressional Record, House, 76th Cong., 1st sess. (24 March 1939): 3266.

9Congressional Record, House, 76th Cong., 1st sess. (1 November 1939): 1258–1259; Congressional Record, House, 76th Cong., 1st sess. (2 October 1939): 91–92; see also, Kathleen McLaughlin, “Hail Mrs. Willkie in Women’s Party: Miss Sumner Says New Deal Is Keeping Its Foreign Policy Secret,” 1 October 1940, New York Times: 14.

10Congressional Record, House, 76th Cong., 1st sess. (1 November 1939): 1258; Jessie Ash Arendt, “Rep. Sumner Demands Strict U.S. Neutrality,” 3 October 1939, Washington Post: 13.

11Congressional Record, House, 76th Cong., 1st sess. (29 June 1939): 8286.

12“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx. Sadler, “Rep. Sumner Is Here With Quips Falling Everywhere—Principally on the New Deal.”

13“Miss Sumner Protests Invasion,” 30 March 1944, New York Times: 11.

14“Rep. Sumner Denied Hearing on Bills to Postpone Invasion,” 27 March 1944, Washington Post: 7; “Miss Sumner Backs Bills to Shift War,” 15 March 1944, New York Times: 4.

15Congressional Record, House, 77th Cong., 2nd sess. (27 January 1942): 755.

16Congressional Record, House, 77th Cong., 2nd sess. (21 July 1942): 6474–6476.

17Current Biography, 1945: 580.

18Congressional Record, House, 78th Cong., 1st sess. (10 March 1943): 1809.

19Congressional Record, House, 78th Cong., 1st sess. (20 September 1943): 7681–7682.

20Congressional Record, House, 78th Cong., 2nd sess. (20 January 1944): 471–472.

21Congressional Record, House, 79th Cong, 1st sess. (17 July 1945): 7656–7657; 7542–7544.

22Annabel Paxton, Women In Congress (Richmond: Dietz Press, 1945): 62.

23“Miss Sumner Won’t Seek Re–Election to Congress,” 6 January 1944, New York Times: 21.

24“Woman Representative Decides to Run Again,” 8 February 1944, Christian Science Monitor: 9.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Jessie Sumner" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Banking and Currency
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