U.S. senator. Smith was born in Sumter District (later Lee County) on August 1, 1864, one of ten children born to William H. Smith, a Methodist minister, and his wife, Mary Isabella McLeod. After attending schools in nearby Lynchburg and taking college preparatory work at Stewart’s School in Charleston, Smith entered South Carolina College as a sophomore in 1885. A year later he transferred to Wofford College, where he received an A.B. degree in 1889. In 1892 Smith married Martha Cornelia Moorer, who died of childbirth complications the following year. The son survived until 1912, when he died of an accidental gunshot wound. Smith married Annie Brunson Farley in 1906, and from this union four children were born.
Smith represented Sumter County in the state legislature from 1897 to 1901. After losing a bid for Congress in 1901, Smith began working with several agricultural organizations. In 1905, as an executive committee member of the Southern Cotton Association, Smith traveled the Southeast organizing cotton growers and polishing his oratorical skills. In 1908 Smith stunned the political establishment by winning election to the United States Senate. He remained there for thirty-six years.
Although an advocate for southern farmers, Smith was not a Populist. Rather, he entered the Senate as a southern progressive who favored government regulation of commodity markets and extension of credit for farmers. Smith’s passionate defense of cotton growers led a reporter in Colliers to describe him as a “press agent for King Cotton.” In South Carolina constituents dubbed him “Cotton Ed” Smith. Smith’s legislative agenda sought to expand farm credit and use the federal government to regulate in the interest of fair prices. He wanted the Department of Agriculture to keep statistics, expose fraud, and promote good farm practices. Although such programs expanded the functions of government, Smith nevertheless looked upon federal bureaucrats with suspicion, particularly when they meddled in state affairs beyond cotton.
Throughout his six terms in the Senate, Smith emphasized his consistent belief in tariff reduction, states’ rights, and white supremacy. However, to accommodate his interest in agriculture, he remained pragmatic on states’ rights. During World War I he supported federal takeover of private railroads, government purchase of nitrates for farmers, and price controls for all commodities except cotton. During the agricultural depression of the early 1920s, he wanted the federal government to buy cotton and give it to European textile firms. He even gave reluctant support to the Agricultural Adjustment Act in 1933, although only after he and other conservatives reworked the legislation to ignore inequities in southern agriculture that left many black and white farm laborers in virtual peonage to large landowners.
While identified with cotton for his first four terms, Smith became best known as a champion of racial segregation later in his career. In his early Senate campaigns he seldom mentioned race. But in the 1930s Smith earned a national reputation as a southern demagogue. By mid-decade Smith was among the most vocal opponents of federal New Deal legislation, arguing that it went too far in expanding the size and influence of the federal government. Smith denounced bills to establish a national minimum wage and regulate work-place conditions. A Georgia newspaper columnist said that Smith possessed “the courage of his prejudices and a vocabulary which runs the gamut from invective to invective.” Time magazine called him a “conscientious objector to the 20th century.” Smith was especially alarmed at the growing influence of African Americans in the national Democratic Party. He vehemently opposed federal anti-lynching legislation and enjoyed telling crowds of white voters about his walkout at the 1936 Democratic National Convention after a black minister led the benediction. Smith castigated President Franklin Roosevelt for his attempt to pack the Supreme Court and for seeking third and fourth presidential terms. Roosevelt campaigned against Smith in his 1938 reelection campaign, which probably aided Smith’s victory. The New Deal and Roosevelt were popular in South Carolina, but presidential intervention was resented.
In August 1944 Governor Olin D. Johnston defeated the aging “Cotton Ed” in the state Democratic primary. Despite assertions by Smith that if he lost, the headlines would read “A Victory for the Brother in Black,” Johnston posed no threat to the racial status quo, and white supremacy was not a casualty of Smith’s defeat. Just months after losing his bid for a seventh term, the eighty-year-old senator died of coronary thrombosis at his home near Lynchburg on November 17, 1944.
Bouknight, Martha Nelle. “The Senatorial Campaigns of Ellison Durant (‘Cotton Ed’) Smith of South Carolina.” Master’s thesis, Florida State University, 1961.
Gehring, Mary Louise. “‘Cotton Ed’ Smith: The South Carolina Farmer in the United States Senate.” In The Oratory of Southern Demagogues, edited by Cal M. Logue and Howard Dorgan. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
Hollis, Daniel W. “‘Cotton Ed Smith’–Showman or Statesman?” South Carolina Historical Magazine 71 (October 1970): 235–56.
Simon, Bryant. A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910–1948. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Smith, Selden K. “Ellison Durant Smith: A Southern Progressive, 1909–1929.” Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina, 1970.