Senatorial Bloodhound: Charles W. Tobey of New Hampshire

 By Ray Hill

Almost certainly, hardly any reader will recall Charles William Tobey, but at one time he was a member of the first congressional committee to become a television sensation, which was headed by Tennessee’s own Estes Kefauver.  Charles W. Tobey became famous for his habit of sternly quoting from the Bible to underworld figures like crime boss Frank Costello.  Some referred to the frequently indignant Tobey as “God’s angry man.”  Yet Charles Tobey was also a witty man.  When the senator married for the third time, he advised Vice President Alben Barkley, “Go thou and do likewise.”

TIME magazine once described Tobey as a man with “a hound-keen nose for trouble” and if so, he was equally adept at getting himself in the newspapers.  Unlike his colleague Styles Bridges, Charles W. Tobey was never an insider in the United States Senate.  Tobey was also described as “rancorous” and “cantankerous” by a TIME correspondent, but the widely-read national news magazine was owned by publishing magnate Henry Luce who was also a thorough going internationalist while Senator Tobey was something of an isolationist.

Whatever one might say about Charles William Tobey, he was a man who worked very hard at his job and possessed a natural wit and common sense, all of which made him successful with his fellow New Hampshire citizens.

Tall, thin, bald and bespectacled, Charles W. Tobey looked more like an accountant than a successful politician, but being a Baptist, he could raise hell with the best of them.  Although he may have looked meek, the moment he opened his mouth, it was quite clear he was an outspoken individual and highly opinionated.  A frequently fiery speaker, Tobey was one of the few men ever to have served as governor, congressman and United States senator from his home state of New Hampshire.

Tobey possessed not only a flair for acquiring publicity for himself, but also a tart tongue.  Charles W. Tobey once reported spotting three railroad lobbyists in the Senate Dining Room; the New Hampshire senator was opposed to a particular bill the lobbyists supported and they weren’t happy about it.  Tobey went over to the lobbyists and said, “My compliments to you gentlemen.  I understand you called me a son of a bitch, and consigned me to hell… You are crooked, sirs, from top to bottom…”

A fire-eating Baptist who could readily quote lengthy passages from the Bible, Tobey used to have hymn-fests where neighbors would come and spend the afternoon singing hymns.  Eventually, it grew to where people from all over New Hampshire would come; even residents of neighboring Massachusetts would drive to the Tobey farm to join in.  Tobey arranged to have a speaker and folks would sing hymns.  As the sun sank slowly in the west, Tobey and his friends would sing, “Now the Day Is Over.”  A trumpet would sound Taps, followed by another on a distant hill, followed by yet another still further away.

Tobey was a colorful character and was popular in his home state precisely because he looked after the interests of the people he represented.  Charles W. Tobey fired off a letter to President Harry Truman about a grain shortage, which was causing New England farmers to have to destroy their chickens, rather than allowing the chickens to starve to death.  In his letter, Tobey noted, “This is a Macedonian cry” for help.  Harry Truman was quite capable of handling his end of any argument and replied in kind.  “It seems to me that you have been making Macedonian cries or yells ever since I have been in the White House… You have made it exceedingly difficult for me to get good men to fill necessary places in the Government.  You are still continuing your Macedonian cries and I hope you will get a lot of pleasure out of them.”  Truman noted the grain shortage came down to feeding people or chickens and he intended to feed people.  “Sometime when you have reached a cooling-off period, I’d be glad to talk with you about the whole situation,” the president added.

Senator Tobey complained about the reply in private but later published the correspondence in the Congressional Record.  Truman’s reference to the New Hampshire senator making it difficult to get good men to work in the federal government was a complaint about Tobey having helped to blow up the nomination of wealthy oil man Edwin Pauley to serve as Secretary of the Navy.

Tobey worked for years as a clerk for insurance and banking businesses but was well enough off to purchase a farm in Temple, New Hampshire.  Charles Tobey always considered himself a farmer and raised chickens and poultry.  Tobey and his first wife, Francelia had four children together.  Charles W. Tobey began his political career on the local level, getting himself elected to the Temple school board and Board of Selectmen (town council).  In 1914, he ran as a Progressive for the New Hampshire State Legislature and was elected.  Tobey was a protégé of former Governor Robert P. Bass, who remained a power inside New Hampshire’s Republican Party.  Tobey was elected to three terms in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, none of which were consecutive.  Charles W. Tobey was also elected speaker of the House in 1919.

In 1924, Tobey was elected to the New Hampshire Senate and became the Senate’s presiding officer.  1928 saw Charles Tobey make a bid for the governorship.  Tobey was challenged by an old-guard candidate inside the GOP primary.  The old guard wing of the Republican Party was exemplified and led by U.S. Senator George H. Moses.  Moses was opposed to Tobey in the GOP primary, but Tobey won the primary and general elections.

Charles W. Tobey became governor the same year the Great Depression hit New Hampshire and the country.  Tobey tried to deal with the effects of the Depression by tightening the state budget.  Experiencing financial problems himself, Tobey did not seek reelection as governor in 1930.  Tobey did become a candidate for Congress in 1932 when Congressman Edward H. Wason decided not to run for reelection.  Even as former Governor Fred Brown, a Democrat, defeated Senator Moses to occupy a seat in the United States Senate, Charles Tobey won election to the House of Representatives from the Granite State’s Second District.

Tobey was reelected by solid, if not spectacular, margins in 1934 and 1936.  In 1938, Congressman Tobey announced his candidacy against Senator Fred Brown.  Tobey beat two opponents in the Republican primary, carrying every county in the state.  Brown had beaten the veteran George Moses by just over 2,000 votes and Tobey was quite likely the strongest challenger he could have faced in the 1938 general election.  Congressman Charles W. Tobey easily beat Senator Brown.  For the remainder of his life, Charles W. Tobey was a member of the United States Senate.

New Hampshire’s senior United States senator was Styles Bridges, a former governor who had ended George Moses’ attempt at a comeback in the 1936 senatorial primary.  Both Bridges and Tobey had been mentored politically by former Governor Robert Bass, but the senators from New Hampshire did not like one another personally.  Bridges was staunchly conservative and one of the best at moving quietly through the corridors of power to accomplish his ends.  Tobey was more of a maverick and during his time in the House had supported some New Deal measures.  Many Republicans viewed Tobey as more liberal, and he certainly was more liberal than his senior colleague.

Almost immediately, Senator Tobey became identified with the powerful isolationist bloc in the Senate, as he was opposed to the Roosevelt administration’s neutrality and lend-lease policies.  Tobey was firmly convinced America’s entry into the First World War had been because of munitions manufacturers and those who supplied the weapons of war.  Tobey’s opposition to the neutrality and lend-lease legislation caused a break between the senator and his mentor, former Governor Bass, who was an internationalist in political outlook.  Tobey further infuriated many and was criticized by several of his senatorial colleagues, when he leaked details of just how extensive the damage was to the American fleet at Pearl Harbor following the attack by the Japanese Empire.  Senator Tobey said the American people had a right to know the truth.  Tobey was less than enthused by Wendell Willkie and continued to reject the “one world” point of view of Willkie and those like him.

The dislike of his colleague, Styles Bridges, and the break with former Governor Bass brought Senator Tobey a serious challenger for the Republican senatorial nomination in the 1944 election.  Foster Stearns had won the seat in Congress that Tobey had vacated to run for the Senate six years earlier.  After six years in the House, Stearns was backed by Bass and Bridges in his bid to topple the senator in the GOP primary.  It was a hard-fought campaign, but Tobey won easily, winning over 57% of the vote.  Republicans did not come together during the general election and Senator Tobey only narrowly beat the Democratic nominee, Joseph J. Betley.

The fierce primary challenge sponsored by his former mentor and his senatorial colleague and the narrowness with which he won the general election did not deter Charles W. Tobey in any way.  Tobey continued to chart his political course, which included bucking the leadership of Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio when the Republicans held the majority in the Senate in 1947.

That same maverick streak guaranteed Tobey another primary challenge in 1950.  His challenger was Wesley Powell, who would go on to be elected governor of New Hampshire and something of a perennial candidate.  At the time of the 1950 election, Powell was a fresh-faced former top aide to Senator Styles Bridges.  The senior senator moved heaven and earth in an attempt to displace his Senate colleague and replace Tobey with Wesley Powell.  It quite nearly worked, as Powell lost by just over 1,000 votes.

Charles W. Tobey suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on July 15, 1951, but made a swift recovery.  The senator was felled by a heart attack on Friday, July 24, 1953, while at the Capitol at 5:30 p.m. and was rushed to Bethesda Naval Hospital.  A doctor at Bethesda said Senator Tobey was conscious when he arrived at the hospital and was treated, but later died in his sleep.  Tobey had outlived two of his wives and his third, Lilliam Crompton Tobey, the widow of a leather company executive, was with her husband when he died.  Unfortunately, while the senator’s four children had been notified of their father’s serious illness, none had arrived by the time Tobey died.

After Charles Tobey had died, some of his friends and constituents paid the late senator tribute.  One of the senator’s oldest friends, Orlo Fiske, who was by vocation a poultry farmer, had served with Tobey on the Temple school board.  “There never was a squarer man,” Fisk said softly.  “As long as he thought he was right, he’d go through hell-fire.”

The Temple postmaster, Mervin Willard, recalled, “I never could remember to call him Senator Tobey.  No one could.  He was just ‘Mr. Tobey’ to all of us here in Temple.  Walked in here to buy groceries or get his mail, same as anybody.  Dressed like anyone else.  Only thing was he knew everyone’s name – – – even if he hadn’t seen ‘em for 15 years.”

Honored by his people time after time and having been entrusted with every high office within Hampshire, Charles W. Tobey never lost an election.  The people who knew him best gave him an unusual and the rarest of endorsements when he ran for the United States Senate in 1938; Tobey won every one of the 141 ballots cast in the town of Temple.

He still sleeps there in the Granite Hills of his beloved New Hampshire.

© 2023 Ray Hill