(1922 – 1999)
on his inauguration day, 1963
Dedicated to a
life of public service
Rhode Island State Representative (1957-1962)
Secretary of the Navy (1969-1972)
U.S. Senator (1977-1999)
Exhibit on the second floor, University
October - November 2002
The election of 1960 saw the defeat of Governor DelSesto--who had been the only Republican in 22 years to win a statewide election--to the Lieutenant Governor, John A. Notte Jr. (Democrat). A small group of Republicans began holding a series of meetings to select the best possible gubernatorial candidate to represent the party in the next election. Despite his young age--he was only 39 at the time--John H. Chafee was chosen to be a candidate
Chafee’s "Meet-the-People" campaign rolled into high gear and he spent up to 18 hours a day stumping the state, taking a firm stand principally against Governor Notte’s attempts to establish a personal state income tax. Chafee promised that if he were elected he would impose no new taxes and would bring more jobs and higher wages to Rhode Islanders. By Election Day, November 6, 1962, it was estimated that he had met nearly 100,000 of the approximately 860,000 people in the state. When the votes were finally tabulated from the more than 1200 voting machines, John Chafee was leading by 66 votes. On November 30, 1962, the Board of Elections declared John Chafee the winner by 398 votes.
During his first two-year term, Chafee pushed though important legislation, including a comprehensive medical aid program for the aged, an expanded state vocation training program, authorization for the acquisition of land for state woodlands and waterfront parts, and provision for the establishment of a new state junior college. He remained adamant against a state income tax, but he did request a rise in the state sales tax from 3 to 3 ˝ percent. Despite Democratic opposition to his plan and its eventual defeat, Chafee’s personal popularity rose. In 1964 he easily won the election for governor again over his Democratic opponent, Lieutenant Governor Edward Gallogly, by capturing 61.1 percent of the vote, the greatest plurality of any Republican governor in the history of the state.
The Washington Post on Mar 17, 1966, had reported that "Gov. John H. Chafee, a Republican phenomenon in a heavily Democratic state, has his own Party as well as the Democrats guessing as to whether he will seek re-election this November or run for Democrat Claiborne Pell's Senate seat." Chafee ran for governor in 1966 and easily won (by 63.3%)
Chafee’s run for re-election as governor in 1968 should have been easily accomplished. He was a very popular governor and had never lost any election he had run in. He was often referred to as "the winningest GOP governor" by the press. In fact, the campaign was plagued by personal tragedy, as well as unpopular, but pragmatic, political decisions. His 14-year old daughter was killed in a horse-riding accident a month before the election. After running strenuously on the ticket that he would oppose any state income tax in 1962, 1964, and 1966, he took the stand in 1968 that an income tax was imperative to the running of Rhode Island’s government. His opponent, Frank Licht, just as strongly took up the position that he would not initiate a state income tax and that position probably won Licht the election in a surprise upset. Interestingly, Chafee had won his first term as governor as an anti-income tax candidate.
Chafee's chances in 1968--after his gubernatorial defeat in Rhode Island--at being appointed to a position in the Republican national government, once so bright, were at that point dim. His appointment as Secretary of the Navy under the presidency of Richard Nixon came as something of a surprise to insiders, but some believed that his appointment was an appeasement to Eastern liberal Republicans. Not only had he sided with the losing side in the presidential campaign, he had antagonized Melvin Laird, the controversial and conservative chairman of the 1964 Republican platform committee, who as Secretary of Defense, would be Chafee’s superior in the Navy Department. The Washington Post noted that Chafee "has been at odds with the President-elect and the Secretary of Defense-designate more often than he has been allied with them" (Jan 7, 1969). Nonetheless, it was Agnew who called Chafee to ask him if he would be interested in a job with the Nixon administration and it was Laird who urged him to take the Navy post instead of the post on the domestic side of the government in which Chafee was originally interested.
Chafee went on, after his appointment as Secretary of the Navy, to run for the United States Senate representing Rhode Island. He was defeated by Claiborne Pell--the popular and incumbent Democrat--in the election of 1972. After working for a private law firm for four years, he launched a successful election campaign in 1976 for the seat of the retiring Senator John Pastore. After 1976, he never lost an election. Despite the lasting impact on national government which Chafee effected as Senator, he tellingly wrote in a letter to Deerfield Academy in 1990, "tell your children and grandchildren that being Governor is the best of all jobs." (John H. Chafee to Deerfield Academy, February 12, 1990.)
John H. Chafee died shortly after announcing his retirement from the Senate in 1999.
This is excerpted from the historical
note in the John H. Chafee papers
See the finding aid for the Gubernatorial and Secretary of the Navy Papers