Henry M. Britt

Henry M. Britt

Henry Middleton Britt, III (June 9, 1919 - February 17, 1995), was a Hot Springs lawyer who was a pioneer in the revitalization of the Republican Party (GOP) in the heavily Democratic state of Arkansas, primarily during the 1960s and 1970s. He was the Republican gubernatorial nominee in 1960, having been decisively defeated by Orval Eugene Faubus. In 1966, he was elected judge of the 18th Judicial Circuit of Arkansas, having served from 1967–1983. Britt was also a peripheral figure in the granting of repeated draft deferments in the late 1960s to future Governor of Arkansas and U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Early years, family, education

Britt was born in the village of Olmsted in Pulaski County in southernmost Illinois to H.M. Britt, Jr. (February 27, 1895—March 31, 1982), and the former Sarah Theodosia Roach (August 25, 1896—January 10, 1987). Britt procured both his bachelor of arts and Juris Doctor degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1941 and 1947, respectively. He was admitted to the practice of law in Illinois in 1947. A year later, the Britts relocated to Hot Springs, a resort city in central Arkansas. At that time Britt was admitted to the Arkansas bar.

On October 29, 1942, Britt married the former Barbara Jean Holmes (March 17, 1922—February 13, 1987). The couple had three daughters: Nancy, Sarah, and Melissa.

Britt was a distant cousin of former Republican Lieutenant Governor Maurice L. Britt, who served from 1967 to 1971. The two were born twenty days apart, died in the same year, and had the same paternal great-grandfather.

Britt was an officer to the Judge Advocate General of the United States Army during World War II.

Gubernatorial campaign, 1960

Britt served five years as an Eisenhower-appointed assistant United States attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, based in Fort Smith, the seat of Sebastian County. A critic of popular segregationist Democratic Governor Orval Eugene Faubus, Britt filed as the GOP gubernatorial candidate in 1960. He proclaimed his belief in a proclaimed tenet of GOP philosophy: "faith in the individual and the idea that government should not do for the individual what he can do and should do for himself."

Britt secured the support of businessman Winthrop Rockefeller, a former New Yorker, in the campaign against Faubus. Rockefeller sponsored the "Party for Two Parties" at his WinRock Farms near Morrilton. He brought the Tennessee Republican entertainer Tex Ritter, the father of John Ritter, and the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, the father of Candice Bergen, to entertain 850 guests who paid $50 each. Funds collected went to Britt's campaign and to a "bipartisan political education fund".

Britt spent considerable time promoting the presidential candidacy of then Vice President Richard Nixon in Arkansas. Nixon responded while he was speaking in Memphis. He crossed the Mississippi River as a gesture to the Arkansans in West Memphis and was warmly greeted by state party leaders.

He urged conservatives not to support the National States' Rights Party because such action would divide anti-Kennedy voters and therefore boost the Democrats. Faubus issued a "lukewarm" endorsement of Kennedy and dispatched one of his aides, Dan Stephens of Clinton, to manage the national presidential campaign in Arkansas. Other Arkansans for Kennedy were entrenched U.S. Senators John McClellan and James William Fulbright. State Supreme Court Justice James Douglas Johnson, a conservative Democrat, criticized the Kennedy-Johnson platform but stopped short of actually endorsing Nixon, whom James Johnson considered too liberal for the South.

Britt polled 129,921 votes (30.8 percent) to Faubus' 292,064 (69.2 percent). He ran far behind Nixon in Arkansas, who received 185,489 votes (43 percent), to Kennedy's 216,529 ballots (50.2 percent), and the States Rights Party's 29,057 votes (6.8 percent). Whereas Nixon won majorities in twenty-three of the seventy-five counties, Britt did not carry a single county, not even in the frequently Republican northwestern quadrant of the state, where Faubus was still popular.

Garland County circuit judge

Six years after his failed campaign for governor, Britt was elected circuit judge in Garland County, which includes Hot Springs. He was the only Republican to have been elected as a circuit judge in Arkansas on November 8, 1966, the same day that Winthrop Rockefeller defeated Jim Johnson to become the state's first GOP governor since Reconstruction.

Judge Britt, with support from Governor Rockefeller, was credited with having ousted gambling from Hot Springs. Britt ordered the Garland County Sheriff's Office to investigate so-called "bust-out joints", or gambling operations established to draw a quick profit and then move elsewhere. Britt said that his crackdown ended the previous "Las Vegas atmosphere" of Hot Springs, often called the "Spa City". Throughout the 1970s, Judge Britt kept a grand jury on call to prevent gambling operations from reappearing. He also fought against the potential reemergence of a political machine in Hot Springs.

Paul Bosson, a Garland County prosecuting attorney, in an interview with the "Arkansas Democrat-Gazette" at the time of Britt's death, described the judge as "pretty tough".... He ran what I would call a strict courtroom." Britt was reelected as circuit judge in 1970, 1974, and 1978. He was defeated for a fifth term by the Democrat Walter G. Wright (born ca. 1932) in 1982, the year that Bill Clinton returned to the governorship after a two-year hiatus. Britt's initial election was attributed to Rockefeller's strength in Garland County. Q. Byrum Hurst (September 21, 1918 - December 4, 2006), a former Democratic member of the Arkansas State Senate and a prominent attorney in Hot Springs who made his own failed gubernatorial bid in 1972, described Judge Britt this way: "Although we were not of the same political persuasion, Britt was OK."

In 1978, Judge Britt became embroiled in a dispute with the press when he banned "Arkansas Gazette" reporter Ginger Shiras from a hearing in his chambers on whether to admit a police officer's testimony in a murder trial. When the "Gazette" appealed, the Arkansas Supreme Court declared that Britt erred in excluding Shiras from the hearing.

Nomination for federal judgeship

In 1976, then U.S. Representative John Paul Hammerschmidt of Harrison in Boone County, proposed to U.S. President Gerald R. Ford, Jr. that Britt be named to the federal judgeship vacated by the retirement of Oren Harris, a former U.S. representative from El Dorado, the seat of Union County in south Arkansas. The nomination, however, failed before the Democratic-controlled United States Senate.

Assisting Bill Clinton

Little was heard of Britt after he left the judgeship. In 1992, he told the "Los Angeles Times" that he had assisted in the effort to keep Bill Clinton out of the Vietnam War. According to Britt, he was friends with the future president's uncle, Raymond Clinton of Hot Springs, who had "one goal in my judgement -- to delay, delay, delay" the chances of Clinton being drafted in the U.S. Army.

Britt's legacy

The Britts were lifelong Republicans, not converts from the Democratic Party, as have been most southern Republicans of the second half of the twentieth century. Eldest daughter Nancy Britt Marsh said that her father "was interested throughout his life in establishing a two-party system in the state. And I think he did. He continually stayed active in the party." Britt was general counsel to the Arkansas GOP from 1962–1964, the same years that he chaired the Garland County party apparatus.

Britt was active in a plethora of organizations: Masonic lodge, Shriners, Kiwanis Club, Elks, Junior Chamber of Commerce, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Phi Alpha Delta, and Delta Phi. He was a fellow of the National College of State Trial Judges. He was Presbyterian.

Britt had a heart attack in 1976 but lived nearly two more decades until he succumbed to numerous health complications at the age of seventy-five. He lived eight years longer than his mother and his wife, who died within five weeks of each other.

The Britts are interred in Block C of Greenwood Cemetery in Hot Springs.

ee also


Suzi Parker, "Henry Middleton Britt: GOP stalwart opposed Faubus, was in limelight four decades," "Arkansas Democrat Gatette", February 18, 1995

"Henry Middleton Britt", "Who's Who in America", 1978-1979, p. 406

"Arkansas Election Statistics, 1960" (Little Rock: Secretary of State)

"The New York Times", October 16, 19, 1960

"Arkansas Democrat", September 28; November 1, 2, 1960

Jim Ranchino, "Faubus to Bumpers: Arkansas Votes, 1960-1970", Arkadelphia, Arkansas, 1972, p. 29

Bessie Butler Newsom Alalrd, ed., "Who Is Who in Arkansas", Vol. 2, Little Rock, 1968, p. 41

"Arkansas Gazette", November 3, 1982


Patti Vance Hays, Webmaster, Melting Pot Genealogical Society: http://www.rootsweb.com/~armpgs/greenwood_cemetery.htm

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