COLUMN: Colgate Darden – Part 3: Virginia House of Delegates and U.S. Congress

Published 11:56 am Friday, January 12, 2024

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Editor’s note:  This is part three of five that will appear over the next few months.

By Bob Holt
Your Turn

After returning from his time at Oxford University in England, Darden joined the law office of State Senator Jim Barron in Norfolk. While there the famous Virginia politician Harry Byrd, Sr. visited that office on a campaign stop in his bid for election as governor. (Once again, much of the material in this writing is courtesy of the book “Colgate Darden: Conversions with Guy Fridell” published in 1978).

Darden was impressed with Byrd’s message and began to take an interest in Virginia politics. In 1929 Darden ran for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, won, and served for two terms of two years each. During that time, many Virginia schools were closing due to lack of funds. Concurrently, there was much pressure to build more and better roads since most were unpaved and muddy at that time.

Darden approached Byrd, now a former governor, asking for his influence in helping fund schools to keep them open. Byrd felt that roads were a priority over schools because they affected more people. Darden and Byrd worked together on a compromise — the state would take over the local county roads and the localities would have that money saved for schools. Money from gas taxes and licensing fees were not enough to build roads, so taxing other sources and borrowing provided road funds.

Virginia had a “pay as you go” fiscal philosophy at that time, and it was not getting the necessary projects accomplished. Virginia finally did authorize the sale of 30-year bonds to provide funding. (Later, Darden developed a series of short-term loans to replace bonds saving taxpayers many dollars from interest savings — more on that in Part 4 as governor). 

At the end of his second term in the Virginia House of Delegates, Darden decided to run for U.S. Congress in 1932. As a Democrat, he and all Virginia Democratic candidates won their elections, and he was seated in March, 1933 (new members did not take office until then during those years). That year, all Virginia candidates were at-large rather than in a district as we have today.

By his reelection in 1934, he ran in Congressional District 2 which is now held by Republican Jen Kiggans. This seat today is highly competitive and has been held by several occupants since 2010.

Darden pushed Congress to support farmers and was successful in getting subsidies initially for corn, wheat, and cotton. President Franklin Roosevelt did not want peanuts or rice subsidized but working with Rep. Huey Long of Louisiana, both peanuts and rice were added.

Darden lost a reelection bid in 1936. He speculates his defeat was due to his vote against the new Social Security Act of 1935. His reasoning was twofold — he did not see enough protections in the Act to ensure personal and employer contributions staying in the fund for that purpose. Also, some people were allowed to draw Social Security benefits immediately even though they had made no contributions. His foresight on these two issues was remarkable — both hamper the solvency of the system today. 

Darden was reelected to Congress in 1938 and served until January 1941 when he resigned to run for Governor of Virginia.

Next: Part 4 – Service as Governor

Robert N. “Bob” Holt, a Franklin native, is a retired professor of business management and real estate at Southwestern Community College in Sylva, North Carolina. He holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral studies degrees from Virginia Tech and was a member of the university’s Corps of Cadets. His email address is