When Arthur H. James ran for governor, he proudly proclaimed his hardworking, youthful start as a breaker boy and coal car mule driver around Pennsylvania's anthracite mines. James was born in Plymouth, Luzerne County, July 14, 1883, the oldest of eight children of coalmine foreman James D. James and Rachel Edwards James, a schoolteacher at the time of their marriage. Although James’s parents met and married in Pennsylvania’s anthracite region, they were both born in Wales. As of 2009, Arthur James was the last governor with immigrant parents.
Despite the death of his mother when he was still in grammar school, James’s father was determined, not only to teach good work ethics, but also see that his son received a good education. During school semesters, James was relieved of work at the coalmines to pursue his studies, although he helped his father run a small store in their home. After ordering a Pitman shorthand book from London, James became proficient, teaching his children, friends, and neighbors, as well as his oldest son. The younger James also learned oration skills for which the governor was noted by reading slowly and pronouncing each word distinctly as he read to his father each night from two bibles, one in Welsh and one in English. In 1901, he graduated from Plymouth High School and set his sights on becoming a lawyer. James and his father had earned enough money to do something few children of Plymouth coal workers could afford to do, pay for law school tuition.
The day James set off to Dickinson Law School in Carlisle in 1901, many people from town marched to the rail station to cheer and wish James good luck. With red hair, freckles, and just five-foot four inches tall, James did well academically and socially. Despite his relative short height, he was a member of the Dickinson varsity basketball team. During his summers, he returned to Plymouth to continue work in the coalmines as a mule driver until he earned his bachelor of law degree with the Class of 1904. His class was the first at Dickinson to pass the Supreme Court examination without a failure. That same year, he was admitted to the bar of Cumberland County and shortly thereafter admitted to the bar of Luzerne County. The people of Plymouth often could not afford to pay much for the services of an attorney. At first, James struggled to find enough business in his law practice set up in his family home in Plymouth, earning just $198 in his first year. It took six years just to raise his annual income to $1,000. Eventually, the practice grew and he opened a second office in Wilkes-Barre.
After fourteen years of private law practice, James was elected district attorney of Luzerne County in 1919 and reelected in 1923. In 1926, James ran for lieutenant governor and proved to be an effective campaigner. James was elected lieutenant governor under Governor John S. Fisher by more than a three to one margin over his Democratic opponent W. Clayton Hackett. He was soon regarded as a leading gubernatorial candidate, but he would first turn his law experience and attention to the state Superior Court. In 1932, he was elected to the bench and gained a judicial perspective on the problems of the day, including the economic and labor issues brought about by the Great Depression. In 1938, James entered the race for governor, vowing, if elected, to “make a bonfire of all the laws passed by the 1937 legislature.” At first, James was not given much chance of winning the primary, but a reported ten thousand miles of cross state campaigning and as many as twenty-five speeches a day brought the margin of victory to 486,000 votes over his closest Republican opponent, former Governor Gifford Pinchot. On November 8, James defeated his Democratic opponent, Charles Alvin Jones by more than 279,000 votes. The newly elected governor was ready to face the state’s economic challenges of the Depression and the fears of citizens with the world on the precipice of another major war. James also had to overcome personal challenges.
On October 23, 1912, James married Ada Norris, a schoolteacher in nearby Sugar Notch, Luzerne County. They were the parents of twins, Dorothy Rachel and a brother who died at age two in 1917. His baby son’s death was not the only personal tragedy James had to face. Ada James died in 1935 leaving her first lady duties to her mother, Grace Hainey Morris, but Morris died two months after the widowed governor took office in 1939. The role of first lady then fell to daughter Dorothy, until the governor remarried on October 1, 1941, to Emily Radcliffe Case, a Doylestown widow. James had by then also lost another son, Arthur H. James Jr., who died in 1939.
James was determined to turn back the clock on many new laws passed before he took office. He opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and Pennsylvania’s “Little New Deal” attributed to the previous governor. James had what was considered to be an old-fashioned laissez-faire approach to industrial and commercial interests. Business leaders across the state had supported James because they perceived new taxes and laws benefiting workers as going too far and harmful to the economic health of Pennsylvania. James believed that thrift in state government was necessary to get through the Depression. He ordered all departments to cut jobs and more than 2,000 state workers were immediately fired. A large building program was halted and one third of the highway budget and one third of the Public Utility Commission budget were slashed as part of an effort to balance a budget deficit left from the previous administration that exceeded $50 million. The governor’s conservative, pro-business policies went further in pushing legislation to ban “sit-down” strikes, sending troops in 1941 to break up a strike at Bethlehem Steel, and, because of his coalmining background, brought about the Anthracite Emergency Program designed to stabilize the coal industry and settle the chaos between workers and mine owners.
A law providing criminal penalties and fines for those convicted of sabotage was passed. Fireworks were outlawed following a year in which six Pennsylvanians died and 1,702 were injured from fireworks. Parking meters were made legal, so long as proceeds went to general traffic use. To reduce political macing, state workers were threatened with $100 fines if caught trying to influence the vote of welfare recipients as Democrats were accused of doing. Also revised and favorable to business were some of the changes that had been made to workmen’s compensation and working hours for women. However, not all of the governor’s policies were designed to take apart previous programs.
The realities of the Depression meant continuing high unemployment and a need to help Pennsylvania’s citizens. Despite Governor James’s campaign against the amount of money spent on “New Deal Living,” he submitted the largest budget in state history. He was forced to keep many of Governor Earle’s tax programs and called a special session in 1940 to add nearly $72 million in public relief. Government was forced to grow in other areas in order to deal with changing times. The Department of Commerce was established in 1939 to bring new business into the state. The first civil service that was created in 1933 by Governor Pinchot for the new Liquor Control Board was broadened with the Civil Service Act of 1941. The Pennsylvania Turnpike was extended and legislation for the building of the Governor’s residence in Harrisburg was signed. Despite the increased budget, revenues increased by $153 million over the previous administration and unemployment declined significantly. Part of the improvement in revenues and jobs was realized after James fought for a more equitable share of funds administered by the Work Projects Administration (WPA) to be allocated to Pennsylvania. By the end of his term, James left a $75 million budget surplus for Pennsylvania.
In 1940, a reluctant James was nominated as a dark horse candidate at the GOP presidential convention and his name remained in the voting through six ballots. James instead favored Robert Taft and then endorsed the winner, Wendell Wilkie. James said, “I was convinced that we were going to have a war. I didn’t want to be a war President.” Of course, Franklin Roosevelt won a third term and James was proven right about war. When World War II began for the United States, James mobilized Pennsylvania’s efforts. He created the State Council of Defense and the Selective Service Board. Faced with depleted manpower in home defense after the state National Guard was federalized, he established the Pennsylvania Reserve Defense Corps in vigilance over possible enemy activity and the Citizen’s Defense Corps to keep watch against air raids. Pennsylvanians were still at the peak of contributing to the war effort when James left office. James is credited with helping to organize the war efforts of the state’s civilian population and the military.
Following his term of office, James soon returned to public life and his former role as a Superior Court judge when he was appointed in 1944 by succeeding Governor Edward Martin to fill a vacancy. However, in the November election of 1944, James faced Democrat F. Clair Ross who had lost the governor’s race to Edward Martin in 1942. At the time, there were two contested seats on the court for which an incumbent judge, Democrat Chester H. Rhodes, ran for reelection. While Republicans had retaken control of the governor’s office and the state legislature, Democrats were victorious in the judicial and U. S. Senate races and James lost to both candidates by a narrow margin.
James returned to his native Plymouth, resumed his private law practice, and was active in various local and statewide civic, academic, and professional organizations. Arthur H. James died on April 27, 1973, and is buried in Hanover Green Cemetery in Hanover Township, Luzerne County.