Term: January 15, 1935 - January 17, 1939
Born: December 5, 1890
Died: December 30, 1974
George Howard Earle III led Pennsylvania through the height of the Great Depression. He was born in Devon, Chester County, on December 5, 1890, the son of George H. Earle Jr. and Catherine Hansell French Earle. According to historians, the governor was a direct descendant of John Howland who arrived in Massachusetts on the Mayflower in 1620 and a tenth generation descendant of Ralph Earle who emigrated from his native Devon, England, to Rhode Island in 1634. Other ancestors, some of whom were Quakers, included Thomas Earle, candidate for vice president and “Father of the Convention” to revise Pennsylvania’s Constitution in 1838; Gregory Clement, one of the English judges who tried King Charles I in 1648 (Clement was condemned to death by King Charles II); Captain Gabriel Wayne, father of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne; a number of prominent ancestors associated with William Penn, such as Thomas French, who joined Penn in signing “Concessions and Agreements” for New Jersey; William Buckman, Penn’s neighbor and fellow passenger on the ship Welcome in 1682; Henry Baker who sat in Penn’s Provincial Council and in the General Assembly of Pennsylvania; and Nathaniel Newitt, a colonial assemblyman. Earle was also related to Lucretia Mott, an anti-slavery and women’s rights leader.
Earle was first educated at Delancey School, Philadelphia, and at Harvard University from 1909–1911. He later received honorary law degrees in 1935, including an LL.B. from Temple University and LL.D. and LH.D. degrees from Waynesburg College. After leaving Harvard, he spent time abroad and then returned to work with his father in the sugar industry before moving to Chicago to try his hand at various business endeavors. On January 20, 1916, Earle married Huberta F. Potter of Bowling Green, Kentucky, with whom he had four sons. That same year, when Mexico’s revolutionary General Pancho Villa attacked a U.S. border town, Earle enlisted in the Second Pennsylvania Infantry and was assigned to the Mexican border. When the United States entered the World War in 1917, he enlisted in the Navy, receiving the rating of boatswain’s mate. Within a few months, he was promoted to command of the U.S.S. Victor, a submarine chaser, which had been his own private yacht put into service for his country. On February 18, 1918, while the Victor was cruising off the Atlantic coast with a cargo of depth charges and a large reserve supply of gasoline aboard, an explosion in the engine room spread fire throughout the vessel. With the help of his crew, he succeeded in saving his ship without loss of life. For this service, President Wilson conferred upon him the Navy Cross, citing Earle for his "heroic and inspiring leadership."
Returning to private life, he founded the Flamingo Sugar Mills in Philadelphia, of which he became president. He also became a director and vice president of the Pennsylvania Sugar Company, a director of the Tradesmen's National Bank and Trust Company, and a director of the Horn and Hardart Company of New York. He was occupied with these and other business activities until 1932, when he entered political life to support the presidential candidacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who afterward named him Minister Plenipotentiary to the Republic of Austria. Earle was an early leader in warning Washington about the dangers of Nazism. After filling this post during the most turbulent period in the history of that country, he resigned his position in 1934 to become the Democratic candidate for governor of Pennsylvania. In accepting his resignation, President Roosevelt expressed regret that there was no decoration that could be bestowed upon him for the excellent service he had rendered. Secretary of State Cordell Hull commended him for the “admirable and efficient manner” in which he had discharged his duties.
Earle became the leading choice for Democratic leaders hoping to gain control of state government. Earle’s deep family roots linked to distinguished Pennsylvanians and colonialists, his success as a businessman and war hero, and an athletic appearance appealed to voters. Earle was also known as a sportsman. He was captain of the All-Philadelphia Polo Team that won a national championship in 1930. He was also a hunter, fisherman, and a breeder of dogs.
Only one Democrat (Robert Pattison) had been elected governor between the Civil War and 1934, and that was forty-four years prior to Earle. A political newcomer, Earle ran against distinguished Philadelphia attorney William A. Schnader, who was the attorney general under Governor Gifford Pinchot. It was also true that no Democrat running for president had carried Pennsylvania since James Buchanan in 1856 and Pennsylvania was one of only six states President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) failed to carry in 1932. In 1933, more than thirty-seven percent of workers in the state were unemployed. Roosevelt proposed radical new measures that appealed to voters and Democrats were able to capitalize on economic issues. Many Pennsylvanians were impatient for the arrival of the president’s “New Deal” and unhappy with the state legislature blocking unemployment compensation. Roosevelt’s coattails swept many Democrats into power in 1934. Earle defeated Schnader by 66,329 votes out of 2.9 million cast.
Earle quickly went to work on his “Little New Deal” proposals. A record 3,514 bills were introduced in the state legislature in Earle’s first two years and, although the state Senate blocked many bills, many were passed. The Works Progress Administration put 200,000 people back to work and 19,000 more in the Civilian Conservation Corp found work. Finally in 1936, legislation passed to provide unemployment compensation and the Bureau of Employment Security was established, with the first payments effective in January 1938. Welfare reform was also passed during Earle’s term. A state Department of Public Assistance centralized relief efforts and replaced the outdated and ineffective county poor boards.
The legislature also passed the state’s first civil rights bill and the first gasoline and cigarette tax; approved the construction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike; passed the nation’s first milk control bill; and outlawed the worker-hated coal and iron police hired by mining companies to enforce company interests. Pennsylvania’s Blue laws were finally relaxed to allow people to go to the movies or enjoy fishing on Sundays, the last state in the U. S. to allow the latter. The “Little Wagner Act” improved worker rights by prohibiting unions formed by companies, company spies, strikebreakers, and blacklists. Teachers were given tenure, a stronger child labor act was put into law, and a maximum forty-four hour workweek for women was established. Pennsylvania voters rejected Earle’s desire to revise the state constitution and a graduated income tax was declared unconstitutional.
Governor Earle’s substantial accomplishments near the end of his term were eclipsed by political charges against other Democratic leaders who were accused of macing, graft, and corruption. Internal feuding among Democrats also did not help Earle who, although constitutionally prohibited to succeed himself, sought election to the U.S. Senate. But the pendulum swung back to the Republicans who retook the governor’s office with Arthur James and defeated Earle in the election to the Senate with James J. Davis.
After leaving office, Earle continued to have a distinguished career. He had dispelled rumors that he would be a candidate for president in 1940 by solidly endorsing FDR. Earle did not run again for office, but in 1940 FDR appointed him U.S. Minister to Bulgaria. In the summer of 1941, before America entered World War II, in a private meeting, Earle insulted Adolph Hitler to his face by saying, “I have nothing against the Germans, I just don’t like you.” In 1943, when by then the former governor was the associate Naval attaché to Turkey, Earle presented a plan to FDR that Earle believed might end war in Europe early. The German ambassador and the head of the German secret service secretly proposed to Earle that German troops could surround Hitler’s headquarters and turn Hitler over to the Allies as a war criminal. German troops then would be repositioned to defend against the Russian military. The plot was never approved.
Following the war, Earle became the first governor to be divorced and, in 1945, he married Jacqueline Marthe Germine Sacre (1922–1997) of Belgium with whom he had a daughter and a son. That same year, he was appointed assistant governor of Samoa. After that he returned to private business.
George H. Earle died in Bryn Mawr, Montgomery County, on December 30, 1974, and is buried there in the Church of the Redeemer Cemetery.