When Republican Party bosses picked James Henderson Duff to run for the state’s highest office, they thought he would be a “safe” and pliable governor to follow party wishes. Nicknamed “Big Red” because of his six-foot, two-hundred-pound size and red hair, he was instead an affable, but fiercely independent governor. Duff was born January 21, 1883, at Mansfield (now Carnegie), near Pittsburgh in Allegheny County, where his father, the Reverend Joseph Miller Duff was a Presbyterian minister for forty years. His mother was Margaret Martin Duff. Primarily of Scots-Irish and Welsh origins, Duff's ancestors were among early settlers in Pennsylvania. Two of his great-grandfathers were members of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania between 1683 and 1717. The western Pennsylvania branch of his family were among the earliest pioneers in the county where they settled in 1768, Westmoreland County (part of Bedford County until 1773), only three years after the Battle of Bushy Run and not far from the site of that field of battle.
Duff spent part of his youth exercising horses at a local track without pay and attending Carnegie High School. He rose from last in his school class of 1955, to first in his class by the time he graduated. He had intended to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, George Duff, and become a physician and surgeon. However, after winning two medals in public speaking, Duff decided to switch to law. Despite his father earning only $3,600 per year in income, the future governor was able to accomplish his educational goals. He received his bachelor of arts from Princeton University in 1904, studied law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School until 1906, then, to save money and help his father and college-hopeful siblings, Duff attended law school closer to home, receiving his law degree (LL.B.) from the University of Pittsburgh Law School in 1907.
For the next thirty-six years, Duff practiced law in Pittsburgh, establishing the law firm of Duff, Scott and Smith, while also speculating in oil, after becoming an expert in petroleum law, which helped him to become wealthy. On October 26, 1909, Duff married Jean Kerr Taylor from Beaver, Beaver County, but the couple lost their only child, John Taylor Duff, a few days after he was born in 1910. They raised a nephew, Spencer Folsom, after the boy’s father died and who eventually graduated from West Point in 1963. In the 1929 stock market crash, the Duff family lost all of their wealth. After managing to pay $11,000 in taxes owed for the 1928 tax year, it took Duff more than seven years of hard work to financially recover.
Duff was active in civic and public affairs most of his life and was an elector in 1912 pledged for the reelection bid of Theodore Roosevelt. However, he did not become more well known in politics until relatively late in his life. Theodore Roosevelt III, grandson of the president, would serve as Governor Duff’s secretary of Commerce. At age 49 in 1932, Duff was a delegate at the Republican National Convention and returned as a delegate again in 1936 and 1939. Because of his many years as a noted attorney and his close friendship with Edward Martin, who was elected governor in 1942, Duff was appointed state attorney general for the Martin term, 1943-1947. It was during this time that Duff rose to the top of the ticket as the Republican choice for governor. Duff easily defeated the Democratic candidate, John S. Rice, a well-to-do apple farmer from Gettysburg, by more than 557,000 votes, at that time the second highest margin of victory in state history.
Inaugurated on his birthday, Governor Duff had established an appeal to citizens for his views as an ardent conservationist and his amateur skills as a botanist and geologist. It was said that he was able to name any tree or rock formation in Pennsylvania. However, politics would prove far more rocky early in his administration. With the retirement of political boss Joseph R. Grundy, who was chairman of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, a struggle for control of the Republican Party erupted. Grundy and his supporters had fought hard to oppose unemployment compensation, child labor laws, workmen’s compensation, easing of tariffs, and pensions for the elderly. The governor did not support this anti-labor view, calling it “Grundyism,” and was quoted as saying that he wanted to change “old-fogey thinking at the top” of the party. Since Grundy proponents, and Grundy’s successor, Mason Owlett, held a grip on a sizeable bloc of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, the governor formed an alliance with more moderate Republicans and Democrats, led by Pittsburgh Mayor and future Governor David L. Lawrence. It was through this alliance that Duff is credited as accomplishing most of his agenda and goals as governor.
In 1947, the legislature was able to push through bills that banned strikes by public employees, requiring unions to file financial reports, compulsory arbitration for public utility disputes, and raising their own salary by $2,400. A law was also passed that prohibited individuals from picketing plants where they were not employed. Duff was able to produce one of the most ambitious budgets in state history. Despite receiving pressure from conservative party leaders, Duff succeeded in signing more liberal measures into law. For example, in 1947 he signed a bill requiring equal pay for equal work for women. For the first time during the administration of any Pennsylvania governor, the state took in more than $1 billion in revenues. Half of that amount was spent on education alone after raising state aid to education by $47 million and increasing annual pay increments for teachers from $150 to $200 at a time when the minimum teacher salary was only $2,000 per year. Additional legislation in 1949 created the school bus stop law, health protection for school children, and further increased aid to education.
Enlargement and improvement of mental hospitals were begun and a road program, including an expansion of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Philadelphia, added to the governor’s active agenda. Duff also took on pollution. While growing up, he had enjoyed swimming near his home in Chartiers Creek, until its formerly clean waters became no better than a sewer. Duff made certain as governor that programs were initiated to clean up polluted streams, including the highly industrialized Schuylkill River near Philadelphia, which became a model for other polluted rivers around the country. He also tightened anti-pollution laws for mining companies, despite their strong opposition from mining special interests. When the state began subsidizing up to thirty-five percent of the cost of low rent housing, one legislator criticized the governor as going on a “spending spree,” but rather than tax income or real estate to pay for programs, Duff turned to other sources. The cigarette tax was increased from two cents to four cents a pack and the tax on malt beverages was also doubled. In addition, a one cent tax per twelve ounces on soft drinks was levied and a tax on capital stocks was reinstated.
One of the most significant changes during Duff’s administration was the passage of Act 481. For the first time in state history, broad taxing authority was given to local governments to “tax anything” that the state did not tax. It also permitted a school and municipal wage tax at a maximum rate of one percent.
Following the route of Governor Edward Martin, Duff ran for the U.S. Senate in 1950 in what proved to be a bitter primary fight against the Grundy political machine. He teamed up with John S. Fine for governor, his gubernatorial choice to succeed him. Both Fine and Duff defeated their primary opponents, Jay Cooke for governor and Congressman John C. Kunkel for senator. Duff went on to defeat incumbent Democratic Senator Francis J. Myers by more than 126,000 votes. However, unlike Martin, Duff decided to give up senate seniority rather than allow his lieutenant governor, Daniel Strickler, to finish his term of office because Strickler was considered by Duff supporters to be a political enemy. Under Pennsylvania law, Strickler had been elected independently rather than handpicked by Governor Duff. Congress had begun a new term on January 3, 1951, with Senator Duff assuming his seat following the end of his gubernatorial term thirteen days later. For the first time in history, two former Pennsylvania governors, Duff and Martin, served in the U.S. Senate at the same time.
While Senator Duff expressed strong anti-communist views, he publicly rejected the actions of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Duff also came into leadership in 1951 of a group of professional politicians who warned Dwight D. Eisenhower that he must remove himself from the political sidelines and give “definite and unqualified assurance” that he would accept the nomination if he was to be a viable candidate for president. Senator Duff is also credited for bringing a study showing an alarming decline in exercise and physical fitness among America’s youth to the attention of President Eisenhower, upon which the president took action. This high profile call by the president for youth physical fitness was continued by President John F. Kennedy. Despite Senator Duff’s strong support of Eisenhower and a victory for Eisenhower in Pennsylvania for reelection, Duff would serve only one term. Duff was upset in the 1956 election by Democratic Philadelphia Mayor Joseph S. Clark by just 18,000 votes out of four and a half million cast. Duff decided to retire from politics and practiced law in the Washington, DC, area until his retirement to a 115-acre farm in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. After a few years, Duff and his wife returned to Pennsylvania and lived at Fishing Creek Valley, near Harrisburg, Dauphin County. Shortly after he and his wife Jean celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary, James H. Duff died of a heart attack on December 20, 1969, while on a trip to Washington, DC. He is buried in Chartiers Cemetery in his native Carnegie, Allegheny County.