Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Harry W. Nice (1877-1941)
MSA SC 3520-1481

Governor of Maryland 1935-1939

The following essay is taken from Frank F. White, Jr., The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970 (Annapolis:  The Hall of Records Commission, 1970), 265-268.

"HARRY WHINNA NICE, Maryland’s third Republican governor, had one of the most stormy administrations in Maryland’s history. It occurred in the midst of a depression; it was characterized by the State’s financial difficulties; it was beset with special sessions of the Legislature; it was noteworthy for its conflicts between the Republican governor and the Democratic legislature; and its highlight was a general lack of leadership on Nice’s part. After his term ended, Nice was remembered not as a good governor, but instead as a genial politician whose biggest assets were generosity and friendliness.

"Harry W. Nice was born on December 5, 1877, the son of the Reverend Henry W. and Drucilla (Arnold) Nice. His father, a Methodist preacher, had begun his career at Snow Hill in 1857, following which he assumed various charges throughout the State. Governor Nice was born in Washington, D.C. while his father had a church there.

"When he was very young, Nice’s father brought him back to Maryland. He received his early education in the public schools of Baltimore City. He later attended Baltimore City College and Dickinson, College. After he had graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1899, he was admitted to the Bar and for the rest of his life he practiced his profession.

"Before he was twenty-one years and still waiting for admission to the Bar, he decided to enter politics. He filed for the Republican nomination for the House of Delegates, but he lost out by only twenty-one votes—the first of the narrow election margins to beset him throughout the remainder of his political career. Several years later, he received his party’s nomination for the City Council from the Eighteenth Ward, and after a recount, he won by the slim margin of thirty-four votes. In 1903, Nice ran for Judge of the Orphans’ Court, only to lose by three hundred and sixty votes, in an election in which the Democrats defeated their opponents by as much as 18,000 votes.

"On June 8, 1905, Nice married Edna Viola Amos of Baltimore City. They had two boys, Harry W. Nice, Jr., and a son who had died when he was young.

[p. 266] "In 1905, he became the Secretary to Mayor E. Clay Timanus, a post he occupied until 1908. The same year, Governor Crothers appointed Nice to be the minority member on the Board of Supervisors of Elections in Baltimore City, which post he held until 1912, when he became an assistant to the State’s Attorney William F. Broening. In 1919, after Broening resigned to become Mayor, he suggested that Nice be named to succeed him. The Supreme Bench accepted his suggestion, but Nice did not occupy that position very long, because he filed for the Republican nomination for governor. He resigned to campaign.

"Without much preparation, he entered the Republican primary campaign, and won it. He went on to challenge Albert C. Ritchie, who, for the rest of his life, was to be his closest political rival. Nice conducted a vigorous campaign, contending that a Democratic victory would result in a “Boss-ridden” administration. The ensuing election was close and bitter, with ballot counting consuming three days. When the final figures were released, Nice was defeated, but by the very narrow margin of one hundred and sixty-five votes. All this occurred in an election in which more than 228,000 votes were cast, a most remarkable showing because even in 1919, the State had an overwhelming Democratic voter registration majority. For years afterwards, the Republicans argued that they had won the election but lost the count.1

"After Nice’s defeat, Mayor Broening appointed him a member of the Appeals Tax Court of Baltimore City. He was reappointed in 1923 although he had withdrawn from politics in the meantime, and had formed a law partnership with Edwin T. Dickerson, to become one of Baltimore’s foremost trial lawyers.

"In 1922, Nice was involved in a 'theater case' which nearly wrecked his career. With his partner, Edwin Dickerson, he and a group of the officers of the Boulevard Theatre Company were presented by the Grand Jury on charges which grew out of the failure of the enterprise. Nice, however, was never indicted, and later, in a bar association investigation of the charges which included conspiracy to defraud the company and the use of a slush fund to bribe a member of the City Council, the association presented a report which exonerated Nice and Dickerson.

"In 1934, after approximately a decade of political inactivity, even though he was still a party leader, Nice made his second attempt to secure the Republican nomination for governor. In the primary, he defeated two formidable opponents, one of whom was former Governor Phillips Lee Goldsborough. He challenged Albert C. Ritchie, his opponent in the 1919 campaign, adopting as his slogan “Right the wrong of 1919.”

"Nice waged an aggressive campaign by capitalizing on Ritchie’s lukewarmness to the Roosevelt administration. He promised an impartial investigation of the State banks, which he charged were “polluted with politics.”2 He requested a thorough probe of the Ritchie regime, a drastic economy program and promised that he would give motorists of the State [p. 267] two-dollar license plates. The election resulted in a victory for Nice. Despite the fact that the 1934 election had brought an abrupt end to Ritchie’s aspirations the two men remained cordial to one another. Nice is said to have told Ritchie soon after the election: 'It is, indeed, a great honor to be the Governor of Maryland, but I’m sorry that it was you I had to beat to win it.'3  Nice was inaugurated on January 9, 1935.

"Few Republican administrations in Maryland have gone down in history as brilliant ones. The brief four-year administration of Harry W. Nice was no exception. He had to deal with more pressing and wide-spread economic and tax problems than any other governor. When he took office in 1935, one of his immediate worries was that of solving the problems of employment and relief which an estimated 200,000 persons required. Of that number, about 120,000 were in Baltimore City alone. In November of 1935, the Federal government discontinued its contribution for direct relief, and the State had to assume the complete burden. Nice felt that the State could not continue to carry the entire financial load without the levy of special taxes because the problem affected 'the very existence of so many of our less fortunate men, women, and children, to who all of us owe a very definite responsibility.'4

"Before he called his first special session in March of 1936, he appointed a committee to prepare a comprehensive relief program and to recommend a program of taxation to carry it out. The committee submitted a report in which it recommended a program far greater in amount and scope than the General Assembly finally adopted and said that a general sales tax should be adopted to finance it. The Governor laid these recommendations before the Legislature and let matters stand at that. He said that he felt that he had done his duty and consequently he made no further moves even when the Legislature flatly rejected his recommendations and floundered around for weeks before it decided upon a somewhat lukewarm program of its own.

"Governor Nice received permission from the Legislature to rebuild the Executive Mansion which he and his family did not find to their liking. Originally a Victorian house, he altered it into a Georgian mansion. As was to be expected, the construction cost more than he had intended, with the result that he had to make a lengthy and detailed report to the Legislature at its first special session in 1936. Noting the controversy which erupted over the building’s transformation, he justified his expenditure to have 'the State of Maryland stand out boldly as the possessor of the finest type of architecture, gracefully furnished, and one of the most beautiful Governors’ Houses in the United States.'5

"Midway in his term, Governor Nice attracted some national attention. While he was attending the Republican National Convention in [p. 268] Chicago in 1936, J. Cookman Boyd, a member of the Maryland delegation, placed his name in nomination for the vice presidency. But, nothing further came of this proposal.

"Although as Governor, he had said repeatedly that he would not seek a second term, he suddenly announced that he would be a candidate for re-election in 1938. His primary purpose, he said, was to complete the program he had started during his administration. He asked the support of the electorate 'solely on the basis of an honest and impartial judgment . . . not a judgment swayed by ancient hates and present political partisanship, not a judgment of unreasoning partisanship.'6

"During the campaign which followed, many of his own party leaders and persons he had appointed to office, deserted him. He dubbed them 'ingrates' and during the closing hours of his campaign, he promised from 7,000 to 10,000 jobs, a new bridge across the Baltimore Harbor, and a new high-speed road between Baltimore and Washington. He was decisively beaten at the polls on November 8, 1938 by Herbert R. O’Conor, his Attorney General.

"After his term ended on January 11, 1939, Nice took a short vacation. When he returned, he opened his law office in Baltimore and continued to call himself the titular head of the Republican Party in Maryland, taking no noticeable part in politics, but behind the scenes, laying the foundation for the Republican nomination for the Senate in 1940. He defeated his old friend and associate William F. Broening in the primary and went on to challenge Senator George L. Radcliffe in the general election. Nice castigated the New Deal and charged that the Works Progress Administration had attempted to buy votes in Maryland through the distribution of shoes, but after the votes had been counted, Senator Radcliffe defeated him by 200,000 votes.

"Once again Nice returned to his Baltimore law office. On December 5, 1940, he was stricken with a heart attack from which he never fully recovered. Shortly thereafter, he and Mrs. Nice went to Florida for a vacation. While they were on their way back to Baltimore, they stopped in Richmond, Virginia, to visit with friends, where on February 25, 1941, he suffered his second and fatal heart attack. After funeral services at his home in Baltimore, he was buried in Greenmount Cemetery."

Notes on sources

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