1869-1944; bulk: 1930-1931

Guide to the Collection

Collection Summary


This collection consists of the papers of Massachusetts politician Joseph B. Ely, two-term governor from 1931-35, delegate to the Democratic National Convention who nominated Alfred E. Smith, opponent of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in 1944. The collection includes clippings, correspondence, press releases, programs, invitations, addresses, and subject files that document the issues and results of the 1930 gubernatorial race, his terms as governor, and the development of his political views.

Biographical Sketch

Joseph Buell Ely, son of Sarah Naomi Buell Ely and Henry Wilson Ely, Esq., was born 22 February 1881 in Westfield, Massachusetts. He attended Westfield Normal School and received his A.B. degree in 1902 from Williams College. He earned his law degree from Harvard University in 1905, after which he began practicing with his father in Westfield. Joseph married Harriet Zelda Dyson, a Westfield native and graduate of Westfield Normal School and Mt. Holyoke College, on 1 May 1906. They had one son, Richard.

In 1915 Governor David I. Walsh appointed J. B. Ely district attorney of the Western District of Massachusetts, a post to which he was elected the following year.

Ely was the 48th governor of Massachusetts, serving from 1931-1935. First elected in 1930, he ran as a "wet" candidate in favor of the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Massachusetts Baby Volstead Act; stronger state control of power and light; a state Department of Commerce to benefit Massachusetts industries; a revision of the Massachusetts tax system; and home rule for Boston and other cities of the state. He defeated Republican incumbent Frank G. Allen to become the first Democrat to serve in the state's highest office since World War I.

Ely won a second term by defeating William Sterling Youngman, Republican candidate for governor, in the Massachusetts general election of 1932. However, in 1934 he declined to be a candidate for re-election to a third term in order to be free to express his opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

J. B. Ely was active in the Democratic Party at the national level. He was an elected delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1924 and 1928. He nominated former governor of New York, Alfred E. Smith, for president at the convention of 1932, but supported Franklin D. Roosevelt in the general election after Roosevelt was chosen over Smith by the party.

The Democrats chose Roosevelt to run for a second term in 1936, but Ely publicly supported Republican Alfred Landon for president because he thought Roosevelt had abandoned the Democratic platform of 1932, the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act were unconstitutional, and the New Deal was to accomplish the principles of communism, socialism, and fascism.

In 1940, Ely resigned from the Democratic National Convention, surrendering his credentials, after he had backed James A. Farley for the party's presidential nomination. He was against any president serving more than two terms. He remained an outspoken opponent to Roosevelt throughout his third term.

Ely sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1944 in an attempt to divide the party and defeat Roosevelt in his bid for a fourth term. After failing to win the nomination and block Roosevelt, Ely supported the Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey, for president.

In 1944, Ely wrote The American Dream. He based the book on his speeches and addresses which illustrated the development of his convictions and his view, as a Jeffersonian Democrat, of the fundamentals of American democracy.

Williams College, in 1931, and Holy Cross and Wesleyan Colleges, in 1934, acknowledged Ely's achievements with honorary degrees.

Ely died 13 June 1956.

Collection Description

The Joseph Buell Ely Papers, 1869-1956, are primarily political, but extremely incomplete. The collection is divided into five series: Personal, Political, Miscellaneous, Clippings, and Printed Materials. The Political series is broken into six sub-series: Correspondence, Statements, Conference, Subject Files, Functions (Invitations and Programs), and Miscellaneous. Within each series and sub-series, the arrangement is chronological, with the exception of Subject Files, which is alphabetical, and Miscellaneous, which is not arranged.

The main portion of the collection covers Ely's first gubernatorial primary in 1930 and his inauguration of 1931. There are press releases and addresses delivered during the primary and newspaper clippings depicting the results of the primary and general elections and the inauguration. Subject files, correspondence, and printed materials from the same period contain studies, reports, position papers, and/or recommendations on topics which Ely considered for his campaign and inaugural address. These may provide some insight into the evolution of his positions on the important issues of his day.

Ely's years as governor are scantily documented with some correspondence, subject files, clippings, and printed materials. There are several folders of programs and invitations for various functions in which he participated as governor, as well as some of the remarks Ely delivered on these occasions. These may provide an awareness of the obligations of political figures of his prominence.

Ely illustrated his view of constitutional history, his development as a Jeffersonian Democrat, and his opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt and his policies in his book The American Dream. The statement folders contain a number of drafts of his remarks which augment those which have been published. From a meeting of thirty life-long members of the Democratic Party, in 1936, which Ely called "the conference of Jeffersonian Democrats," there are drafts of remarks made by several of the participants, as well as drafts of the resolutions. Their resolution, i.e., their inability to support the national administration, was reflected in Ely's public support of Republican presidential candidates. The reference clippings, covering Roosevelt, the New Deal, and related political commentary, which were culled from newspapers, appear to contain no other items of interest, and substantiate some of Ely's conclusions about Roosevelt and his policies.

Acquisition Information

The papers of Joseph Buell Ely were a gift from the estate of Richard Ely in January 1992.

Detailed Description of the Collection

I. Personal Papers

This series includes a program for a play in which Ely performed, miscellaneous papers from his law practice, postcards, travel brochures, itineraries, unidentified lists of names (some with addresses), a sampling of condolence letters to Joseph Ely on the death of Harriet in 1950, and newspaper clippings relating to family members.

Box 1Folder 1
Theatre program
Box 1Folder 2
Law practice
Box 1Folder 3
Travel, 1923
Box 1Folder 4
Travel, 1933-1938
Box 1Folder 5
Invitation lists
Box 1Folder 6
Invitation lists
Box 1Folder 7
Invitation lists

Family clippings, 1885-1936

Box 1Folder 8
Obituary of J. M. Ely, 17 June 1885
Box 1Folder 8
Address of H. W. Ely, 6 June 1888
Box 1Folder 8
Obituary of E. J. Dyson, 17 June 1931
Box 1Folder 8
Marriage of R. Ely and F. L. Ludwick, 26 June 1932
Box 1Folder 8
Obituary of Henry Wilson Ely, 19 July 1933
Box 1Folder 9
Condolence letters on death of Harriet Ely, 1950
Box 1Folder 10
OS Box
Miscellaneous diplomas, certificate, 1902-1905

II. Political Papers

A. Correspondence

The majority of the correspondence in this series consists of letters attached to reports, statements about issues of concern, and needs of the state; i.e., public works projects, vocational rehabilitation programs, automobile insurance, state sanatoriums, unemployment insurance, Massachusetts industry, and a state archives. There are a few letters expressing well wishes and thanks. Most of the remaining letters are requests for appointments.

Box 1Folder 11
Feb. 1924-Nov. 1930
Box 1Folder 12
Dec. 1930
Box 1Folder 13
Box 1Folder 14
Jan. 1932
Box 1Folder 15
Feb. 1932
Box 1Folder 16
Box 1Folder 17
Mrs. J. B. Ely, [Harriet Zelda Dyson Ely], Dec. 1930

B. Statements

This series contains a number of drafts of his remarks which augment those which have been published in his book The American Dream.

Box 2Folder 1
School committee candidate
Box 2Folder 2
Eulogy of Woodrow Wilson, Feb. 1924
Box 2Folder 3
Testimonial to Hon. Joseph B. Ely, district attorney, 31 Dec 1919

Contains remarks by: William H. Brooks, Silvio Martinelli, Joseph B. Ely, and Hon. Nelson P. Brown.

Addresses/press releases, 1930 Democratic gubernatorial primary

Box 2Folder 4-5
Box 2Folder 6
Aug. 1930
Box 2Folder 7
2-5 Sep. 1930
Box 2Folder 8
9-15 Sep. 1930
Box 2Folder 9
Address, Democratic State Convention, 27 Sep. 1930
Box 2Folder 10
Clovers Club, introducing Joseph Buell Ely
Box 2Folder 11-12
Addresses [as governor]

C. Conference of "Jeffersonian" Democrats

This series consists of drafts of remarks made by several of the participants of a conference that Ely dubbed "the conference of Jeffersonian Democrats," as well as drafts of their resolution. At this conference, the group came to the resolution that they were unable to support the national administration.

Box 2Folder 13
Conference of "Jeffersonian" Democrats, 7 Aug. 1936, Detroit, Mich.

Includes the remarks of: Ernest E. Cummings, Joseph Buell Ely, Henry Breckenridge, and J. Evetts Haley, as well as a report of deliberations.

D. Subject Files

Each subject is arranged chronologically.

See also: Box 1, Folders 10-15 for additional subject information.

Box 3Folder 1-2
Boston Elevated Railway, 1927-1930
Box 3Folder 3
Child labor/welfare, 1930
Box 3Folder 4
Economic depression
Box 3Folder 5
Finance Commission, City of Boston, 1930
Box 3Folder 6
Box 3Folder 7
Milk Control Bill, 1934
Box 3Folder 8
Roosevelt or Smith?, 1932
Box 3Folder 9
State problems: unemployment, private employment, Department of Labor and Industries, railroads, housing, Blue Sky Law, and referenda

Unemployment, Massachusetts Emergency Committee, Oct. 1931-Apr. 1932

Box 3Folder 10
Box 3Folder 11
Appendix, p. 1-50
Box 3Folder 12
Appendix, p. 51-100, [1], 2

E. Functions: Invitations and Programs

Box 4Folder 1
Joseph Buell Ely gave, 1931-1934
Box 4Folder 2
Joseph Buell Ely honored, 1931-1935
Box 4Folder 3-4
Joseph Buell Ely addressed, 1931-1932, 1933-1942
Box 4Folder 5
Joseph Buell Ely invited, 1930-1931
Box 4Folder 6
Joseph Buell Ely invited, 1932
Box 4Folder 7
Joseph Buell Ely invited, 1932
Box 4Folder 8
Joseph Buell Ely invited, 1933-1937
Box 4Folder 9
Luncheon given by Mrs. J. B. Ely, 1931-1933

F. Miscellaneous

Box 4Folder 10
State's money on deposit, 9 Apr. 1932
Box 4Folder 10
List of Massachusetts banks
Box 4Folder 10
Correspondence of David I. Walsh
Box 4Folder 10
Report of overheard statements of [W. S. Youngman], 19 Oct. [1932]
Box 4Folder 10
Note referring to Joseph Buell Ely, 1933

IV. Clippings

This series includes clippings that were culled from newspapers and serials at the time the collection was processed. Items by and about Ely are located in respective newspaper and serial clippings folders. Reference clippings had been marked or clipped previously or reflected Ely's interest in Roosevelt and his policies. Clippings about family members may be found in the family papers folder. See also Box 1, Folder 8 for clippings related to family members.

Box 5Folder 1
30 July 1922-29 July 1930
Box 5Folder 2
17 Sep.-12 Oct. 1930
Box 5Folder 3
3-5 Nov. 1930
Box 5Folder 4
8 Jan. 1931, undated
Box 5Folder 5
9 Jan. 1931
Box 5Folder 6
13 Jan.-31 Aug. 1931
Box 5Folder 7
Box 5Folder 8
Box 5Folder 9
Joseph Buell Ely obituaries, 1956

Serial clippings by or about JBE

Box 5Folder 10
Box 5Folder 11
Box 5Folder 12
Reference clippings with commentary on Franklin D. Roosevelt, 2 May 1930-20 Apr. 1942

V. Printed Materials

Box 5Folder 13
McCall, Samuel W. Address of His Excellency Samuel W. McCall to the two branches of the Legislature of Massachusetts. January 6, 1916.
Box 5Folder 14
United States. Congress. House. House Bill No. 1327. 1929.
Box 5Folder 14
United States. Congress. House. House Bill No. 170. 1930.
Box 5Folder 14
United States. Congress. House. House Bill No. 666. 1930.
Box 5Folder 14
United States. Congress. House. House Bill No. 831. 1930.
Box 5Folder 14
United States. Congress. House. House Bill No. 930. 1930.
Box 5Folder 14
United States. Congress. House. House Bill No. 955. 1930.
Box 5Folder 14
United States. Congress. House. House Bill No. 985. 1930.
Box 5Folder 14
United States. Congress. House. House Bill No. 1005. 1930.
Box 5Folder 14
United States. Congress. House. House Bill No. 1006. 1930.
Box 5Folder 14
United States. Congress. House. House Bill No. 1007. 1930.
Box 5Folder 14
United States. Congress. House. Senate Bill No. 263. 1930.
Box 5Folder 14
United States. Congress. House. Senate Bill No. 417. 1930.
Box 5Folder 15
Massachusetts, General Court. An act making appropriation for the maintenance of departments, boards, commissions, institutions and certain activities of the commonwealth. for interest, sinking fund and serial board requirements, and for certain permanent improvements. Chap. 115. 1930.
Box 5Folder 16
Allen, Frank G. Supplementary Budget Recommendations of His Excellency Frank G. Allen to the General Court of The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, For the Fiscal Year 1930, Beginning December 1, 1929, and ending November 30, 1930. House No. 1416.
Box 5Folder 17
Massachusetts, Comptroller's Bureau. Seventh Annual Report of the Commission on Administration and Finance for the year ending November 30, 1929. Part II. Public Document No. 140.
Box 5Folder 18
Boston Elevated Railway. The "El" Today: A Series of Twelve Radio Talks by the Public Trustees and Officers of the Boston Elevated Railway. 1930.

Materials Removed from the Collection

Photographs from this collection have been removed to the MHS Photo Archives.

For a list of printed materials and museum objects removed from this collection, see Curator of Manuscripts.

Preferred Citation

Joseph B. Ely papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Access Terms

This collection is indexed under the following headings in ABIGAIL, the online catalog of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Researchers desiring materials about related persons, organizations, or subjects should search the catalog using these headings.


Smith, Alfred Emanuel, 1873-1944.
Roosevelt, Franklin D. (Franklin Delano), 1882-1945.


Massachusetts. Governor (1931-1935 : Ely)
United States. President (1933-1945 : Roosevelt)
New York (State). Governor (1919-1920 : Smith)
New York (State). Governor (1923-1928 : Smith)
Democratic Party (U.S.)


Elections -- Massachusetts.
Politicians -- Massachusetts.
Political conventions.
Political parties -- United States.
Governors -- Massachusetts -- Election.
Massachusetts -- Politics and government -- 1865-1950.
United States -- Politics and government -- 1933-1945.