Biographical / Historical
Joseph Swagar Sherley was born in Louisville, Kentucky November 28, 1871, to distiller Thomas Huffman Sherley and Ella Swagar Sherley. Although club footed from birth, he participated in many activities, including fishing, boxing, golf, and swimming. He attended the Louisville public schools, graduating with an A.B. from Louisville Male High School in 1889. Probably a good student, he was asked to give a speech at graduation and chose as his subject his summer trip to France. Immediately after high school, Sherley attended the University of Virginia Law School, obtaining his degree in 1891.
Sherley entered law practice in Louisville with Judge L. H. Noble and after Noble's retirement, was with the firm of O'Neil and O'Neil. At the same time, he became a precinct committeeman for the Democratic Party and participated in party conventions. He was also initiated into the Masonic Order in 1900 and became a member of many other clubs, among them Louisville's Pendennis Club.
Sherley's public service career began in 1902 when he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives from Kentucky's old fifth district (including Jefferson County). He was reelected seven consecutive times until losing during a Republican sweep in 1918. Sherley served in the 58th through 65th Congresses.
In 1905, he joined then Secretary of War William Howard Taft on a Philippine cruise to study the United States' new acquisition. Joined by twenty to thirty other Congressional members, the president's daughter (Alice Roosevelt) and several of her friends, the trip included more social outings than official government work. The Americans visited the islands, China, and Japan, and enjoyed special banquets and sightseeing. Once back home, several couples who had met on the cruise married, including Sherley and Alice Roosevelt's friend, Mignon Critten of New York.
Sherley and Mignon Critten were married April 21, 1906, on Staten Island. They eventually had five children, Olive Critten, Mignon, Swagar, Thomas Huffman and Marjorie. Making their home in Washington, D.C., they built a house at 2600 Upton Street. When in Louisville, the Sherleys stayed in Swagar's boyhood home with his mother on Breckenridge Street. The family was Episcopalian.
By his second term in Congress, Sherley had been appointed to both the House Committee on Appropriations and its Subcommittee on Fortifications and became the ranking member and chair of both. Because of these duties, he became an expert on budget and governmental appropriation systems and on naval defenses and military armaments.
Active in drafting Democratic platforms and reports for Democratic presidents during the 1930s, with Franklin D. Roosevelt, Swagar completely reorganized the federal government departments and budget system. He appeared as a witness before the Select Committee of the House which prepared the national budget legislation. He wrote numerous confidential reports to then President-elect Roosevelt on topics such as sewage plants, post offices, public works, Navy department, and the Bureau of the Budget. FDR offered him the position of Director of the Bureau of the Budget, but Sherley declined. Likewise, he also declined a judgeship on the U.S. Court of Appeals.
Sherley died February 13, 1941 after surgery in Louisville. He was 69.