‘Hillbilly Bill:’ Congressman J. Will Taylor

Photo from the author’s personal collection. Congressman J. Will Taylor in 1937.
Photo from the author’s personal collection.
Congressman J. Will Taylor in 1937.

By Ray Hill

 

For twenty years, James Willis Taylor was the Congressman from Tennessee’s Second Congressional district. J. Will Taylor, popularly known to many of his constituents as “Hillbilly Bill,” was a power in both the national Republican Party and the Tennessee GOP.

Born August 28, 1880 near Lead Mine Bend in Union County, in a two-room cabin, James Willis Taylor was the son of a “country storekeeper.” Things were hard for young J. Will and he worked hard as a teenager and got his education at the Holbrook Normal College, which was located in Fountain City. To support himself and save money to further his education, J. Will Taylor taught school and finally graduated from Cumberland School of Law with a degree in hand. Taylor was admitted to the Bar in 1902 and returned to LaFollette, Tennessee and began to practice his profession.

Interested in politics, J. Will Taylor was named Postmaster for LaFollette in 1904 when he was only twenty-four years old. Taylor won his first election to serve as mayor of LaFollette in 1910. With the election of Republican Ben W. Hooper as governor, Taylor was named as State Commissioner of Insurance in 1913. In 1917, Taylor was elected by his fellow Republicans as Chairman of the State Executive Committee.

Tennessee was not to elect another Republican governor until 1920 and that would be the last GOP chief executive for fifty years. By that time, J. Will Taylor had entered the Republican primary against a sitting Congressman, Richard W. Austin.

Despite being the minority party in Tennessee, Republicans were deeply divided by factionalism. Richard Austin was something of a feudist and had aligned himself with those opposed to the leadership of H. Clay Evans of Chattanooga. Austin had actually sought a Congressional seat in Alabama in 1890, but lost to a former Confederate general, Joseph Wheeler. In 1893, Richard Austin returned to Knoxville to edit the Knoxville Republican.

Austin was appointed U. S. Marshall for the Eastern District of Tennessee in 1897 by President William McKinley and by 1904 was running hard for Congress. Austin lost to Nathan Hale, but was revived by yet another presidential appointment, this time securing a position as the American consul in Glasgow, Scotland in 1906.

Richard Austin did not linger long in Great Britain, resigning his post in 1907 to return to Tennessee and run for Congress once again. Facing his old foe Nathan Hale, Austin waged a fierce campaign and made a bargain with Governor Malcolm Patterson, a Democrat. Governor Patterson was fighting a hard battle of his own, facing popular former U. S. senator Edward Ward Carmack in his own primary election. Austin barely edged out Congressman Hale, winning the nomination by 809 votes. Nathan Hale did not take his defeat lying down and after a failed attempt to prevent Austin from caucusing with House Republicans, ran again in 1910, but lost by a wider margin.

By 1918, Congressman Richard Austin had been in office for a decade and he was hardly universally popular. J. Will Taylor was the Chairman of the State Republican Party and he entered the primary against Austin. Taylor carried every county in the district, save for one.

Austin might have tried to regain his Congressional seat in 1920, but death took him away just a month after his term of office expired.

J. Will Taylor would remain in Congress for the rest of his life.

Congressman Taylor used his office to ingratiate himself with his constituents, as well as a power base to dominate what remained of Tennessee’s Republican Party. During the decade of the twenties, Republicans held the presidency, meaning all federal patronage in Tennessee went through the hands of J. Will Taylor. That control of patronage made Hillbilly Bill not a few friends and more than enough enemies.

J. Will Taylor’s dominance in patronage matters was to continue to be a source of irritation between the Congressman and many of those who wanted that influence for themselves. There were charges of corruption and at least one attempt to have Taylor indicted by a federal grand jury, which failed utterly. Congressman Taylor was accused of collecting “political tribute” from friends and prospective appointees to office to fund his own political machine.

Taylor’s enemies took their accusations to the Chairman of the Republican National Committee at the time, William M. Butler of Massachusetts.

J. Will Taylor calmly told Butler, “I don’t deny that friends of mine in office and out of office have helped to defray the expenses of my political battles. I contend that demonstration of interest in the things I stand for is entirely commendable and that it is a common practice in every state in the union.”

Taylor’s opponents got exactly nowhere.

More than a few times, the acrimony between the factions publicly erupted. One such occasion came after the 1934 elections when former governor Ben W. Hooper had run unsuccessfully against Senator K. D. McKellar. An outraged Hooper cried at a meeting of Republicans in Nashville that “the Republican Party in Tennessee is already shot to pieces”. Governor Hooper then questioned whether Congressman Taylor had really supported his candidacy in the 1934 election against McKellar.

“When you have Republican treachery in the first district and Republican treachery in the second district contributing to the defeat of your candidate for the United States Senate there is something wrong – – – it was Republican treachery growing out of factionalism,” Hooper charged.

Congressman Taylor, replying to the former governor, serenely said, he was “thoroughly in accord” with Hooper’s comments and dryly noted, “The Republican Party is not dead”. Taylor went on to deny the allegation of treachery, saying, “I not only deny the charge of villainy in the second congressional district but on behalf of the Republican voters, I resent it.”

The Congressman said he had voted for Hooper, but noted he had his own race to run and with that in mind, he had done all he could for the former governor. Hooper then looked at Congressman Taylor and asked, “You did all you could?”

“Yes,” Taylor replied.

“Nobody believes that but you,” Governor Hooper snapped.

Taylor retorted he had given the former governor a $100 contribution to his senatorial campaign. The argument between the two was finally brought to a close by the chair.

Bailey Walsh, a Memphis attorney sought to pour oil over troubled waters by proposing a resolution endorsing “the splendid leadership” of both Republican Congressmen, J. Will Taylor and the First District’s B. Carroll Reece. It likely did not escape the attention of some Republican delegates that Walsh’s wife, Dorothy McDaniel Walsh, was employed by Senator McKellar. The only delegate to vote against the Walsh resolution was Governor Ben W. Hooper.

Congressman Taylor watched quietly as his allies crushed the rebellion by other Republicans across the state to challenge his authority.

Taylor faced his own rivalry with Congressman Reece and the two fought for prominence and influence inside their own party. Reece was the more conservative of the two and Hillbilly Bill was shrewd enough to be a big supporter of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Reece had once lost his own Congressional seat briefly due to many believing he was at heart opposed to the TVA.

There were far more pleasant occasions for J. Will Taylor than the bickering inside his own party. He returned to Lead Mine Bend to view the unveiling of a statue of his father, who had fought in the Civil War, on May 29, 1930.

Taylor had traveled to upper East Tennessee in 1927 to Elizabethton to witness the opening of that city’s “new white way lighting system” and the dedication of a new plant to be built by American – Glanzstoff. Senator McKellar and Congressman Carroll Reece were also on hand as President Calvin Coolidge, who was in South Dakota at the time, touched a button to turn on the lights for the new system.

Another happy event for Taylor was “a huge air show” held in Knoxville on October 15, 1937, which featured a renowned “speed and precision pilot,” for the dedication of an $800,000 airport to serve the Knoxville, Maryville and Alcoa communities. The airport, which became Tyson McGhee Airport, had been built by the Works Progress Administration under the direction of Colonel Harry S. Berry, an appointee of Senator McKellar and the head of the WPA in Tennessee. Taylor joined Governor Gordon Browning, Colonel Berry, and U. S. Senator George L. Berry at the dedication ceremonies. The highlight of the event was the “destruction of a miniature fort” by Major Williams and national guard units from Knoxville, Maryville, and Athens.

Much of J. Will Taylor’s influence evaporated in 1932 when Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover for the presidency. The Republicans had controlled both houses of Congress throughout the 1920s and the Democrats seized control of the U. S. House of Representatives in 1931, following the death of several Republican Congressmen who were replaced by Democrats. With the election of FDR, J. Will Taylor lost his control of federal patronage in Tennessee, which was placed in the hands of Senator McKellar. During his last years in Congress, Taylor had to appeal to McKellar to protect Republican employees.

The alliance between East Tennessee Republicans and Democrats has frequently been attributed to an agreement between Congressman J. Will Taylor and E. H. Crump, leader of the Shelby County political machine. In truth, whatever alliance existed was formulated between Taylor and Senator K. D. McKellar, who had always enjoyed considerable popularity in East Tennessee.

The Great Depression and the rise of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal also threatened J. Will Taylor politically. In 1936, Taylor faced the most formidable opponent of his career in the person of John J. O’Connor, former Mayor of Knoxville. O’Connor quite nearly defeated Taylor and I personally recall some of the old-time Republicans who were quite active politically during that campaign who chuckled and said that Taylor had actually lost the election, but his reelection was salvaged through some creative counting of the ballots.

Hillbilly Bill’s long tenure came to an end in 1939.

Congressman Taylor had driven by car from Washington, D. C. to Knoxville on November 13, 1939. From Knoxville, he drove back to his LaFollette, Tennessee home. After chatting with his wife, Mossie, and daughters, the Congressman was tired and went to bed early. Sometime later he suffered a heart attack and the family doctor was called. Five and a half hours after suffering a heart attack, Congressman Taylor had another, fatal, attack and died at 4:00 a.m. on the morning of November 14.

J. Will Taylor’s body was taken to the local high school, to lie in state and then was moved to the First Baptist Church for the funeral rites.

Even in death, controversy surrounded J. Will Taylor. After the Congressman had passed, there were reports his office in the Federal Building had been “ransacked”. Knox County Sheriff Carroll Cate admitted there was “no way of telling” whether Congressman Taylor’s office had actually been burgled. Cate said he had gone with Taylor’s older daughter, Elizabeth, to the Federal Building in Knoxville so that Miss Taylor could recover some of her father’s personal papers. Tape had been placed over the keyhole in the door and it was missing when Miss Taylor and the Sheriff arrived. The Congressman’s younger daughter, Catherine, had already been to her father’s office and taken away Taylor’s papers and personal effects from his office, removing them to another room in the Federal Building before taking them home to LaFollette.

As is usually the case when a long-term incumbent dies in office, there were a host of prospective candidates to succeed Taylor. Howard Baker, the GOP candidate for governor in 1938, was prominently mentioned, as were Judge John Jennings, attorneys Ray and Erby Jenkins, Judge Hu B. Webster, Knoxville Attorney General J. Fred Bibb, and Lenoir City Mayor Gilbert Goodwin. There seemed to be hardly any Republican of note that wasn’t mentioned as a possible candidate to succeed Taylor.

One interesting possibility was the late Congressman’s daughter, Elizabeth. A thirty-two year old music teacher, Miss Taylor confessed many Republicans in the Second Congressional District were urging her to run to succeed her father. She considered the expressions of support she was garnering as “a great tribute to my Daddy for his friends to want me to fill out his unexpired term in Congress.”

Apparently not enough of the late Congressman’s friends relished the idea of sending Miss Taylor to Congress for a short term in Congress, as a nominating convention was held and Judge John Jennings won a hotly contested race over attorney Erby Jenkins. Jennings won the 1939 special election and remained in Congress until 1950 when he was defeated by Howard Baker, Sr.

There are still vestiges in our community of Taylor’s power and influence, as well as his use of federal patronage. I. C. King Park in South Knoxville is named for a warm friend and political supporter of Congressman Taylor, who had been appointed U. S. Marshall for the Eastern District of Tennessee and served throughout the decade of the 1920s.

There are a few other such reminders of J. Will Taylor’s Congressional service, including a small bridge named for him. Yet, in his time, Hillbilly Bill was a real power.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login