The New Deal in Tennessee II

The New Deal in Tennessee II

By Ray Hill

Tennessee’s delegation in Congress in 1932 was effective and able; it would make a big difference in providing jobs for desperate Tennesseans, as well as flooding the state with projects and improvements.

Congressman Joseph W. Byrns of Nashville was well on his way to his eventual rise to become Speaker of the House.  E. H. Crump of Memphis had decided to go to Congress himself, replacing the increasingly deaf incumbent Hubert Fisher.  The Memphis Commercial Appeal saw nothing at all wrong with Crump ditching the long-time congressman to occupy the seat himself.  In fact, the Commercial Appeal chortled, “Give him two or three years in the House and you will find those Democrats taking orders from him!”

Crump never became a power in the House of Representatives and the Memphis Boss soon discovered while he certainly ruled absolutely in the Bluff City, he was merely another congressman in Washington, D. C.  Crump could not help but notice his influence in the House was but a starved shadow compared to that of the most powerful member of Tennessee’s Congressional delegation, Senator Kenneth D. McKellar.

McKellar was one of the more senior members of the United States Senate, having come to the Senate in 1917, after having served almost six years in the House.  McKellar chaired the Senate’s Post Office and Post Roads Committee, a minor committee in the scheme of things, but it gave him the ability to parcel out much needed jobs to thousands of Tennesseans through the postal system in the Volunteer State.  It was McKellar who named virtually every postal employee in the State of Tennessee.  Even more important to Tennessee  and Tennesseans, was McKellar’s perch on the Senate’s Appropriations Committee.  McKellar was the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee.  The chairman of the committee was nominally the peppery Carter Glass of Virginia, but Senator Glass was frequently ill and out of Washington, making McKellar, in essence, the chairman of two committees.

From his seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator McKellar demonstrated an almost unfailing ability to steer billions of dollars to Tennessee.

Congressman Sam D. McReynolds of Chattanooga occupied a position of prime importance as Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  McReynolds had long been active in politics, serving as a Circuit Court judge before coming to Congress.  He had read law in the office of his cousin, James B. Frazier, who served as governor and U. S. senator from Tennessee.

The Tennessee delegation’s influence in the House immediately was felt with the election of a Speaker to succeed John Nance Garner of Texas, who had been elected Vice President.  It was E. H. Crump who demonstrated his organizational skills by brokering a comprise between the potential candidates that resulted in the election of Henry T. Rainey of Illinois.  The Crump compromise made Joseph W. Byrns the new Majority Leader.  Crump helped to put together a coalition of Tennessee, Texas and Tammany Hall – – – the Democrats from New York.  Combined with Rainey’s home state of Illinois, it was enough to secure his election.

The Tennesseans joined in approving the banking legislation proposed by President Roosevelt, which was passed in merely thirty-eight minutes.  That particular bill was approved so rapidly, the only copy of the bill was that read by the chairman of the committee to his colleagues.  The Senate approved the banking bill later that same day and President Franklin Roosevelt signed it later that evening.

The President’s economy plan did not meet with the universal approval of the Tennessee delegation.  Congressman Gordon Browning of Huntingdon, Tennessee, had served in World War I and risen to the rank of Captain.  Browning strongly objected to a provision in President Roosevelt’s economy bill that would have reduced benefits for veterans.  Not without some justification, Congressman Browning considered himself to be the champion of veterans in the House of Representatives.

Browning spoke out against the president’s proposed economy measure, labeling it a “sell-out to Wall Street’s interest in slashing wages.”  Always a colorful orator, Browning did not disappoint his listener’s in the House gallery, insisting the bill was nothing less than the “slaughter of the disabled servicemen” who had given their all for their country.  Congressman Browning declared the bill would benefit nobody save for the “banking racketeers”.  Browning tried his best to send the bill back to committee, but Majority Leader Joseph W. Byrns was successful in preventing amendments being tacked on to the bill as well as limit debate.  Browning joined more than 90 Democrats in opposing the bill, but it was passed by a margin of 266 to 138.

The bill had bipartisan support with some 69 Republicans supporting the president’s economy measure.  Yet neither of Tennessee’s Republican congressman, who were frequently advocates for economy, saw fit to vote for the bill.  Both J. Will Taylor and Carroll Reece opted to side with the veterans.

Browning was not the only Democrat in the Tennessee Congressional delegation who disliked Roosevelt’s economy bill.  Congressman Jere Cooper of Dyersburg voted against it as well.  Cooper, who had first gone to work delivering groceries when he was only twelve years old, had been able to earn a law degree by pressing the white flannel trousers of well-to-do students.  Cooper had also served in the World War and sided with his fellow veterans.

Congressman Cooper did not like yet another piece of legislation proposed by Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.  President Roosevelt was seeking to amend the Volstead Act, which would provide much needed revenue for the federal treasury.  Both Jere Cooper and Gordon Browning voted against the bill, as did the two Republicans in the Tennessee Congressional delegation, Carroll Reece and J. Will Taylor.

Congressmen Taylor and Reece voted to send the bill creating the Federal Emergency Relief Agency back to committee, but when that failed, they joined every other member of the Tennessee delegation in supporting the measure in the final vote.

Tennesseans were, not surprisingly, united once again when President Roosevelt sent legislation to Capitol Hill authorizing the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority.  Three members of the House delegation testified before the Military Affairs Committee, urging support for the bill and quick passage.  Congressman J. Will Taylor confessed, “The only kick I got out of the Democratic landslide last fall was the assurance that the Democrats would pass a TVA measure.”  Taylor made a speech lauding Tennessee, especially his own native East Tennessee and predicted passage of the TVA bill would make his home “the Eden of America.”

Congressman Clarence W. Turner of Waverly, served on the House Military Affairs Committee and opined that TVA held great potential and would “be visited and studied by millions of people.”

Congressman J. Ridley Mitchell of Crossville, an orator of some note, told his colleagues he believed “new cities and towns will spring up” if the TVA legislation was approved and Tennessee would become “a great hive of industry.”    Mitchell also informed his colleagues that the people of Tennessee were “the finest of citizens of the truest and best strain of the Anglo-Saxon blood.”

Sam McReynolds spoke on behalf of the TVA as did Majority Leader Joseph W. Byrns.  While the House delegation was united in its support of the Tennessee Valley Authority bill, Congressman Gordon Browning appeared before the Military Affairs Committee.  That in itself was not at all unusual; what was unusual is that he was accompanied by one W. G. Waldo.  Waldo was by profession a lobbyist for the private power interests.  Influenced by Waldo, Browning spoke out for creating the TVA, but in turn leasing the TVA power to the private power companies.  It was a proposal that was vehemently opposed by the strongest supporters of the Tennessee Valley Authority bill, who believed it would not only hamper the TVA’s growth, but its ability to actually develop public power.

Worse still, Gordon Browning was missing when the House of Representatives voted on the TVA bill.  Majority Leader Joseph W. Byrns carefully explained Browning was absent on official business.  Congressman Browning’s absence was viewed with dark suspicion by many, not the least of which was Senator Kenneth D. McKellar.  McKellar was profoundly opposed to the private power interests and had little use for most lobbyists.  Browning consorting with a known private power lobbyist was little short of scandalous in the senator’s mind.  To McKellar, it was proof positive that Gordon Browning was not really for the TVA.  It was an issue that would come back to haunt Browning in statewide races in 1934, 1936, and 1938.

  1. Ridley Mitchell found himself appalled by the Bankhead Bill, sponsored by Senator John H. Bankhead of Alabama. Bankhead was the agricultural expert for the New Deal administration, although the chairman of the Senate’s Agriculture Committee was Senator E. D. “Cotton Ed” Smith of South Carolina. Cotton Ed was horrified by most aspects of the New Deal, cantankerous, outspoken, and garrulous.  The Roosevelt administration found it much easier to go through Senator Bankhead and bypass Smith.  Congressman Mitchell, who served on the House Agriculture Committee, said he heard little during the testimony on behalf of the bill that convinced him of the need to pass the legislation.  Furthermore, the former judge, announced he believed the Bankhead Bill to be unconstitutional.  Mitchell was particularly upset by provisions of the legislation he believed would trespass upon the rights of the state, as well as giving the federal government too much power.  In his speech on the Bankhead Bill, Congressman Mitchell raised the specter of “carpetbag rule” and concluded the legislation was “too oppressive and coercive.”

Three other members of the Tennessee Congressional delegation agreed with Congressman Mitchell.  Both Republicans opposed the Bankhead Act, along with Congressman Clarence W. Turner, who represented a largely rural district.

Mitchell, who was quite independent, left the administration again when the House considered the Tobacco Control Act, despite the bill having the strong support of Majority Leader Jo Byrns, who pointed out he represented a district that was one of the largest tobacco producing districts in the country.  Only J. Ridley Mitchell and J. Will Taylor opposed the bill in the Tennessee delegation.

Tennesseans were more agreeable to President Roosevelt’s foreign policy.  Sam D. McReynolds, as Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was instrumental in promoting FDR’s foreign policy initiatives.  Of course one prime reason Tennesseans were so supportive of the Roosevelt foreign policy was because Cordell Hull was Secretary of State.  Quite frequently only J. Will Taylor and Carroll Reece, both Republicans, would dissent from backing Roosevelt’s foreign policy.

Following the 1934 elections, E. H. Crump and Gordon Browning had left the House of Representatives.  Browning had gambled on a race for the United States Senate and had opposed Nathan L. Bachman, who had been appointed by Tennessee Governor Hill McAlister to serve the balance of Cordell Hull’s term.  Bachman was a candidate for election in his own right and had the strong support of his senior colleague, K. D. McKellar.  Browning lost and was momentarily confined to private life.

Crump did not find serving in Congress much to his liking.  He was disappointed not to wield more influence and disliked living in Washington while Congress was in session.  He missed his family.  After serving four years in Congress, the Memphis Boss was happy to go home, after having selected his own replacement, sending Walter Chandler to serve in his stead.

By 1935, Speaker Henry T. Rainey had died and the House elected Joseph W. Byrns in his place.  Byrns, a kindly man, did have a temper when provoked or pressed too hard, but more often one witnessed his homespun wit, genial nature, and toothy smile.  Byrns was widely considered to be scrupulously fair, but his predecessor as Speaker, Vice President John Nance Garner, considered him to be a “weak leader.”

Almost immediately, the Tennessee Congressional delegation faced a fight over the Tennessee Valley Authority.  The fight was over amendments to the original legislation by the bill’s sponsor, Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska.  The fight was easily won in the Senate, where Senator McKellar exercised considerable power.

The real fight was to come in the House of Representatives.

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