Cordell Hull & the Election of 1920

Cordell Hull & the Election of 1920

By Ray Hill

Cordell Hull had been in Congress since 1907 when he had only narrowly won the Democratic nomination, which inside Tennessee’s Fourth Congressional district was tantamount to election. Hull, only thirty-seven years old at the time, had been nominated by less than twenty votes. There were rumblings about a recount, but Hull went off to Washington and quickly established himself as a useful member of the House of Representatives. Cordell Hull also established himself inside the Fourth District, easily defeating a challenger when he first came up for reelection in 1908. Hull did not face another serious challenge until 1920 in the general election.

Hull was an unusual politician; he was not an orator and was reserved and dignified, an odd choice for a rural and agricultural constituency. Yet Cordell Hull, a bachelor when he first went to Washington, did nothing but work. If Hull had any hobbies or interests outside of Congress, they were unknown to his family, friends and colleagues. When Hull finally married, he did it with characteristic quiet, telling the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, he needed to be excused for the day. When the Chairman wondered why, Hull simply replied he was getting married. Cordell Hull was forty-five years old when he married Rose Frances Whitney, a widow. Neither of the Hulls ever referred to Frances’s first marriage and the couple settled into a pleasant life and most people assumed they had been married for decades. Frances became the most important person in Cordell Hull’s life, serving as his official hostess on those rare occasions he entertained, as well as his most trusted advisor. Frances Hull worked in his Congressional campaigns and became a popular figure in Washington society, but more importantly inside Tennessee’s Fourth Congressional district.

Cordell Hull’s own popularity inside his district allowed him some freedom to participate in Tennessee’s political wars. Republicans had shocked Tennessee Democrats when they elected one of their own governors in 1910, largely due to infighting amongst the Democratic Party. Worse still, Republicans combined with dissident Democrats to elect a United States senator in 1911. Democrats suffered additional defeats when Republican governor Ben W. Hooper was reelected in 1912 and the “fusionists” elected Tennessee’s junior United States senator in 1913. It became readily apparent to virtually every loyal Democrat in Tennessee the fighting inside the party had to stop lest the Republicans continue to make gains statewide. Cordell Hull toyed with the idea of running against Senator Luke Lea in the 1916 election. Hull was hardly the only Tennessee congressman eyeing Lea’s seat in the United States Senate. Longtime Congressman Thetus W. Sims was pondering a race for the Senate, as was Memphis Congressman Kenneth D. McKellar. Hull eventually decided he would forego a race for the Senate, but he helped to engineer a plan to move the Democratic primary a year in advance of the 1916 general election. That plan also called for the two top vote getters to compete in a run-off election, which Hull believed would ensure Luke Lea’s defeat. Tennessee Democrats rallied around their own nominee, Tom C. Rye, in 1914 against Governor Hooper. Hooper lost, which confirmed the belief of most Democrats of the notion if the party was united, it would win in the fall. For the first time, Tennessee Democrats would go to the polls in 1915 to select their nominee to face a Republican opponent for the United States Senate. Prior to that time, U. S. senators had been elected by the state legislature. Three strong candidates vied for the Democratic nomination: Senator Luke Lea, former governor Malcolm Patterson, and Congressman Kenneth McKellar. Both Patterson and Lea were highly polarizing and controversial figures and the two were bitter political and personal enemies. Senator Lea and Governor Patterson battered each other brutally during the primary while McKellar crisscrossed the state with his message that he was the only candidate who could unite the Democratic Party against the Republicans in 1916. Lea owned the Nashville Tennessean and used his newspaper ruthlessly to chide and attack his opponents, yet he ran third in the first primary. To the surprise of most everyone, Congressman McKellar carried East and West Tennessee, while Malcolm Patterson, who was also from Memphis, carried Luke Lea’s native Middle Tennessee. Cordell Hull had supported his colleague K. D. McKellar for the Senate and was pleased when the Memphian easily won the run-off primary, carrying every section of the state.

Hull’s influence was growing, not only in Tennessee, but also in the nation’s Capitol. Cordell Hull won the respect and admiration of most of his colleagues for his hard work. Hull was recognized in Congress as an expert on tariffs and taxes. By 1920, Cordell Hull had been in Congress for fourteen years. Hull’s hold on his district seemed to be solid and he was regularly nominated without opposition. The Fourth Congressional district was solidly Democratic in elections and the Republicans represented no real threat in general elections, but the election of 1920 would prove to be a different sort of contest.

Governor A. H. Roberts had served one two-year term and had managed to alienate just about every constituency possible in that short period of time, not the least of which was his having infuriated many women with his opposition to suffrage. The 1920 election was the first election in which women could fully participate by voting and Tennessee had been the focal point of a fierce battle in giving women the right to vote. Senator McKellar and his friend and ally E. H. Crump, leader of the Shelby County machine, had been in the forefront of advocating for suffrage. Tennessee had become the battleground state for approving the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution.

McKellar was one of the very few senators who employed a woman as his chief of staff and he lobbied the Tennessee state legislature hard on behalf of women’s suffrage. Crump ensured the Shelby County legislative delegation fought hard to give women the right to vote. Governor Roberts had been first elected on a platform opposing giving women the right to vote, although eventually he had changed his mind. Many of Tennessee’s Congressional delegation did not share Senator McKellar’s enthusiasm in giving women the right to vote, among them Cordell Hull. Hull waffled a bit on the subject and many conservative congressmen took the position suffrage for women was not a federal concern, but rather a state matter.

A Republican state legislator became the decisive vote in ratifying the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution and the GOP nominee for governor was Alf Taylor, brother of the late three-term governor and U. S. senator Robert Love Taylor. Seventy-two years old and a veteran campaigner, Alf Taylor was a very strong candidate against Governor A. H. Roberts. Republicans were also aided in the fall campaign by the candidacy of Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding. Harding certainly looked the part of a President with his head of white hair and pleasant smile. Voters were tired of the administration of Woodrow Wilson and Wilson’s obsessive push for American entry into the League of Nations. Harding promised a return to “normalcy” and while Wilson had been tremendously popular in Tennessee, the Republicans were challenging most Democratic incumbents.

Cordell Hull was a member of the most powerful committee in the U. S. House of Representatives, Ways and Means, incidentally the only committee charged with the responsibility for writing tax laws in the Congress. Hull was also Tennessee’s Democratic National Committeeman and there had been rumors about the Tennessean being nominated for either president or vice president at the 1920 convention. Hull had been unopposed for renomination to Congress inside his district, but faced a thirty-nine year old opponent in the general election. Wynne F. Clouse was a lawyer from Cookeville and had easily won the GOP nomination for Congress, an honor that was usually meaningless.

Clouse campaigned gamely and was largely ignored by Cordell Hull, who apparently saw nothing out of the ordinary inside his own Congressional district. Congressman Hull was on hand to greet Democratic presidential nominee James Cox to Tennessee when the Ohio governor visited Nashville. Hull spent time outside his own district supporting various Democratic candidates, indicating he did not feel Wynne F. Clouse represented any real threat to his continued tenure in Congress.

Democrats did recognize the importance of newly enfranchised women and Mrs. Rutledge Smith received a special telegram from Governor Cox noting the effort of Democratic women would be crucial to the party’s success in the fall election. Mrs. Smith and other women inside the Fourth Congressional district were working hard to reelect Cordell Hull to Congress. Hull did speak throughout his district, but most of his efforts were promoting the candidacies of James Cox for president and the reelection of Governor A. H. Roberts. Hull introduced the presidential candidate from the rear platform of a train in Gallatin, Tennessee and spoke on Cox’s behalf in Dayton, Tennessee.

November brought the shocking news that the Republicans had won a record -breaking majority in Congress while Warren Harding swamped James M. Cox. Tennessee went for Harding while voters swept out Governor Roberts and the GOP picked up three seats in Congress in the Volunteer State. Veteran Congressman Thetus Sims had been defeated in the primary by Gordon Browning, but Browning in turn lost to Republican Lon Scott. John A. Moon of Chattanooga had been in Congress since 1897 and lost to GOP challenger Joe Brown, son of the Republican Moon had succeeded originally. Even more surprising was the defeat of Congressman Cordell Hull by Wynne Clouse in the Fourth District. Clouse won nine of the fourteen counties comprising the Fourth Congressional district to eke out a 292 – vote victory.

In an age before pollsters and targeting voters, virtually everyone was shocked by Cordell Hull’s defeat, no one more so than Hull himself. Wynne F. Clouse was as likely surprised by his victory as Hull was by his defeat. The Nashville Tennessean huffed that among the many “canards” employed by the Republicans against Hull had been the charge the Tennessee congressman had been against the soldier bonus bill, legislation that would have provided money for veterans. The Tennessean noted, “It is charged and circulated by those” who had been opposed to Hull’s reelection. Flatly labeling the charge a “falsehood”, the Tennessean admitted it had been an effective tactic, having been “adroitly sprung at such a late period that denial cannot probably overcome it fully…” The Tennessean hopefully claimed its opinion of the people of the Fourth District was such that the accusation would not influence the outcome of the election and that Cordell Hull “should be triumphantly reelected to his place in Congress, where he has ably represented the Fourth District and the State of Tennessee…”

The 1920 was a national sweep for the Republicans and Hull was not the only widely respected incumbent thought to be invulnerable who went down to defeat. Champ Clark, who had led Woodrow Wilson in the balloting for the 1912 Democratic presidential nomination and had been Speaker of the House, lost his seat as well.

A veteran of fourteen years in Congress and only forty-nine years old at the time of his defeat, Cordell Hull had no notion of merely entering another profession. Accepting his defeat as a temporary setback, Hull began to look to the future and a rematch with Wynne F. Clouse in the 1922 election.

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