The Last Hurrah of Benton McMillin

The Last Hurrah of Benton McMillin

 
By Ray Hill

In 1920, Tennessee had done the unthinkable and gone Republican.  Not only had GOP presidential nominee Warren Harding carried Tennessee, but the Volunteer State with women newly enfranchised to vote, had elected a Republican governor, Alf Taylor.  The Republicans had also picked up three congressional seats, ousting veteran Democratic congressmen Cordell Hull and John Moon.  The Republicans had also managed to win another seat in West Tennessee.  Tennessee Democrats were anxious to reverse their losses and there seemed to be no dearth of prospective gubernatorial candidates.  Austin Peay, a lawyer and farmer from Clarksville had contested A. H. Roberts for the gubernatorial nomination in 1918 and had lost.  Roberts had gone on to be elected governor, but had lost decisively to Alf Taylor, who had run better in Tennessee than had Warren Harding.  Peay was eager to run for governor again in 1922.  General Lawrence D. Tyson, a wealthy former Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, was highly popular in East Tennessee as he was a resident of Knoxville.  Harvey Hannah, one of the foremost orators in Tennessee and a longtime member of the Utilities Commission, was angling for support to make a bid for the nomination.  The last prominent Democrat to consider running for governor of Tennessee was Benton McMillin.  Seventy-seven years old in 1922, Benton McMillin had spent twenty years in Congress and won two terms as governor.  McMillin had desperately wanted to win election to the United States Senate, but failed in several attempts.  Democrats had begged McMillin to run once again for governor in 1912 as their best hope to defeat Republican incumbent Ben W. Hooper.  McMillin ran and lost.  Still, active inside the Democratic Party, Benton McMillin had established a successful insurance business in Nashville and was tapped by President Woodrow Wilson to serve as Ambassador to Peru.  McMillin remained in Lima, Peru until 1919 when he was named Ambassador to Guatemala.  Returning to Tennessee in 1921, Benton McMillin was perceived by some as a relic of the past, a vestige of what had once been, and a defeated candidate.  Others saw McMillin as the “Old Warhorse” of Tennessee politics, still astonishingly vigorous and highly respected by tens of thousands of Tennesseans.

Benton McMillin was shrewd enough not to seem eager to become a candidate.  The former governor refused to rule out yet another campaign, nor did his age seem a particular handicap, especially as Governor Alf Taylor had been seventy-two years old when first elected in 1920.  The seventy-four year old Taylor was running for reelection in 1922.  Benton McMillin assumed an attitude of being an elder statesman who would only become a candidate were the demand to become strong and broad enough across Tennessee.  The demand was not long in coming as the Nashville Tennessean reported the formation of McMillin for governor clubs “in many counties.”  Smith County, which had been in McMillin’s old Fourth Congressional District, was poised to endorse the former governor.  Sumner County was prepared to follow suit by backing McMillin for governor.  In February, McMillin paid a visit to Carthage, inside Smith County, where he was feted by fellow Democrats urging him to run for governor yet again.  Democrats inside McMillin’s old Congressional district quickly lined up behind the Old Warhorse and State Senator H. B. McGinness, in Nashville to argue a case before the Supreme Court, acknowledged the former governor would enjoy the solid backing of Democrats in his region.  McGinness said McMillin remained a favorite for “sentimental reasons” as well as “the splendid record he made” when he had been governor.  McGinness believed if McMillin ran, the Fourth District Democrats would turn out in record numbers to support him.

McMillin made a visit to Pulaski, Tennessee in May of 1922 where he was greeted by a large crowd, although he made no speech.  The former governor did find time to visit with Democrats in Giles County and listen to their opinions about the coming gubernatorial race.  Clearly interested in becoming a candidate for the Democratic nomination, McMillin wandered over to Union City, Tennessee where he received an enthusiastic reception.  The former governor delightedly said he obviously had a large following in the area.  McMillin believed a race for governor was even more promising than he had originally believed.  From Union City, McMillin traveled to Jackson, Tennessee and inched closer to an open announcement of his candidacy.  Despite making no formal announcement he was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor, it was readily apparent Benton McMillin was running hard as he visited Carroll and Gibson Counties.

By June, Benton McMillin was a declared candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor of Tennessee.  Clearly, the frontrunner for the nomination, McMillin’s candidacy drew fire from Austin Peay and Harvey Hannah.  McMillin refused to waste his powder on shooting back at fellow Democrats.  The last week of June, the former governor kept himself occupied by touring West Tennessee, fulfilling speaking dates in Trenton, Lexington, Huntingdon, and Jackson.  While speaking at the courthouse in Lexington, McMillin drew a crowd considerably larger than those coming out to hear his opponents.  Ignoring his rivals for the Democratic nomination, McMillin concentrated his fire on Republican governor Alf Taylor.  McMillin compared Taylor’s administration to that of his own twenty years earlier.  McMillin continued to ignore his opponents in the Democratic primary in early July while speaking in Dresden, Tennessee.  Once again, McMillin focused his fire on the administration of Governor Alf Taylor.  In Fayetteville, Tennessee, Benton McMillin gave his traditional stump speech for his campaign to return to the governor’s mansion.  According to the Tennessean, McMillin preached “the gospel of a reunited democracy.”  Speaking to an audience estimated at 500 people, McMillin pounded the rostrum as he made his points against the Republicans and in spite of the stifling heat inside the courtroom, received an enthusiastic “ovation” from his listeners at his conclusion.

McMillin kept up a pace in his bid to win the Democratic nomination that belied his years.  The former governor had spoken at Mount Pleasant before driving to Columbia and then caught a train for Fayetteville.  Speaking for an hour and a half in the heat in Fayetteville, he drove 20 miles on to Petersburg for another speech.  McMillin did not get to bed before midnight and was up again at five o’clock the next morning.  During one of his speeches, McMillin turned to a friend and bellowed, “Colonel, these boys running against me say I am too old.  You see what I am doing to them now.  What do you reckon I’d have done to them if I’d caught them in my prime?”  McMillin’s question to Colonel W. B. Lamb brought appreciative laughter from his audience.

As the campaign began to wind down, McMillin exulted, “I can feel victory in the air.  I never had a campaign in which it was so easy to speak to large and attentive crowds.  The people are interested this year, in spite of the lack of noise of past campaigns.  I never had a campaign in my life that I got into a better swing than this one.”  McMillin added, “I am gaining very rapidly and I am going to be nominated and elected.”

During the campaign, the former governor met several young men named for him, a sign of the esteem many Tennesseans had for the Old Warhorse of Tennessee Democracy.  McMillin met a namesake on the train while traveling to Double Springs.  A surprised McMillin encountered a few others during the day, causing him to remark, “I don’t know how many men there are who were named for me in the Fourth district, but there are probably hundreds.”  McMillin laughed, “And here I am now trying to get a position again that may start another crop of Benton McMillins.”  One of the men named for the former governor was forty-eight years old and had been named for McMillin when he was a member of the Tennessee legislature.

Recognizing the importance of newly enfranchised women, Lucille Foster McMillin became one of the first wives to openly campaign for votes.  An accomplished woman in her own right, Mrs. McMillin stumped the state for her husband.  Not content merely to shake hands at teas or pass around plates of cookies, Lucille Foster McMillin made actual speeches and kept an itinerary of her own.  In Franklin, Tennessee, both the former governor and his wife spoke.  Attractive, poised, and elegantly dressed, Mrs. McMillin became a popular figure in her own right.  Her appeal was demonstrated when she visited the home of centenarian John B. Murray, who displayed the cane he had been given for his birthday.  Mr. Murray was so taken with Mrs. McMillin he insisted upon having his picture made with her.

As the campaign closed, Austin Peay bore down on the one issue that made Benton McMillin vulnerable: could he win?  Peay bought large newspaper advertisements pointing out ten years earlier McMillin had been defeated by a Republican incumbent and Alf Taylor was perhaps even more personally popular with Tennesseans than Ben Hooper had been.  Peay insisted he was the only Democratic candidate who could defeat Taylor in the fall election.

During the final week of the campaign Benton McMillin spoke twice a day every day throughout Middle and West Tennessee.  Newspapers estimated McMillin had spoken before at least 10,000 people during that time.  Before Election Day, McMillin spoke in Dickson, Chattanooga, and closed his campaign with a speech in the Nashville Public Square.  In Dickson McMillin thundered, “My competitors say I am too old to be governor.  Next Thursday they’ll wish I was thirty-five years older.”

The Old Warhorse remained optimistic as Tennesseans went to the polls.  McMillin’s campaign manager, Jesse Beasley, crowed, “Reports from every section of the state and from more than one-fourth of the counties in the state Monday afternoon indicate McMillin’s nomination by an overwhelming majority.”

As returns began to trickle in, McMillin’s optimism seemed well founded.  The former governor was leading his opponents with Austin Peay in second place.  Based upon the ballots counted, the Tennessean predicted Benton McMillin would be the Democratic nominee.  The prediction proved to be premature.  The race for the Democratic nomination for governor of Tennessee was a nail-biter.  McMillin made a strong showing all across the state, piling up 59,922 votes.  Austin Peay eked out a victory by running second throughout most of Tennessee and winning a huge majority in Shelby County where he won 9,079 votes to 1,732 for McMillin, a majority of 7,340 votes.  Peay’s total was 63,940 votes, a plurality of 4,018 ballots statewide.

Peay had the support of the Crump machine and it proved to be decisive in the contest for the gubernatorial nomination.  Benton McMillin accepted the verdict of his fellow Democrats gracefully and supported the Democratic ticket in the general election.  The Republican tide that had surged over Tennessee in 1920 receded; Governor Alf Taylor lost to Austin Peay; Senator Kenneth McKellar crushed GOP nominee Newell Sanders and Democrats reclaimed the three congressional seats lost to Republicans two years previously.  Cordell Hull won back his seat in Tennessee’ Fourth District; Sam D. McReynolds won the Third District easily when incumbent GOP Congressman Joe Brown did not even bother to run.  Gordon Browning, who had defeated Congressman Thetus W. Sims in the Democratic primary in 1920, only to lose to Republican Lon Scott ran again in 1922 and won.

Benton McMillin would live another decade and remained active and involved in politics until his death.  McMillin had been the chairman of a committee dedicated to winning the presidential nomination for New York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.  McMillin recalled he had been a presidential elector in every campaign in Tennessee since 1876 with but one exception; McMillin had not been on the ballot as an elector in 1916 during Woodrow Wilson’s reelection campaign as he had been serving in a diplomatic post.  “But I came home in time to vote,” McMillin said.

As death approached from pneumonia and his doctor kept a vigil by his bedside, the Old Warhorse retorted he felt just “fine.”  Only death could have taken Benton McMillin from Tennessee.

 

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