By Ray Hill
Malcolm Patterson, twice elected governor of Tennessee, had attempted to make a political comeback by entering the first U. S. Senate race where the people nominated candidates for the general election in 1915. Patterson faced stiff opposition in the incumbent, Senator Luke Lea, and Congressman Kenneth D. McKellar. Neither Patterson nor Lea thought the McKellar candidacy would amount to much and pounded each other unmercifully throughout the campaign. McKellar surprised just about everybody, beating both Lea and Patterson.
The former governor had lived through substantial tragedy, losing two wives and his son and namesake. Young Malcolm Patterson had been severely alcoholic, descended into a life filled with brawls, low companions, and had tried to kill a man while living in Washington State. Eventually, the younger Patterson had been adjudged to be insane and was confined to the Tennessee State Asylum for the Insane where he died. Patterson’s own fondness for alcohol had led him to be the champion of the liquor interests in Tennessee, but in 1913 the former governor became a leading advocate and spokesperson for temperance. Many Tennesseans doubted the sincerity of Patterson’s switch, especially as he traveled the country as a paid spokesperson, but considering what had happened to his son, as well as the fact the former governor had once been discovered in a house of ill repute while drunk, there is reason to believe Patterson’s views might have legitimately changed.
Surprised by his defeat for the senatorial nomination by Congressman McKellar, Patterson resumed his former activities as a lecturer for the Anti-Saloon League. Apparently the former governor made quite a good living speaking on behalf of the Anti-Saloon League and on the Chautauqua circuit; in a letter to his wife, Patterson wrote he was averaging more than $1,000 per meeting in 1918. That was quite a sum for the time.
Patterson, a gifted orator, spoke in small and large venues, giving his lectures in theatres and churches. Despite his decisive defeat by McKellar in the 1915 special primary, few Tennesseans believed Malcolm Patterson was done with politics. The former governor kept up a busy schedule speaking to throngs of Tennesseans in his work with the Anti-Saloon League, exposing him to thousands of prospective voters. By the fall of 1921, there were rumors Patterson was considering challenging Senator McKellar inside the Democratic primary in 1922. Complicating the situation was the attitude of Tennessee’s senior U.S. senator, John Knight Shields. A thoroughly crusty and curmudgeonly man, Shields had been an opponent of President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, while McKellar was an ardent supporter of both Wilson and the League of Nations. The Nashville Tennessean merrily reported Senator Shields had made “sneering” remarks about a speech given by his junior colleague on the floor of the Senate in support of Wilson and the League. The Tennessean, no admirer of either Shields or McKellar, admitted it was impossible to detect any open break between the senators, but reminded readers of what it considered to be Shields’ duplicitous nature, noting “…McKellar’s intimates are aware that Shields never breaks that way with political associates.” The Tennessean opined, “It has been a practice with Shields, they pointed out, to wait until those with whom he has differences are in close quarters before wielding the stiletto.” Patterson had indignantly insisted he had been “double-crossed” by Shields in the 1915 primary, claiming the senior senator had promised to back him. Instead, Shields had strongly supported McKellar. The Tennessean speculated Senator Shields might support Patterson in 1922 against McKellar.
Patterson duly announced his candidacy for the U. S. Senate in January of 1922. The former governor quickly agreed to a proposal by another candidate for the Democratic nomination, Noah Cooper, to limit expenditures in the primary campaign. That likely had less to do with Senator McKellar than another aspirant, Guston T. Fitzhugh, who was quite wealthy and could self-fund his senatorial campaign. The Nashville Banner, a strong proponent of Senator McKellar, had published a story stating Patterson was inclined to enter the gubernatorial race, which the former governor hotly denied. “This is untrue in every particular,” Patterson said, “for I have not the slightest idea of offering myself as a candidate for governor. How the rumor originated I don’t know, except in some over-heated brain wild over politics.” Patterson said he had stated his intention to run for the U. S. Senate, adding, “…and this is what I intend to do.”
Former Congressman Thetus W. Sims, who had badly wanted to run for the Senate in 1915, announced he, too, would enter the senatorial race. Few took Sims seriously, as he had been defeated by Gordon Browning for renomination inside his own Congressional district in 1920. Noah Cooper was never a serious candidate either, being little more than a vocal fringe candidate. Neither Thetus Sims nor Malcolm Patterson could sustain a race against a popular incumbent. Eventually, both withdrew from the race. Few Tennesseans even noticed Sims’ withdrawal, but the former governor’s announcement was widely covered by the Tennessee press. Citing “wholly personal reasons” for his leaving the senatorial race, Patterson’s brief statement to the people of Tennessee said his friends were free to choose among the remaining candidates. The Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle likely came much closer to the truth when it noted many of the former governor’s firmest friends felt there was little chance for Patterson to defeat McKellar. Patterson had last been elected to statewide office in 1908 and his defeat by McKellar in 1915 had been thorough.
The Tennessean immediately predicted Patterson’s withdrawal from the Senate race was “a blow” to McKellar’s candidacy. Of course the Tennessean was still owned by former U. S. senator Luke Lea, who had been defeated by McKellar in 1915 as well. Lea and his newspaper still showed considerable animosity toward McKellar and noted the latter had been elected in a “three-way race” and was “a political accident.” Suddenly, Lea’s Tennessean was full of praise for Malcolm Patterson. Lea had apparently forgotten the hatred between the two for the better part of a decade. Now Lea published an editorial telling readers Patterson was “head and shoulders above any other in Tennessee” as a natural politician. “He is a man of rare charm and magnificent intellect,” the Tennessean opined. Moreover, the former governor had “at some time or other, but never simultaneously, had the support of about every Democrat in Tennessee.” The Tennessean readily acknowledged Patterson’s supporters in the state had deteriorated steadily through the years, admitting, “he could not gather an encouraging following” to make a serious bid against McKellar in 1922. Ruefully, the Tennessean concluded, “As a man, as an intelligent and conscientious force, Patterson today ranks high. As a politician he is passé.” It was certainly true Malcolm Patterson was well beyond his political prime. His loss to McKellar in 1915 had virtually extinguished whatever remained of his political career, yet Malcolm Patterson could not stay away from politics or running for office.
Former governor Patterson caused a bit of a stir when he spoke in his home city of Memphis and was critical of the Crump regime. E. H. Crump had yet to fully master Shelby County, but Patterson told members of the City Club Memphis, “it is the only city whose politics is custom-made and handed down without alteration.”
Senator McKellar demonstrated his own personal popularity when he crushed Guston Fitzhugh in the Democratic primary, beating his challenger by a two-to-one majority. Almost immediately following Fitzhugh’s defeat, rumors began to circulate Patterson would enter the general election as an Independent candidate. The former governor instantly denied the rumors, saying, “You may say for me that I never contemplated such action and under no circumstance whatsoever would I enter the field as an Independent candidate. I am a Democrat and I vote for Democratic nominees.” Patterson later said he expected the entire Democratic ticket to win and offered to “take the stump” if necessary in support of his fellow Democrats.
Perhaps one sign that Crump had yet to exert full control over Memphis and Shelby County was Malcolm Patterson’s election as a judge of the Circuit Court. Patterson would remain in office for over a decade, at least tolerated by the Crump machine. Patterson also wrote a newspaper column called “Day to Day With Gov. Patterson.” Governor Austin Peay wrote Patterson in 1923, offering to appoint him to a judgeship; Peay was shrewd enough to realize he would surely be criticized for the appointment and assured Patterson he was quite willing to accept the criticism, but was prepared to make the appointment due to friendship for the former governor. Governor Peay appointed Patterson as judge of the First Circuit Court of Shelby County and the former governor was later elected in his own right.
Malcolm Patterson would make on final attempt at a political comeback. In 1932, Patterson declared he would once again run for the Democratic nomination for governor. One indication of just how much things had changed in the state was the fact Patterson had the full backing of Luke Lea, his newspaper, and the administration of Governor Henry Horton. State Treasurer Hill McAlister had the support of Senator McKellar and Mr. Crump, while Lewis Pope campaigned as an Independent Democrat. Almost seventy-two years old, Patterson, once the “gamecock” of Tennessee politics, campaigned with some expectation of success. While the Horton administration had been gravely wounded by the collapse of Caldwell and Company, which took almost $7 million of state funds with it, Luke Lea remained a force in Tennessee politics. Governor Horton could do little, aside from directing his appointees and patronage employees to support Malcolm Patterson, as whatever power he had once exercised had been broken when he had quite nearly been impeached. Only by using means both ruthless and desperate had Henry Horton avoided impeachment. The real power behind the throne of Governor Horton was Luke Lea. Lea was equally desperate to keep his hold on the governor’s office and his political power and selected Malcolm Patterson as the best way to win the Democratic primary.
It was a humiliating end to a long political career. Patterson carried only a handful of counties in West Tennessee and Claiborne and Scott counties in East Tennessee. Patterson ran a poor third, well behind the eventual winner, Hill McAlister and Lewis Pope, winning barely over 20% of the vote.
In 1934, Malcolm Rice Patterson retired from the bench. Whether he retired because of age, illness or the belief he could no longer be elected in Shelby County because of E. H. Crump’s control is unclear. Patterson was ailing and he went to Sarasota, Florida to rest. While in Florida, the former governor became increasingly ill. The Tennessean published a report Patterson had been admitted to Sarasota Hospital due to a heart ailment, although his “condition is not serious.” The very next day a report in the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle stated the former governor was quite ill and what had originally believed to be a heart condition was complicated by a serious kidney condition. Only a day later, the Murfreesboro Daily News-Journal reported Patterson was improving. The next day every newspaper in Tennessee reported the death of former governor Malcolm Rice Patterson.
The seventy-three year old former governor’s body was brought back home to Tennessee where he was laid to rest beside his parents. Dr. T. K. Young, pastor of the Idlewild Presbyterian Church eulogized the former governor, saying, “His courage and faith in his convictions led him on to fight the battles of life.” Right or wrong, what could be a better epitaph for anyone?