The Political Odyssey of Dayton Phillips

The Political Odyssey of Dayton Phillips

By Ray Hill

From 1920 until his death in 1961, the most personally popular politician inside Tennessee’s First Congressional District was B. Carroll Reece. That can be attested to on a variety of fronts, not the least of which are the election returns from that forty-year period. Carroll Reece’s success at the ballot box is rather remarkable when considered. Reece beat an entrenched incumbent in the 1920 Republican primary to go to Congress and remained there for a decade before being upset in the 1930 general election. The circumstances of that election are all the more astonishing when one considers Reece was beaten by an Independent whose campaign lasted a mere sixteen days. It was the only time Carroll Reece was ever defeated inside the First District. The cause of Reece’s defeat was the congressman had remained loyal to President Herbert Hoover who was an advocate of private power when the great majority of Tennesseans were proponents of public power. When Reece came back to Congress, many of his fellow Republicans couldn’t understand his steadfast support for the Tennessee Valley Authority and he would patiently explain in the Volunteer State “one couldn’t do the other” and remain in office.

Reece demonstrated his personal popularity in making a comeback in 1932 and defeating his successor, Oscar Byrd Lovette, not once but twice. Carroll Reece beat his successor in both the Republican primary and the general election that year. Reece remained in Congress until 1946 when he was elected chairman of the Republican National Committee. Some complained the job needed all of his attention and called for him to resign from Congress; Reece merely announced he was not running again. For the first time in twenty-six years, Carroll Reece’s name would not be on the ballot in Tennessee’s First Congressional District. That caused no less than six candidates to enter the Republican primary to run for Congress. Among those filing to run was Congressman Reece’s personal secretary, Mrs. Leota Green. Evidently Mrs. Green believed as she ran the congressman’s Washington office and knew the nooks and crannies of the Washington bureaucracy so thoroughly she could serve just as effectively as her boss. What Mrs. Green did not know were the people who actually voted inside the primary. Leota Green received an embarrassing 463 votes districtwide. The race for the Republican nomination came down to Dayton E. Phillips and John Wesley Kilgo, a redheaded lawyer who had been the GOP nominee for governor in 1944. J. W. Wolfenbarger, a longtime district attorney from Sevier County, was initially thought to be a strong candidate, but his campaign never really caught fire.

A tall and gangly youth from Shell Creek, Dayton Phillips got an education and law degree and almost immediately launched himself into politics. Evidently, nothing came easily to Phillips save for hard work. When he first entered Milligan College one writer recalled “the only person who thought he had a chance of becoming a lawyer, of an attorney general, or a congressman, was Phillips.” “To the first observer Phillips looked like the beginning of one of Horatio Alger’s books that was never finished.”

Phillips won election as the attorney for Carter County in 1938 until 1942 when he defeated an incumbent to become District Attorney General of Tennessee’s First Judicial District. Phillips seized as his inspiration the story of Abraham Lincoln, who became the future congressman’s political idol. That someone could rise from very humble beginnings and become President of the United States summarized the nature of America to Dayton Phillips. Indeed, one reporter later wrote that the congressman’s admiration for Lincoln was quite nearly an “obsession.” Phillips could and would recite the Gettysburg Address at the drop of a hat. Phillips, since his college days, would blithely ignore any opponents’ argument and begin his own all too often with the words, “As the immortal Lincoln would say . . .”

Almost immediately, Phillips took a leave of absence from his office to enlist in the Army during the Second World War where he served in the European theater until 1945. Phillips was considered by many (especially Carroll Reece) to be something of a liberal Republican. There was a significant number of labor votes in the First Congressional District and Dayton Phillips was an advocate for the working man and woman.

The most common thing said about Dayton Phillips was that he was a distinct and unique personality. Dianna Boarman, Clerk and Master of the Chancery Court in Washington County, remembered Phillips, saying, “He had a distinct personality and was one of a kind.” Walter Saylor, a Johnson City lawyer said, “He came from a school of thinkers who showed great compassion for the underdog. He had great intellect.” Walter Garland, a retired judge of the Circuit Court from Unicoi County, recalled, “He was a colorful personality and a great man.” “He always looked after the interests of the common and working man,” Lloyd Perry said. Perry was the Clerk and Master of the Chancery Court in Carter County.

The personal and political organization inside Tennessee’s First Congressional District was not especially friendly to Dayton E. Phillips as it belonged to Carroll Reece. Yet without the popular congressman on the ballot, the Reece organization had difficulty in the 1946 election. John W. Kilgo had something of a spotty record as a politician. In fact, he had once made a highly publicized attempt to nudge Carroll Reece out of Congress at a time when he had barely lived in the First District. Kilgo had made a highly improbable allegation that Reece had promised to step aside for him to run for Congress. Finally, John W. Kilgo had his opportunity to run for Congress and was generally thought to have the support of the political organization personally loyal to Carroll Reece, albeit largely by default. Dayton Phillips was regarded by most of the Reece organization as too liberal, while Joe Wolfenbarger was eliminated by having long been a political foe of the congressman. Carroll Reece realized the candidacy of Leota Green was utterly hopeless and John Wesley Kilgo was basically the only option left to the congressman’s political organization.

Dayton E. Phillips and Carroll Reece did have one thing in common: both were relentless campaigners. That allowed Phillips to surprise most everyone on Election Day by winning a plurality of the votes cast inside the Republican primary. Dayton Phillips won just over 43% with John W. Kilgo in second place with less than 33% of the vote. Joe Wolfenbarger was a very distant third, polling just 19% of the ballots. The other three candidates all won less than a thousand votes districtwide. Dayton Phillips won the GOP primary by carrying only four of the fourteen counties comprising Tennessee’s First Congressional District. Phillips won those counties he had represented as Attorney General by huge majorities. In his native Carter County, Dayton Phillips won 5,776 votes as compared to 585 for all the other candidates combined, almost 91% of the vote. As might be expected from the highly Republican First District, Dayton E. Phillips easily won the general election.

Carroll Reece, while not running for anything was basking in the glow of a sweeping Republican victory, which saw the GOP win both houses of Congress for the first time since the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Yet the victory of Dayton Phillips in the primary came as quite a shock to the regular Republican organization. Throughout the entire primary campaign, Dayton Phillips was thought to be the underdog; there were many Republicans who considered Phillips to be nothing less than an anathema by more than a few of the politically potent inside the First District. Phillips had to build up his own campaign machinery as one political writer described the reaction of the Reece organization: “The existing order had its head turned the other way.”

Almost immediately, Dayton Phillips drew the ire of his fellow Republicans. During his first year in Congress, serving in a House of Representatives with a GOP majority, Congressman Phillips voted against the Taft – Hartley Bill. At first, Phillips’ fellow Republicans were shocked and appalled, which glowed until it became red hot fury. Nobody was more appalled than Carroll Reece who had watched as his successor in Congress had proclaimed the Taft – Hartley labor bill to be “too stringent” and had voted against it. “The bill was simply too comprehensive – – – that’s all,” Phillips said.

Dayton Phillips won the support of organized labor while winning the political enmity of many Republicans. Tennessee was not an especially strong state for organized labor. Both of Tennessee’s United States senators, Democrats Kenneth D. McKellar and Tom Stewart, voted for the Taft – Hartley Bill as well as overriding President Harry Truman’s veto of the legislation. Only eighty-one members of the House of Representatives voted against overriding President Truman’s veto, while 331 members voted to override the veto; Dayton Phillips was one of the very few Republican congressmen to vote against overriding the President’s veto of the Taft – Hartley Bill. Rayon workers in Tennessee immediately passed a resolution expressing their confidence in the freshman congressman.

Phillips was certain to be challenged inside the 1948 Republican primary and had Carroll Reece anticipated being ousted from the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, it is quite possible he would have run. Instead, Reece ran for the United States Senate, thinking as most everyone did at the time, Thomas E. Dewey would easily beat Harry Truman for the presidency and the Republican Party would sweep everything before it in the election. William E. Miller, later named a federal judge by Congressman Carroll Reece, ran as the Reece organization’s candidate against Dayton E. Phillips in the Republican primary. Once again, Phillips surprised the political class by winning the GOP nomination, albeit in a close race. Congressman Phillips won 29,174 votes to 27,701 for Miller.

Among those who thoroughly disliked Dayton Phillips and the record he had made in Congress was Guy Lincoln Smith, editor of the Knoxville Journal, which was the voice of Republicanism in East Tennessee. Smith was also the state chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party. Guy Smith urged the sixty-year-old former congressman to challenge Dayton Phillips in the primary and reclaim his seat in the House of Representatives. Carroll Reece was quite likely the only person who could have beaten Dayton Phillips. Still, Phillips campaigned hard and made a close race of it, losing by 2,863 votes out of more than 60,000 cast.

Phillips, if he thought of running against Reece again in 1952 thought better of it. Instead, Dayton Phillips won a seat on the Chancery Court where he remained for the next twenty-eight years. Phillips did seek to return to Congress in 1962. Carroll Reece had died in 1961 and was succeeded by his widow, Louise Goff Reece. Five serious contenders sought the Republican nomination for Congress that year and Mrs. Reece endorsed State Representative James H. Quillen, who won the Republican primary. Phillips ran fourth as Haynes Elliott, who had been especially close to the late Carroll Reece, fought with Jimmy Quillen as to which of them could claim the congressman’s legacy and mantle. Louise Reece’s endorsement of Quillen may well have decided that issue.

Dayton Edward Phillips died in a motel room after returning from attending a rally for presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in October of 1980. The cause of death was a heart attack as the Chancellor had suffered from heart trouble for some time. Phillips was only seventy years old. Phillips lived in Carter County his entire life.

Lamar Alexander, who was governor of Tennessee at the time of Dayton Phillips’ passing, said the former congressman was “a delightful, wise and kind man” who “loved and served well the law” as well as “politics and the ordinary people of East Tennessee.” Alexander remembered Dayton Phillips “told good stories better than anyone.” Among the honorary pallbearers to lay Dayton Phillips to rest were his sometime rival Congressman Jimmy Quillen, Senator Howard Baker, Governor Lamar Alexander, and State Senator Marshall Nave.

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