By Ray Hill
Nathan Lynn Bachman, Tennessee’s junior United States senator, had every reason in the world to be content; he had easily been reelected to his first six-year term in November of 1936. Bachman was also one of the most personally popular members of the United States Senate with his colleagues and his company was much sought after, as he was renowned for being perhaps the best raconteur in Congress. Senator Bachman had a seemingly endless supply of stories and jokes with which he could entertain listeners. Having been an athlete throughout his college career, Bachman remained a sports enthusiast for his entire life and Vice President John Nance Garner of Texas almost always invited the Tennessee senator to accompany him to sporting events in the nation’s Capitol. Senator Bachman left his office on the evening of April 23, 1937 to return to his apartment in one of Washington’s better hotels. Mrs. Bachman, the former Pearl Duke of the famous North Carolina tobacco family, was on her way to their home in Chattanooga, which rested upon Walden’s Ridge on Signal Mountain. Sometime during the evening of April 23, Nathan Bachman fell over dead from a heart attack. Members of the senator’s staff sadly notified Mrs. Bachman of her husband’s passing.
When Nathan Bachman’s heart stopped beating, his sudden and unexpected death ignited a flame that would soon become a full-scale conflagration that burned all across the State of Tennessee. While Tennessee’s politics could frequently be tempestuous, the 1938 Democratic primary was one of the bitterest fights in Volunteer State history. It was a fight waged by the two factions of the Tennessee Democratic Party; on one side was Tennessee’s senior United States senator, Kenneth D. McKellar and his personal friend and political partner, E. H. Crump, leader of the Shelby County political machine. The other faction was headed by Governor Gordon Browning, just elected to a two-year term as chief executive. Browning had been elected with an enormous majority over the open opposition of Senator McKellar and with the support and endorsement of Mr. Crump. With McKellar and Crump having taken different sides in the 1936 gubernatorial primary, opponents hoped the break between the two men would be permanent, a notion both the senator and Mr. Crump dismissed.
Gordon Browning had been a Congressman for twelve years before running for the U. S. Senate in 1934 against Nathan Bachman, who had been appointed when Cordell Hull had resigned to become President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of State. Browning, who hailed from Huntingdon in West Tennessee had first considered running against K. D. McKellar in 1934. McKellar had been in Congress since 1911 and was Tennessee’s first United States senator ever to be popularly elected by the people. Gordon Browning had dropped the idea of challenging the formidable McKellar when he could not garner the support of a single influential individual. Still ambitious to serve in the Senate, Browning had instead run against Bachman. Browning had run a credible race and although he lost, immediately began running for governor in 1936.
McKellar suspected if Browning were elected governor in 1936, he would seek reelection in 1938 and then run against him for the Senate in 1940. Senator McKellar did all he could to derail Browning’s nomination and was stunned when E. H. Crump announced his support for Browning. The Memphis Boss and Senator McKellar had several disagreements in the early 1930s; Crump had been critical of McKellar’s older brother, Clint, being appointed Postmaster of Memphis. Clint McKellar had served as Assistant Postmaster of Memphis for over a decade and only received the promotion when the incumbent had died. Senator McKellar insisted his brother deserved the appointment and ignored Crump’s objections. McKellar had also not appreciated Crump having unceremoniously dumped Congressman Hubert Fisher from the ticket in 1930. Fisher had succeeded McKellar in Congress in 1916 and had been U. S. Attorney for the Western District by virtue of an appointment secured through McKellar. Fisher was increasingly deaf and when Crump decided to go to Congress, there was nothing the Congressman could do, save to retire gracefully.
Crump had served two terms in Congress and found Washington, D. C. to be very different from Memphis and Shelby County. E. H. Crump discovered that he was but one of many Congressmen, while K. D. McKellar was one of the more powerful members of the United States Senate. McKellar possessed enormous prestige and power, while Crump exercised little or no influence in the Capitol. Crump missed his family and did not especially enjoy serving in Congress and retired in 1934 and returned to his Memphis domain.
Some speculated Crump perceived Gordon Browning would win the nomination for governor in 1936 whether he had the support of Shelby County or not, while others believed Crump wanted to remind McKellar it was he who ruled in Memphis. McKellar’s candidate for governor, Burgin Dossett, was humiliated in Shelby County while Browning received a tremendous majority, much to Senator McKellar’s dismay. Journalists gleefully reported even in Senator McKellar’s home precinct, his gubernatorial candidate received a pitiful vote, buried beneath a Browning landslide.
The death of Nathan Bachman gave Governor Gordon Browning the power to appoint Bachman’s successor until the next regular election. There was no dearth of candidates for the appointment and Browning was deluged with advice from prospective senators as well as their supporters. Bachman’s funeral became a political event as members of the United States Senate took the train to Chattanooga to pay their respects to their fallen colleague. Just about every politician and would-be politician in the State of Tennessee was there as well. Bachman was not even in his grave before the speculation as to who his successor would be was rampant. The Chattanooga News snidely observed the scene was less a funeral than a three-day senatorial convention.
Browning had not abandoned his senatorial ambitions and he would not be the first governor to abruptly resign to allow his successor to appoint him to the vacancy. Browning had likely already considered the political consequences of such an action and concluded it might well end his career. Browning quickly publicly announced he would not resign so that he could be appointed to the late Nathan Bachman’s seat.
Before leaving for Senator Bachman’s funeral, Governor Browning had received a telephone call from Charles West, a former Congressman from Ohio and an under Secretary of the Interior. West told Browning that President Roosevelt wished to see him before the governor named a replacement for Nathan Bachman. Browning was due to be in Washington, D. C. just after the Bachman funeral for a conference and the governor readily agreed to stop by the White House. After attending the services for Senator Bachman, Browning boarded a train for Washington, D. C. and discovered one of his traveling companions was Congressman Sam D. McReynolds. McReynolds had been elected to Congress the same year as Browning, 1922, and through seniority had risen to be Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Despite his influence in the House, McReynolds was one of many who coveted Bachman’s seat in the Senate.
Even after getting away from Congressman McReynolds, Governor Browning found no respite from those wanting to talk about the senatorial appointment. As Browning hurried to his hotel, one persistent caller almost ripped the governor’s coat from his body. Browning went to the White House for his meeting with President Roosevelt, but was kept waiting for more than two and a half hours in the outer office.
Neither President Roosevelt nor Governor Browning ever revealed the substance of their conversation and the normally loquacious Browning refused to tell inquiring reporters what had been said. Reporters surmised FDR wanted to be certain whomever Browning appointed to the Senate would be supportive of his plan to reorganize the United States Supreme Court. Senator Bachman, a former Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court, had taken no public stand on FDR’s “court packing” plan, but had privately expressed serious reservations.
FDR later did say that he had not told Browning whom to appoint, but rather whom not to appoint to the senatorial vacancy. At best, it was an enigmatic statement, but likely had to do with another senatorial aspirant, Cordell Hull.
Hull enjoyed the prestige of being Secretary of State, but quickly discovered Roosevelt paid little attention to his views. The President was notorious for conducting his own foreign policy without regard for Hull’s opinion.
Cordell Hull possessed a powerful Tennessee temper and despite Senator McKellar’s reputation as a feudist and being vindictive, Cordell Hull himself could be coldly unforgiving and knew precisely how to slide a blade between the ribs of an unsuspecting opponent. When Raymond Moley, a Columbia University professor and original member of FDR’s “brain trust” had been forced upon Hull as an Assistant Secretary of State, the Tennessean was unhappy. When Moley began issuing pronouncements from an economic conference in London without consulting Hull, unhappiness turned to rage. Secretary Hull immediately demanded that President Roosevelt repudiate Moley’s statements. FDR, full well understanding the need to appease Hull and keep him in the Cabinet, shocked Moley by doing as Hull demanded. Moley’s career in the government was effectively finished and he would go on to become a severe critic of both Roosevelt and the New Deal.
Cordell Hull still commanded enormous respect and prestige as Secretary of State, even if he wielded little real influence. While President Roosevelt treated him kindly, Hull knew all too well FDR had little respect for his views on foreign policy. Hull began toying with the idea of resigning from the Cabinet and returning to Tennessee where he remained highly popular. Apparently Hull even considered running against Nathan Bachman in 1936. Judge James Gardenhire, an intimate friend of Hull’s, kept the Secretary apprised of political developments in Tennessee and Hull himself visited Senator McKellar to ascertain McKellar’s view on Hull running for the U. S. Senate.
Governor Gordon Browning had met with Hull during his visit to Washington and while the subject of their conversation has never been made public, the topic of conversation surely had to touch upon the senatorial appointment.
Browning, tired of being pursued by those interested in the senatorial vacancy, canceled his plans to attend a conference in the Capitol and boarded a train bound for Tennessee.