By Ray Hill

The pages of Tennessee’s history is littered with colorful characters, but the life of Luke Lea is one right out of a novel; handsome, urbane, highly intelligent and successful, Lea climbed to the heights of financial and political accomplishment.  Lea would become one of the first publishing magnates and would be elected to the United States Senate.  Luke Lea would also feel the sting of failure; his publishing empire would slip through his fingers, he would be defeated for reelection to the United States Senate, lose his fortune and go to prison.

Named for a great grandfather of the same name who had been a contemporary and supporter of Andrew Jackson, Luke Lea was born April 12, 1879.  Young Luke attended local public schools and went to college at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.  Not done with his education, Lea enrolled at Columbia University’s law school and graduated with a degree in 1903.  While Luke Lea would practice law for a while, the law was never as interesting to him as the realm of newspaper publishing and politics.  By 1907, Lea had founded the Nashville Tennessean with the first edition appearing on the streets on May 12 of that year, which was a Sunday.  Lea was not only the publisher of the Tennessean, but its first editor as well.  The Tennessean would remain one of Luke Lea’s passions for the remainder of his life.

The young publisher was deeply immersed in Tennessee’s politics while running the Tennessean.  In 1908 Tennessee Democrats were sharply divided, largely over the issue of prohibition.  Governor Malcolm Rice Patterson was perceived to be willing to allow localities to determine their choices to spirits and alcoholic beverages by local option.  A challenger to Governor Patterson emerged in former United States Senator Edward Ward Carmack.  Carmack, a former newspaperman himself, had been a Congressman and senator, before losing his Senate seat in 1906.  The rivalry between Governor Patterson and Senator Carmack was quite personal; Carmack had defeated Patterson’s father, Colonel Josiah Patterson, to get to Congress in the first place.

E. W. Carmack, despite his facility with a pen, was also a good speaker, which was helpful in any campaign long before television made courthouse speeches obsolete.  With a busy head of fiery red hair to match his temperament, Carmack was popular and able and represented a genuine threat to Patterson’s continued tenure.  Both Patterson and Carmack disliked one another intensely.

Lea backed Carmack in the 1908 gubernatorial campaign, which was hard fought.  Carmack charged Patterson with being a tool of the liquor interests and despite an intense campaign, lost narrowly to the incumbent who carried the more urban areas of the state, while Carmack did well in the more rural areas.  Following his defeat, E. W. Carmack received an offer from Luke Lea to become editor of the Nashville Tennessean.  Carmack accepted Lea’s offer and it was not long before he gleefully dipped his pen in vitriol and wrote scathing editorials bathing Governor Patterson and his friends in verbal acid.

Naturally, Governor Patterson disliked Carmack’s editorials, but some his friends resented the same editorials even more bitterly.  Colonel Duncan B. Cooper, once one of E. W. Carmack’s patrons at the Nashville American newspaper (which eventually had been acquired by Luke Lea), had insisted the editor stop maligning him in print.  Carmack ignored Cooper’s demand and some of the former senator’s friends were so worried, they begged him to carry a pistol whenever he went out.  Carmack heeded the advice of his friends, although that same advice may well have cost him his life.

According to an account printed in the New York Times just days following Carmack’s death, the editor had been warned that Colonel Cooper was profoundly angry and had demanded in no uncertain terms Carmack never use his name in print again.  Carmack loftily dismissed Colonel Cooper’s complaint, saying, “You go tell Colonel Cooper for me that I have heard of his boasts and threats before, but neither of them affects me; I shall use his name whenever I think the occasion demands and as I think proper.”

On November 8, 1908, Carmack encountered an irate Colonel Cooper on a Nashville street, along with Cooper’s son, Robin.  Both Carmack and the younger Cooper were armed and evidently Carmack, fearing for his life, opened fire, slightly wounding Robin Cooper.  The younger Cooper fired back and proved to be the better marksman, hitting Carmack several times and killing him.  The former senator lay dead in a Nashville gutter.

The Coopers were tried for Carmack’s murder and Colonel Cooper was convicted, while Robin Cooper was acquitted on a technicality.   Governor Patterson enraged many Tennesseans when he pardoned the elder Cooper.  Patterson’s single act in pardoning Colonel Cooper was the lit match that ignited open warfare inside Tennessee’s Democratic Party.  The fight would become so bitter that it would cost the regular Democrats the governorship and both seats in the United States Senate.  One of the prime beneficiaries of the discord inside Tennessee’s Democratic Party would be none other than Luke Lea.

The public outcry following Carmack’s assassination was fanned by Luke Lea’s Tennessean, as well as other newspapers across the state.  The outrage crippled Malcolm Patterson’s administration and derailed his bid for a third term in 1910.  The disarray inside the Democrat Party was such that not even Senator Robert Love Taylor could hold the governorship for the party of Andrew Jackson.  The party split into two factions; one was “regular” Democrats and the other were “Independent” Democrats.  The Independent Democrats were those opposed to Governor Patterson and his administration.  When the Governor was still intent upon seeking yet another term, he fielded a slate of candidates for the Tennessee State Supreme Court.  Many of the incumbent justices were seeking reelection and offended, they announced they would run again as “Independent Democrats.” Patterson, seeing the handwriting on the wall, withdrew as a candidate, but his allies running for the Supreme Court lost as the Independent Democrats had allied themselves with Tennessee Republicans.  Thus was born the “Fusionist” movement in Tennessee politics.  The Fusionists swept the elections in 1910 and a little known Republican from Newport, Tennessee, Ben W. Hooper, was elected governor over Bob Taylor.  The Fusionists also won the Tennessee House of Representatives.  The regular Democrats still dominated the State Senate, largely because not all of the seats were up for election that year.

At the time, United States senators were not elected by the people, but rather by the members of the General Assembly.  Both of Tennessee’s U.S. senators were to feel the bite of the Fusionist’s wrath.  Bob Taylor, long immensely popular in Tennessee, had lost his bid for a fourth term as governor.  Taylor had not wanted to make the race in the first place, as he had worked hard for years to serve in the United States Senate.  Still, he had been crushed by his defeat, hardly able to believe the people of Tennessee would reject him.

Tennessee’s other United States senator was James Beriah Frazier, also a former governor.  A tall, stately looking man who looked every inch the part of a senator, was up for reelection in 1911 and very much wanted to succeed himself.  As the legislature convened and a Republican presided over the state government, Frazier’s reelection prospects plummeted.   Free for all commenced and when it became readily apparent to Senator Frazier that he could not be reelected, he withdrew.  The Independent Democrats and Republicans then combined to elect a dark horse, Luke Lea.  Just over thirty-one years old, Luke Lea was the youngest member of the United States Senate.

Lea was soon joined in the U. S. Senate by a Republican.  Newell Sanders, a patron of Governor Ben W. Hooper and wealthy manufacturer from Chattanooga, was appointed to the Senate when Senator Robert L. Taylor died unexpectedly following a surgical procedure.  Sanders remained in the Senate for only a brief time and educator William “Old Sawney” Webb was elected by the legislature to serve the few remaining months of Senator Taylor’s term, but it was a disturbing reminder to regular Democrats they were becoming increasingly irrelevant.

In 1913, the legislature was faced with filling Taylor’s Senate seat for the full six-year term and once again the Fusionists were successful in electing their candidate.  John Knight Shields, Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court and a leader of the Independent Democrats, was elected to the United States Senate.  Governor Hooper had been reelected in 1912, defeating former governor Benton McMillin and the Fusionists yet again held the governor’s office and both seats in the United States Senate.  The domination of the Independent Democrats and Republicans was complete.

The politics of the United States had changed that same year as well.  The Republicans had ruled the country since the election of Abraham Lincoln.  In fact, the only successful Democrat to intrude upon the primacy of the Grand Old Party’s power was Grover Cleveland, the only president in the history of the United States to serve two nonconsecutive terms in office.  The Democrats had been successful in electing their candidate in the infamous election of 1876, but the Republicans were able to set aside the popular vote by manipulating the results from the Electoral College and install Rutherford B. Hayes as president.

The Republicans would quite likely have been successful in 1912 as well had it not been for a split inside the GOP.  Incumbent President William Howard Taft was challenged for renomination by his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, who remained highly popular.  When narrowly denied the Republican nomination, Roosevelt bolted the party and ran under the Progressive banner.  Taft ran a poor third behind Roosevelt, who lost to New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson.

Luke Lea was enthused about Wilson’s election and anticipated great things.