By Ray Hill
On January 9, 1932, twelve hundred Republicans from Tennessee’s First Congressional District had converged upon the Hamblen County courthouse in Morristown to demand former congressman Brazilla Carroll Reece once again run for Congress. Reece had first been elected in 1920 and had served a decade in Congress before losing to the Independent candidacy of Oscar Byrd Lovette of Greeneville. Congressman Reece had been shocked by his loss, which was largely the result of his opposition to governmental operation of water power projects like Muscle Shoals (the forerunner of the Tennessee Valley Authority). The Nashville Tennessean estimated the crowd gathered in Morristown to support Carroll Reece may have been closer to 1,500 than 1,200.
Certainly carefully orchestrated by the Reece organization inside the First Congressional District, the rally was all the former congressman could have hoped. The delegates approved a resolution supporting the administration of President Herbert Hoover and a demand Carroll Reece become a candidate for the GOP nomination for Congress from the First District. C. L. Marshall, chairman of the Republican apparatus in the First District, presided over the meeting. Marshall had managed four of Carroll Reece’s six congressional campaigns. Paul Devine, a former GOP candidate for the United States Senate from Tennessee, spoke and excoriated the incumbent congressman, Oscar B. Lovette. “He should, if he is the Republican he now says he is, have submitted himself before the people of this district in the Republican primary,” Devine told the audience. “We have primary laws in the state of Tennessee which are rigid. The present Congressman did not announce his candidacy until 10 days before the general election and that his leaders then were his leaders of today – – – Democrats.”
Sheriff John Chumbly of Claiborne County stood up and promised Carroll Reece a majority in his county of “at least 1000” votes. The First District, like all other congressional districts in Tennessee, had been redistricted. The Reece supporters welcomed Hamblen and Jefferson counties, which had formerly been in the Second District, to the First. The meeting in Hamblen County had been not only well-planned, but well thought out.
Carroll Reece’s carefully choreographed announcement was a mere formality, as the truth was he had never stopped campaigning since his loss in 1930. Within days of Reece’s declaration he would be a candidate for Congress, Sam R. Sells once again poked his head up. Sells had represented the First District in Congress for a decade before being unseated by Carroll Reece in 1920. Queried about the announcement Reece would once again run for Congress, Sam R. Sells said he wanted to wait a while before making any comment. Former congressman Sells had gone to Washington, D. C. to meet with President Hoover and other GOP leaders to express objections over postmasters being appointed upon the recommendation of Carroll Reece, rather than the incumbent congressman. “No, I don’t want to say a thing now,” Sells snapped when called by a reporter. When the newsman persisted, Sells barked, “You know, I’m not identified with politics any more!”
There was speculation in the newspapers Congressman O. B. Lovette would forego opposing Carroll Reece inside the GOP primary, but once again run in the general election as an “Independent Republican.” Lovette spoke at the Lincoln Day dinner held in Nashville’s historic Maxwell House Hotel in a rather transparent attempt to burnish his Republican bona fides, recalling his thirty-six years of activism as a Republican. Lovette spoke to the party faithful and bellowed he hoped “we get together that we may march this fall in a solid phalanx to the polls to elect a full Republican ticket.” Congressman Lovette shared his belief “the Democratic party in Tennessee has entirely broken down” and expressed the hope “we may clean out Capitol Hill completely.” Lovette did manage to bring the crowd to its feet with a rousing appeal to reelect Herbert Hoover. “We can win, and we will win in both the state and nation, if we but stand together,” O. B. Lovette roared. “When the truthful history of the times is written you’ll find it was Herbert Hoover who offered the constructive measure.” History is still awaiting that particular assessment.
Carroll Reece also attended the Lincoln Day Dinner in Nashville and spoke to the gathering, but the Nashville Tennessean attributed the prominence of Congressman O. B. Lovette on the program as due to the near complete control which Second District Congressman J. Will Taylor exercised over the proceedings. “Hillbilly Bill” Taylor had been State Insurance Commissioner during the administration of Governor Ben W. Hooper and Chairman of Tennessee’s State Republican Party before being elected to Congress in 1918. J. Will Taylor had preceded Carroll Reece by two years and it was no secret the two maintained an oftentimes bitter rivalry for prominence and preferment inside the national party apparatus. During the decade of the 1920s, America was governed by three GOP presidents: Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, as well as Republican majorities in Congress. Congressman Taylor had also been critical of his colleague Carroll Reece over the First District representative’s stand on the Cove Creek dam issue.
Without a Republican U.S senator from Tennessee, the two GOP congressmen, J. Will Taylor and Carroll Reece, had not only controlled patronage inside their own districts, but all across the Volunteer State. J. Will Taylor was strongly suspected by his political enemies of maintaining an alliance with Democrats; many Republicans strongly believed “Hillbilly Billy” loathed the idea of a GOP governor or senator, as it would dilute his own political power. One long-time Republican made the point of noting East Tennessee’s failure to fully support the GOP nominee for governor in 1930 election. Colonel W. F. Poston of Alamo, who had been a presidential elector for General Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, reminded diners “C. Arthur Bruce would have been governor today” had East Tennessee turned out its usual Republican majorities. There were those Republicans who were convinced Congressman J. Will Taylor’s supposed alliance with the Democrats in statewide elections was one good reason Arthur Bruce had lost. Colonel Poston publicly challenged congressmen Taylor and Lovette to close ranks “and we’ll march into the capitol this fall…” J. Will Taylor had already drawn an opponent in the Republican primary, Chancellor J. H., Wallace of Clinton, who said “when elected I shall not fritter my time trying to control the whole party for selfish interests.”
Morristown, Tennessee was once again the site for an important GOP political event as the meeting place for the convention of First District Republicans. The fight between Congressman O. B. Lovette and former congressman Carroll Reece was believed to be the “most colorful and bitterly contested political struggle in Republican partydom in East Tennessee in the last decade.” As partisans of Reece and Lovette gathered, some grumbled about C. L. Marshall presiding. Marshall was once again managing Carroll Reece’s congressional campaign, but he was also the duly elected chair of the First Congressional District’s Republican Executive Committee. The convention had several delegations quarrelling over exactly who had won local contests; Reece delegates or those delegates favoring O. B. Lovette. Reece had won an overwhelming endorsement from his fellow Republicans in his home county of Johnson, winning 354 to 103 for O. B. Lovette. Congressman Lovette likewise enjoyed an advantage in Sevier County. The race was coming down to trench warfare held at the precinct level in each and every county of the First Congressional District.
Carroll Reece had carefully built over a decade an effective and smoothly functioning political organization inside the First Congressional District and the Morristown convention was the first indication the wheels remained well-greased. Of the contested delegations to the convention, Carroll Reece won 111 to 8 for Oscar Byrd Lovette. There were contests in 8 of the 14 counties comprising the First District. Reece was reportedly in Morristown, but did not attend the convention meeting initially. Congressman Lovette arrived in Morristown by train from Washington. The division between the two candidates and their supporters was deep and looked to be irreparable. The two factions separated and nominated their own delegates to attend the Republican National Convention.
Carroll Reece finally arrived at the convention, which was degenerating by the moment. Complaints were hurled at one bystander who was accused of being a Lovette man by the Reece supporters. The gentleman had said nothing, but one Reece leader bellowed to the former congressman, “This man is insulting you!” It was then the man turned around and was seen to be State Representative Clyde Bogart of Sevierville. Bogart was indeed a supporter of Congressman Lovett and upon seeing him, Carroll Reece snapped, “He can’t insult me; he’s too low to insult anyone.” Remaining exactly where he was, Representative Bogart retorted, “Don’t fool yourself.”
By the middle of April 1932, newspapers in the First District blared the news the four postmaster candidates recommended by former congressman Carroll Reece had won confirmation by a subcommittee of the Senate Post Office and Post Roads Committee. Newspapers headlines usually included a statement Congressman Lovette had lost his bid to stop the confirmation of those men recommended by his predecessor. It was a not-so- subtle reminder of Carroll Reece’s influence with the national administration, as well as an illustration of O. B. Lovette’s lack of influence in Washington, D.C. The Bristol News Bulletin reported many GOP leaders in the First District believed if the postmaster candidates were confirmed by the full Post Office Committee and the Senate, O. B. Lovette would not run inside the Republican primary for Congress.
The race between Carroll Reece and O. B. Lovette was so contentious the Jefferson County Republican Committee decided against holding a primary election. Party leaders in Jefferson County candidly admitted they wished to avoid a split in party ranks.
Carroll Reece officially launched his campaign to return to the U. S. House of Representatives with a blast at his opponent, O. B. Lovette. Reece issued a platform and referred to Congressman Lovette as a party “bolter” and a “menace to any party.” While saying he was grateful for the broad support he had received all across the district, Carroll Reece admitted “I am not vain enough to believe that all the support which has been proffered to me is a matter of personal friendship.” Reece said he believed there were “thousands of loyal Republicans” in the First District who resented O. B. Lovette’s having bolted the Republican Party, especially after Lovette had refused to run in a GOP primary. Reece recalled his victory after winning the 1930 Republican primary over a “brilliant opponent” and reminded Republicans he had been the designated candidate of their party as determined by a majority of ballots cast by the Republicans of the First Congressional District. O. B. Lovette was the “certain citizen” who had allowed himself to be seduced by the sweetly singing voice of a political siren who had pushed his ambition. Lovette’s run as an Independent had been nothing less than an abject betrayal of the party which had honored Oscar Byrd Lovette time and again for twenty years. Aided by the Democrats, O. B. Lovette had, Carroll Reece said, watched as his victory had “turned to ashes.” The former congressman explained O. B. Lovette’s loss of patronage privileges; it was because “having lost the confidence of the folks back home, he could not expect to command the confidence and respect of those in the seat of our own government.”
Recalling his own record as a military hero in the First World War, Reece invited “every true and loyal son to join me in the fray to go over the top to a glorious victory.”
Carroll Reece had just fired the first real shot in his bid to win the Republican nomination for Congress in Tennessee’s First Congressional District and return to the House of Representatives in 1932.