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Voters choose change in pivotal years

Actions in Tennessee helped pave the way for women’s right to vote.


Associate Editor

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A world war, an influenza epidemic, prohibition and the women’s suffrage movement made 1918 a pivotal year in both the nation’s and Tennessee’s politics. The General Election that year took place on Nov. 5. The end of World War I would occur on the 11th hour, of the 11th day of the 11th month – Nov. 11, 1918.

The names and accomplishments of the individuals involved in the remaking of how political parties operated 100 years ago serve as timely reminders of the democratic process as the state approaches yet another mid-term election. In 1918 Tennessee elected a governor, a United States senator and members of the federal House of Representatives. Some background on the laws then in force is necessary in order to explain the sequence of events that unfolded.

Thomas Clarke Rye (Born June 2, 1863 – Died Sept. 12, 1953) was Governor of Tennessee in 1918. He had been elected for two terms during a period of time when Tennessee governors were elected for two-year terms. A Democrat, he was on the ballot in 1918 in the race for United States senator.

During his second term in office, the United States entered World War I. More than 80,000 Tennesseans joined the Armed Forces. In a time when prohibition was a state-wide issue, Rye enacted the so-called “Ouster Law” allowing for the removal of public officials for incompetence or unwillingness to enforce the law.

His first target was political boss E. H. Crump, who as mayor of Memphis had refused to enforce prohibition in the city. After an ouster proceeding filed by the state attorney general in 1915 was successful, an appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld Crump’s ouster.

In Washington County, Rye beat fellow Democrat John Knight Shields by 111 votes, 822 votes to 710. Statewide, however, Shields collected more votes and ran in the November election against Republican Henry Clay Evans, who he defeated with 62 percent of the popular vote.

Ironically, in 1917 Governor Rye enacted legislation that implemented a primary for choosing candidates for state offices from the Democratic and Republican parties. Prior to 1917, candidates were selected by delegates at party conventions.

Shields had been elected a senator by the Tennessee Legislature prior to the passage of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States which established direct election of senators. He had previously served as Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court. As a senator, he served from 1913 to 1925.

Albert H. Roberts (Born July 4, 1868 – Died June 25, 1946) would be elected governor of Tennessee in 1918.

His opponent for the governor’s nomination was former state legislator Austin Peay. He defeated Peay in the Washington County Democratic primary by 131 votes, 991 to 860. He had gained the support of Boss Crump, winning the state-wide primary by 12,000 votes. He then defeated Republican candidate and  Knoxville judge, Hugh B. Lindsay in the General Election, 98,628 votes to 59,518.

Historians believe voter turnout for the general election was diminished by the year’s flu epidemic.

The influenza pandemic of 1918 was the most serious outbreak of flu in Tennessee history with 7,721 recorded deaths from the disease. It is estimated to have killed 20 to 40 million people worldwide, two to four times the number killed in World War I.

Once elected, among Roberts’ first order of business was to certify Tennessee’s ratification of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The state senate had voted 28 to 2 in favor of passage making Tennessee the 23rd state to ratify the amendment.

The amendment that prohibited the sale and transportation of alcoholic beverages would be the law of the land from 1919 until its repeal by the 21st Amendment in 1933.

On June 7, 1919, Roberts performed the marriage ceremony for celebrated World War I Medal of Honor recipient Sergeant Alvin York and Gracie Williams in the Pall Mall community in Fentress County.

On Aug. 9, 1920, following his victory in the primaries, Roberts called a special session of the General Assembly to consider the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would give women the right to vote.

The amendment required ratification in 36 states to become law. By August 1920, 35 states had ratified the amendment while eight states had rejected it, and five, including Tennessee, had yet to vote.

The Tennessee Senate approved the amendment by a 25 to 4 margin, and it narrowly passed in the State House by a 50 to 46 vote. Angry anti-suffragists tried to file an injunction. The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled against them. Governor Roberts certified the state’s passage of the amendment on Aug. 24, 1920.

Roberts had defeated William Riley Crabtree, a former Chattanooga mayor, by 67,886 votes to 44,853 votes in the Aug. 5, 1920 primary.

He faced Republican Alfred A. Taylor (Born Aug.6, 1848 – Died Nov. 25, 1931) in the General Election. Taylor, born in Happy Valley, Carter County, Tennessee, became famous for his election campaigns against his brother, Bob, referred to in Tennessee history as the “War of the Roses.”

Taylor would win 55.2 per cent of the vote in the first governor’s election in which women voted.

He was attacked by Democrats for his support of the “Lodge Bill” which would have provided protection for black voters, that vote taking place when he was a congressman.

On Election Day in 1920, Taylor defeated Roberts by a state-wide vote of 229,143 to 185,890.

In the 1918 Congressional race in the First Congressional District, Sam R. Sells (Born Aug. 2,1871 – Died Nov. 2, 1935), easily won both the primary election (receiving 745 votes more than his opponent in Washington County) and 100 percent of the vote in the general election in which he was unopposed. He served the lst Congressional District in Congress from March 4, 1911 until March 3, 1921.

So confident was Sells of his election chances in the Aug. 5 primary in 1918 that when he gave a speech on the war situation several days before the primary, the Herald and Tribune reported, “The speech was well received, and many expressions of fitness were heard. It had been thought by many that Mr. Sells would make a political speech, but the congressional race was not even mentioned.”

Born in Bristol, Sells was in the lumber, shale brick and other businesses in Johnson City after his political career came to a close. He died at 64 years of age and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.

President Woodrow Wilson had called for a political moratorium during World War I saying “politics is adjourned.” However, on Oct. 25, 1918 a decisive turning point occurred in his eight-year presidency when he “released a note calling for the return of a Democratic Congress as essential to the nation’s security.”

Wilson’s questioning of the Republican Party’s patriotism turned what had been a listless campaign into a heated contest. On Nov.  5, Republicans swept the congressional elections, compiling a two-seat majority in the Senate and a forty-one seat margin in the House.