How Knoxville Invented Liberalism

Or at least left some fingerprints on it, despite our reputation for red-blooded conservatism

William Gibbs McAdoo, the Knoxville lawyer and businessman whose astonishing career took him from the jail on Market Square to the Treasury Department, where he oversaw the birth of the Federal Reserve Board. He later played an important role in the Democratic Party’s nomination of Franklin Roosevelt.
photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Photo by Library of Congress

William Gibbs McAdoo, the Knoxville lawyer and businessman whose astonishing career took him from the jail on Market Square to the Treasury Department, where he oversaw the birth of the Federal Reserve Board. He later played an important role in the Democratic Party’s nomination of Franklin Roosevelt. photo courtesy of Library of Congress

A rare photo of Adolph Ochs, about the time he was beginning his career as a Knoxville journalist. Later he worked in Chattanooga as a young man, and at age 38 bought a failing paper called the New York Times. The paper never had a “liberal” reputation until, during Ochs’ last presidential election as publisher, the Times endorsed Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.

A rare photo of Adolph Ochs, about the time he was beginning his career as a Knoxville journalist. Later he worked in Chattanooga as a young man, and at age 38 bought a failing paper called the New York Times. The paper never had a “liberal” reputation until, during Ochs’ last presidential election as publisher, the Times endorsed Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.

So you met a Knoxville Liberal the other day? Surely he’s from somewheres else.

Newcomers to Tennessee, eyeing election maps lately awash in red, make certain assumptions. Particularly newcomers to Knoxville, especially when they learn it’s the population center of America’s most consistently Republican congressional district in America—not a single Democrat since before the Civil War. Almost universally, they conclude that Knoxville is inherently conservative, alien and perhaps hostile country to liberals. Certain local political theorists do what they can to confirm their prejudices, with talk of “self-sufficient pioneer stock,” the Scots-Irish sheepherder evolving inevitably into the rock-ribbed Republican.

Those assumptions come with constellations of asterisks. Not only have there always been a substantial number of Knoxville residents who’ve thrived outside of conservative orthodoxy, but Knoxville has also presented the world with quite a few influential liberals over the years. In fact, several nationally controversial “liberal” institutions, from The New York Times to the Federal Reserve Board to the ultra-environmentalist Wilderness Society to even—gasp—the United Nations, have East Tennessee fingerprints on them.

***

Liberal is a 20th-century term, at least as a political stance. But 19th-century Knoxvillians included Parson W.G. Brownlow, who successfully ensured blacks the right to vote even before most Northern states did. Knoxville-raised (and Knoxville College educated) Fred McGhee led a startling legal campaign to end racial segregation in 1891, and later co-founded a national civil-rights effort, radical at the time, called the Niagara Movement. And there’s Lizzie Crozier French, a very early leader for women’s suffrage; news reports suggest strong popular support for women’s suffrage in Knoxville as early as the 1890s, more than 20 years before the nation passed legislation to guarantee it. (And, of course, an East Tennessee legislator named Harry Burns played a role in the national outcome.)

Knoxville liked President Teddy Roosevelt’s new ideas about conservation, and later—one century ago this November—Knox County, along with much of East Tennessee, rejected the Republican incumbent to support Roosevelt’s Progressive Bull Moose Party, which called for unprecedented regulations, new income taxes, and social insurance for the unfortunate. That year, Knoxville was arguably more liberal than the rest of America.

But they were different times; it’s a challenge for any conservative or liberal to find dependably predictable friends a century ago. Most thinking people carried a combination of attitudes and convictions that would strike us today as both liberal and conservative.

The word liberal was not commonly in use as a political perspective until the 1930s, when Teddy Roosevelt’s cousin Franklin ran for president. Since then, Knoxville has sent regiments of flaming liberals into the national fray. Maybe more than flaming conservatives.

***

The New York Times’ reputation as a liberal newspaper varies with the point of view of the reader. But whatever one thinks about the Times, it was relaunched and shaped by a Knoxvillian. Adolph Ochs grew up here, mostly on Central Street, received almost all his formal education here, and began his career in journalism here. Whatever political sensibility he had was honed in the chaotic postwar years, when the wrong idea could get you assassinated. He moved to Chattanooga at age 19, and took over the failing Chattanooga Times. Some of his earliest editorials for the Chattanooga Times concerned the complicated legacy of Brownlow. Ochs wrote about Brownlow fairly. Writing about Brownlow fairly was likely to anger both Brownlow’s friends and enemies.

Ochs was in charge of The New York Times from 1896 to 1935. Among American publishers in those days, he was notable—almost freakish, at first—for stressing objective, bipartisan coverage. Ochs wasn’t necessarily a liberal. But something interesting happened on his watch.

During the first four presidential elections when Ochs was in charge, the Times endorsed only Republicans. The paper then followed with two successive endorsements of Wilson, a Democrat. In the 1920s, the Times stepped away from the endorsement business, abstaining from offering an opinion for three elections in a row. But in 1932, when Ochs was 74, his paper endorsed President Hoover’s arrogant challenger, Franklin Roosevelt. Was it Ochs who turned that dial? The Times has picked the Democrat in 16 of the 20 elections since then.

***

The same year Ochs was leaving Knoxville, the McAdoo family was arriving. The parents had lived in Knoxville before the Civil War, but had spent almost 20 years in Milledgeville, Georgia.

Son William Gibbs McAdoo, Jr. (1863-1941), was 14 when his family moved back home. Over the next several years as a very young man he lived on State Street, right across Hill Avenue from Blount Mansion. Here he worked as a law clerk in the courthouse, then became known as a lawyer and as an energetic and sometimes reckless entrepreneur, who launched our first electric streetcar system, sold it, and then tried to build another to compete with it. The second project resulted in a bizarre riot known as the Battle of Depot Street. Knoxville police briefly jailed McAdoo for inciting it.

A couple decades later, he was U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, oversaw and helped launch the Federal Reserve Board, which seized, for the central government, unprecedented control of the nation’s monetary system. It has become a major target for right-wing Republicans of the Tea Party stripe, some of whom have called for abolishing it as a hindrance to the free market.

Though it might be overstating it to call McAdoo the Father of the Federal Reserve System, when the original Federal Reserve Board got together, the guy at the head of the table was McAdoo, the former Knoxvillian.

McAdoo was not consistently “liberal”—hardly anyone was, then—but years later, after moving to Los Angeles, where he was involved with the founding of United Artists, McAdoo was elected Democratic senator from California. He ran for president a couple of times. He never got the nomination, but at age 69, 35 years after he got out of the Knoxville Jail, McAdoo played a key role in picking another nominee. McAdoo went to the contentious Democratic Convention as a California delegate for candidate John Nance Garner. When the time came, McAdoo surprised the big room by throwing his support to the seminally liberal young governor of New York, Franklin Roosevelt. It was the beginning of a landslide.

Soon, the word “liberal” became a term to describe people who supported Roosevelt’s New Deal.

***

Speaking of Roosevelt’s famous cluster of social programs, there’s another Knoxville story there. Polish-born jeweler Max Friedman (1888-1966) didn’t live in Knoxville until about 1920, but for the next 40-odd years, he was a popular and vigorously progressive Democratic community leader. The Alcoa Highway overpass over Kingston Pike is conspicuously named for him.

Friedman got a chance to meet the Democratic presidential contender in Albany, New York, in August, 1932. Since then, local histories have quoted witness Robert Smith to a private meeting between Roosevelt and a few supporters. Smith stated matter-of-factly that it was Friedman, a strong supporter of Roosevelt’s sweeping federal proposals, who suggested a poker term familiar on Gay Street, “New Deal.”

Friedman’s name doesn’t appear in Roosevelt biographies, and that story may have to remain a charming legend. But from 1938 until his death in 1966, Friedman was Knoxville’s own Roosevelt, a 12-year member of City Council who “supported every progressive program ever introduced.”

One of the New Deal’s more surprising and ambitious projects was the Tennessee Valley Authority. A little more about that in a minute.

If Roosevelt was America’s first liberal in power, he was okay with Knoxville. Though Knox County as a whole favored the Republican, when Roosevelt paraded through downtown Knoxville, as he did at least twice, cheering crowds lined the streets. The Roosevelt administration’s Secretary of State was Mr. Cordell Hull, who grew up in Byrdstown, about 100 miles northwest of Knoxville. It’s often considered the northeastern corner of Middle Tennessee, but Hull was born on a mountainside in a log cabin, to a father who’d been a Unionist bushwhacker and a moonshiner. If their Cumberland mountain home is barely outside common definitions of East Tennessee, you might say the Hulls seemed ethnically East Tennessean.

The longtime congressman from the 4th District—not exactly the same 4th which Scott DesJarlais now represents, but partly—Hull in 1913 authored the nation’s first federal income-tax legislation. That was a pet project of his for years; he and the mostly poor working men who made up his constituents at the time seem to have thought it was a great improvement. The 4th District re-elected him.

In 1933, Hull became secretary of state for most of Roosevelt’s long administration. One of his final achievements, another personal project he worked on for many years, was an organization called the United Nations. The Tennessean drafted the charter for the U.N., and in thanks for his efforts, Hull earned the Nobel Peace Prize. Roosevelt declared Hull “the Father of the U.N.”

The United Nations has become even more a target for the far right than the Federal Reserve. It may exist thanks to this one smart hillbilly from the Cumberland Plateau.

***

So this end of the state has biographical connections to the Niagara Movement, The New York Times, the Federal Reserve Board, and the U.N. Some of these are admittedly matters of chance, of Tennesseans finding themselves in a position to act, and acting.

A firmer liberal association is Knoxville’s strong association with the national environmentalist movement.

The Google accessory known as Ngram makes graphs charting the number of times any given phrase—including proper names—is mentioned in print, based on scans of millions of books across history, up to 2008. So based on Ngram, who’s the most-cited longtime Knoxvillian of the last century? James Agee? Cas Walker? Bob Neyland? Roy Acuff? None of them come close. Believe it or not, it’s Joseph Wood Krutch.

Never heard of him? If you lived 50 or 60 years ago and read books, you would have. Krutch (1893-1970) was a journalist, a biographer, a philosopher, and a New York drama critic sometimes called upon to put on a tuxedo and host Broadway awards ceremonies. He already had a reputation as an especially unlikely sort of literary renaissance man when, during the last 20 years of his life, he turned his back on New York, moved to Tucson, wrote about desert life, and became best known as a bold, sometimes scathing environmentalist.

Born in Knoxville to lifelong Knoxvillians (the downtown park is named in honor of his philanthropic older brother, Charles), Krutch grew up on West Cumberland Avenue, in a now-obliterated section just west of modern-day Henley Street. He attended the University of Tennessee, from which he graduated in 1915. In 1925, Joe Krutch came to the fore writing in The Nation about the Scopes trial. An amateur biologist of sorts, Krutch accepted the science of evolution. He knew that several of Tennessee’s political and academic leaders did, too, and, in The Nation, scolded them for not admitting it publicly.

The work for which he has been best known since the 1950s is environmentalist in nature: The Desert Year, The Great Chain of Life.

Krutch is quotable: “If we do not permit the earth to produce beauty and joy, it will in the end not produce food, either.”

Krutch opposed hunting for sport. “When a man wantonly destroys one of the works of man we call him a vandal,” he wrote. “When he destroys one of the works of God we call him a sportsman.”

And there’s this particularly un-American sentiment, too radical for either party to espouse in 2012: “Security depends not so much upon how much you have, as upon how much you can do without.”

For 40 years he was a well-known commentator on America’s strengths and weaknesses, but today his wordy essays might strike 21st-century readers as a trifle dry, too detached, too droll. Read them and you might picture an aloof old guy hiding behind thick glasses and a gray mustache and a ring of pipe smoke. Krutch did look like that.

He wasn’t liberal about everything. In the 1960s, some tried to draw him into the antiwar movement, and failed. He defended the old-fashioned blackface minstrel tradition from charges of racism. Krutch, who liked to call himself The Old Pagan, was as skeptical about Communism as he was about Christianity (he found them comparable). He was also leery of aspects of lefty postwar movements he considered faddish, including Sartre’s existentialism. In 1967, he politely razzed the young Susan Sontag, whom he found pointless. But he was one of the few Americans born in 1893 who knew who Susan Sontag was.

He may have been the last of a generation for whom one conviction didn’t necessarily come with a cascade of necessary other convictions.

Through it all, though, he was a fierce environmentalist who believed there was no legitimate reason for humans to endanger or impair any other species. After his death in 1970, his name recognition plummeted, but his causes didn’t, though they’re now voiced mostly by younger, sexier advocates.

But several of his books are still in print, though probably hard to find in most bookstores. A 1994 anthology places him alongside environmental writers Edward Abbey, Aldo Leopold, Gary Snyder, and Annie Dillard, as “Nature’s Kindred Spirits.” Abbey, in particular, who has something more than a cult following among environmentalists, was a particular admirer of Krutch and wrote an almost starstruck essay about him, a preface to the 1978 edition of The Great Chain of Life.

***

Krutch spun on his own axis, aloof from most public causes, perhaps immune to organization. The fact that he rose to prominence about the same time as Knoxville’s chummier Smokies Park-era environmentalists may be coincidental. Krutch only occasionally visited Knoxville after the 1920s, and most of his environmentalist energy was directed toward his latter-day adopted home of the Southwest. But his Cumberland Avenue home included an aunt and uncle who were extraordinarily enthusiastic about the Smokies long before it was a park (his Uncle Charles Christopher Krutch was one of the best-known painters of the Smokies). Joe Krutch was a UT undergrad of 20 at the time of Knoxville’s landmark National Conservation Exposition of 1913, in which his family was peripherally involved.

That exposition, held for two months in the fall of 1913 at Chilhowee Park, was a practical conservationist fair, supported by several industrialists and middle-class Knoxville businessmen, but it represented a new interest in taking some kind of care of the land outside the city. It may have a lot to answer for. Famed Pennsylvania conservationist Gifford Pinchot was in charge, and it drew one million visitors and turned some heads. We can only guess what impact it might have had on young minds.

Many of the people involved with the exposition were, a decade later, leading the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hardly any park project in history has started with so much local leadership. David Chapman, Willis and Annie Davis, Carlos Campbell, Jim Thompson, many of them were businessmen who liked the mountains, some key leaders were Republicans, and certainly didn’t all think of themselves as liberals.

That 1913 exposition may have a lot to answer for. One 11-year-old kid who likely attended would, in his pivotal life, take the conservationist idea and carry it a good deal farther than the original generation imagined.

Knoxville attorney Harvey Broome (1902-1968) was no smartypants newcomer, no environmentalist carpetbagger. He came from a generations-old Smithwood-area family. He was a descendant of early settler John Adair, one of the constitutional delegates who founded the state of Tennessee. He was also a UT alum. He became a Knoxville lawyer. But from his teenage years, even before it was a national park with marked trails, Broome spent every spare weekend in the Smokies. He was just a little too young to have been involved in the founding of the park, but he found a destiny that was wide as a continent.

He got a boost from his era. The year 1933 brought the New Deal surprise of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which in its early years was something much more than a power company, more an experiment in organizing resources—especially in the first five years when idealistic chairman Arthur Morgan was in charge. Morgan, whose office was in downtown Knoxville while he lived in the planned community of Norris, favored state planning in some ways that might have given Ted Kennedy the heebie-jeebies—in those days, New York Republican Wendell Willkie was denouncing TVA as “socialistic”—but in the mid-1930s, Morgan and his other lefty colleagues like David Lilienthal were welcome customers at the S&W Cafeteria.

For half a decade, Knoxville was a mecca for intellectual idealists in fields ranging from architecture to forest management from all over the country. Among them were New York forester Bernard Frank and the 55-year-old Benton MacKaye, already famous to hikers for his life’s project, the Appalachian Trail. In 1933, he’d written an essay for the handbook of the Knoxville-based Smoky Mountain Hiking Club, urging Americans to cherish wilderness “even as human fellowship itself.... For we need this thing wilderness far more than it needs us.”

In 1934, MacKaye wrote to a friend about Knoxville: “This place is more stimulating than Washington,” due to the excitement of TVA, he said. “One is completely and perpetually surrounded by experts and specialists on every subject under the sun and all talking at once.”

MacKaye’s office in the Arnstein Building was reputedly a lively spot. MacKaye, a widower—his wife, a radical pacifist, had died years before—lived at the YMCA. He later found an apartment in Maplehurst that became central to an intellectual bull session known as the Philosophers’ Club.

MacKaye, Broome, Frank, and another wilderness enthusiast, Bob Marshall—a U.S. Forest Service administrator, considered a political radical (he would just a little later be investigated, but never arrested, for allegedly subversive activities)—got to talking, and by October 1934 were convinced of the necessity of a new national organization focused not on management of forests, but on permanent protection of wilderness areas.

Of the original conversation that raised the prospect of a wilderness society, three of the four original founders were, for the time being at least, Knoxvillians. With a few others, including famous conservationist author Aldo Leopold, they founded something called the Wilderness Society. The word “environmentalism” wouldn’t catch on until the ’60s, but the Wilderness Society was already on the ground, pushing well beyond TR-style conservationism.

They’d later be joined, in Knoxville, by another ally, a few years younger than the others: Illinois native Ernie Dickerman (1910-1998) moved here the same year as that original meeting. He worked for TVA, too, at first. Though he didn’t stay with the agency, he lived in Knoxville for much longer than Frank and MacKaye, about 35 years, agitating for wilderness protection on a national scale. Perhaps on MacKaye’s recommendation, Dickerman’s official residence, during most of his Knoxville years, was the YMCA, a sensible choice for anyone who prefers to spend his free evenings in tents in the mountains. Working through the Wilderness Society and other groups, Dickerman would later be hailed as grandfather of the Eastern Wilderness.

Broome and Justice William O. Douglas, one of the U.S. Supreme Court’s most famously liberal judges, were hiking pals and mutual admirers. Douglas compared Broome to Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. Broome and Douglas went on several “protest hikes” together in the 1950s, on both the east and west coasts. Broome encountered some hostility to his environmentalist principles in the Pacific Northwest, where Washington state businessmen confronted Broome’s publicized 1958 hike in protest of a Pacific coast highway with a sign saying “Birdwatchers Go Home.”

In 1957, Broome publicly called for a “Bill of Rights for the wilderness.” In 1963, he wrote, “the preservation of the richness, the beauty, and full ecological depth of our environment is as important as any other basic endeavor of man.”

The Wilderness Society was one of the first true environmentalist activist groups, and maybe the most influential. The allies’ efforts led, after 30 years of work, to the Wilderness Act. Lifelong Knoxvillian Harvey Broome, the longtime president of the Wilderness Society, stood with President Johnson at the signing. It remains controversial in some quarters today.

The nationally active Wilderness Society still thrives as one of America’s leading environmental-protection organizations. Its current website is currently headlined, “Don’t Let Congress Give Away Your Wilderness.” The WS strongly opposes strip mining and new drilling for oil in wilderness areas. Their policies are a little to the left of most practical Democrats.

Broome died 44 years ago, while working in his garden in Fountain City. His published writings suggest the priorities of the Wilderness Society today are exactly in line with his own. Broome was also active in the Sierra Club (the local chapter is named for him), the Izaak Walton League, Defenders of Wildlife, and several other environmentalist organizations that sometimes took controversial stands.

Broome was so prominent, as a conservationist and as a writer, that you’d think he and Krutch might be close allies. Both were born in Knoxville, just nine years apart, both were UT grads, both were authors and leaders of the burgeoning environmentalist movement; both were, by the 1960s, national figures, often quoted. In fact, there’s no obvious indication they ever met.

Many of the Knoxville environmentalists may have been single-issue liberals. It’s hard to know what they thought about, say, gay rights or abortion. We do know that Broome admired fellow Tennessean Cordell Hull’s work. Broome found himself camping on Gregory Bald the day in 1945 when Hull’s project went into effect.

“This day the charter of the United Nations was signed....” Broome wrote in his journal. “The Charter, or at least its purpose, seems so obvious in the perspective of a night alone on Gregory. Why shouldn’t men who are thrown together for a passing span, existing here for a few swings of the earth, between the dim and unsolved eternities of the past and the far-off and obscure eons of the future, covenant to live together in peace so that they might turn all their energies to the greatest occupation of all—the reconciliation of man and mankind, mentally, physically, and spiritually with the surrounding universe?”

***

Maybe none of them were quite as liberal as Knoxville native James Agee, who was born in 1909, just around the corner from the 16-year-old Joe Krutch’s house. One of Agee’s best-known works was an essay, a prose poem that transcends mere nostalgia, called “Knoxville: Summer 1915.” Later interpreted as a musical piece by Samuel Barber, it remains the first reason many readers around the world have heard of Knoxville. Even Agee’s admirers may not know that “Knoxville: Summer 1915” first appeared in 1938, in the Partisan Review, a lefty journal which had recently been associated with the Communist Party.

It was partly the times, but radical politics crops up again and again in Agee’s young adulthood. In his classic 1941 work of subjective nonfiction, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a thick paean to America’s powerless working people, Agee declared, “I am a Communist by sympathy and conviction,” adding immediately that he didn’t think human civilization had evolved to a point that it could sustain communist ideals. “I am under no delusion that communism can be achieved overnight, if ever.... we human beings are scarcely entered into the post-diaper stage of our development....”

Whereas Krutch was suspicious of both Communism and Christianity, Agee seemed fond of them both, at least in the ideal. Agee later became one of the strongest defenders of his friend Charlie Chaplin, whom J. Edgar Hoover was convinced was a communist, forcing the comedy icon out of the country for his “un-American activities.”

Agee’s concerns as a journalist and novelist were mainly beyond politics—it’s hard to read politics in either of his novels—but as the rest of the nation celebrated VJ Day, his famous essay, “Victory: The Peace”—the title seems ironic—perhaps the most unsettling essay ever to appear in Time magazine, made him one of the first public critics of the use of the atomic bomb, an event so enormous, he wrote, “that the war itself shrank to minor significance.” The short essay added criticisms of America itself: “upon a people already so drowned in materialism even in peacetime, the good uses of this power might easily bring disaster as prodigious as the evil” it was created to defeat.

***

And just as the left-wing idealism of the 1930s was fading, a janitor’s daughter was growing up in East Knoxville. Nikki Giovanni grew up to become a ’60s radical, the poet laureate of the Black Power movement. But through all her fury, she was always fond of her Knoxville home.

Lucille Thornburgh, the Strawberry Plains native who led a Knoxville textile strike in the 1930s, for which she earned national acclaim, was fond of saying, “I’ve been called a communist by people who don’t know communism from rheumatism.”

We haven’t even gotten to the university radicals of the late 1960s. There was a time, 30-something years ago, when to be a conservative in certain Knoxville neighborhoods, notably Fort Sanders, was a lonesome pursuit.

Trends shift. Maybe Knoxville’s conservative now. Of course, some thought it was then. Some people, despite parentage or neighborhood, are born with the rare ability to think for themselves. Anything might happen.

© 2012 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 1

Carroll writes:

Thanks for the article.

Your comments concerning Hull and the UN may lend support to a view I heard back in the 60's circulating in the UT History Department, spoken by historians, that Gatlinburg was the first choice for the UN headquarters. The notion was dropped when the need for an airport to handle jet aircraft became apparent. I suppose they could have used that long, flat, narrow area that became the strip of Pigeon Forge….

For some reason there has been long-standing investments by foreigners in businesses in Gatlinburg. Regardless of who owns it, there is a 'Swiss Village' up there. Foreign investments there may be coincidental, along with the emphasis on education found in that neck of the woods. But if the early initiative to locate the UN in a Geneva-like setting is true, it might indicate that the idea circulated long enough to draw international attention.

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