Governor Albert H. Roberts was instrumental in obtaining state ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment for woman suffrage. His highly unpopular tax reform, his use of state troops against labor, and his support for women’s rights combined to make him one of the most unpopular Democratic governors in the state’s history. He lost a reelection bid in 1920 to Alfred Taylor, Republican brother of famed Democratic governor Robert Taylor.
Born July 4, 1868, in Overton County, Roberts graduated from Hiwassee College in 1889. He married Nora Dean Bowden, the daughter of his Latin teacher, and joined his in-laws in the operation of Alpine Institute, a Presbyterian private school in Overton County. Roberts studied law, was admitted to the bar in 1894, and opened a practice in Livingston. Roberts built a successful law practice, but remained interested in education; he served as superintendent of public instruction for Overton County for five years. In 1909 Roberts and Livingston civic leaders made a successful bid to the Disciples of Christ Christian Women’s Board of Missions to establish a mission school, Livingston Academy, in Overton County.
From 1910 until 1918 Roberts served as chancellor for the Fourth Judicial Division. As a circuit judge, he traveled through fifteen Middle Tennessee counties twice annually and became a well-known figure in the district. Roberts served on Benton McMillin’s 1912 gubernatorial campaign committee and made a bid for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1914, losing to Tom C. Rye in the primary. Roberts made a second bid in 1918, overcame formidable primary opposition from Clarksville’s Austin Peay, and swept past the Republican candidate in the general election. Roberts’s progressive commitment to tax reform and better roads and schools faced an electorate already irritated by World War I restrictions and the Democratic handling of the war. Roberts compounded his problems by alienating almost every constituency in the Democratic Party.
His problems began with tax reform. Roberts designed a plan to lower property taxes through standardized assessments and a sliding scale tax rate based on two-year projected revenue needs. Theoretically, as the amount of taxed property increased, the tax rate decreased. When owners of “intangible” property failed to present their assets for taxation, the state fell back on land taxes; the tax rate on farms increased approximately 260 percent in one year.
Roberts alienated both the right and left wing Democrats. Tennesseans joined postwar workers nationwide to strike for union recognition and better pay. Roberts reacted with legislation to create a state police force, appeals for citizens to organize “Law and Order Leagues,” and the dispatch of troops to quell strikes in Nashville and Knoxville. He lost the support of the right wing of his party over woman suffrage. Following congressional passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, state legislatures took up ratification in the summer of 1920. Bowing to pressure from President Woodrow Wilson, Roberts called the general assembly into special session to take up ratification. When the general assembly ratified the Nineteenth Amendment and gave women the right to vote, Roberts received national applause, but conservative Tennesseans were outraged.
In 1920 the Republicans nominated Alf Taylor, who campaigned with a fiddle and a quartet, promising farmers tax relief. Prominent Democrats pulled back their support of Roberts; labor organized against him; and he faced constant attacks for his support of woman suffrage. Taylor won the election with 229,000 to Roberts’s 186,000 votes.
After his defeat Roberts and his son ran a successful law practice in Nashville. The former governor remained in politics. In 1930 he served on a committee that investigated Governor Henry Horton’s involvement with Luke Lea and Rogers Caldwell. He died June 26, 1946, at his home in Donelson.
Gary W. Reichard, “The Defeat of Governor Roberts,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 30 (1971): 94-109