Governor Ben W. Hooper was born Bennie Walter Wade in Newport, Cocke County, on October 13, 1870, the illegitimate son of Sarah Wade and Dr. Lemuel Washington Hooper. The child and his mother moved to Dandridge, Mossy Creek (now Jefferson City), New Market, and finally Knoxville, where his mother placed the boy in the care of St. John's Orphanage of the Episcopal Church. At the age of nine, he was legally adopted by his father, who changed the boy's name to Hooper and raised him in Newport.
After graduating from Carson-Newman College in 1890, Hooper studied law under Judge Horace Nelson Cate and was admitted to the bar in 1894. From 1893 to 1897 he served two terms in the state House of Representatives and was captain of Company C, Sixth U.S. Volunteer Infantry during the Spanish-American War. After the war, he married Anna Belle Jones and practiced law in Newport until he received an appointment as assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern Tennessee District, a position he held from 1906 to 1910.
Prior to the 1910 gubernatorial election, prohibition and the related issue of machine politics were at the center of political strife across Tennessee. While leading Republicans supported the temperance cause, the dominant element of the Democratic Party rejected it, despite fierce objection by former U.S. senator and fiery prohibitionist Edward Ward Carmack. The breach among Tennessee Democrats grew wider when Governor Malcolm R. Patterson, an opponent of statewide prohibition, used his control of party machinery to block its adoption. The murder of Carmack in 1908 and Governor Patterson's pardoning of his killer further agitated relations among Tennessee Democrats.
Republicans, seizing the opportunity to take control of the governor's office, nominated Hooper, a capable East Tennessean who had embraced the moral reform efforts sweeping across the state and nation. As an ardent prohibitionist, Hooper earned the endorsement of the prohibition faction of the Democratic Party. With this bipartisan support, Hooper defeated former governor Robert L. Taylor by a vote of 133,074 to 121,694 and served as Tennessee's only Republican governor between 1880 and 1920.
Hooper dealt with an ongoing conflict over prohibition and election laws; regular Democrats wanted to amend the laws passed by the 1909 legislature, while Fusionists (Independent Democrats and Republicans) fought to keep them as enacted. Despite the turmoil, this administration enacted a child labor law, a law ensuring that the pay of working women would be given only to them, a pure food and drug law, and authorization for counties to issue bonds to buy school property and establish hospitals for treating contagious diseases.
Hooper won reelection in 1912, defeating another former governor, Benton McMillin. During his second term, the legislature increased state revenue for education, initiated mandatory school attendance for children ages eight to fourteen, and authorized county boards of education to transport students to and from school. Other laws provided for an official examination of the state banking system, a parole system for deserving prisoners, a change in the death penalty to replace hanging with electrocution, and pensions for Civil War veterans and their widows. At Hooper's insistence the legislature passed the “Jug Bill” to prohibit intrastate shipment of liquor or the delivery of more than one gallon from outside the state, and the “Nuisance Bill,” which permitted ten citizens to petition the court to close saloons and gambling houses.
Hooper ran for a third term but lost to Thomas C. Rye in 1914. Upon leaving the governor's office, Hooper resumed his law practice in Newport. He ran for the U.S. Senate twice, in 1916 and 1934, but was defeated both times by Kenneth D. McKellar. In 1920 President Warren G. Harding appointed Hooper to the U.S. Railroad Labor Board in Chicago where he became a national figure in labor-management arbitration by averting a railroad strike scheduled for October 30, 1921. Upon returning again to Newport, Hooper served as a chief land purchasing agent for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and served as vice-chairman for Tennessee's Limited Constitutional Convention in 1953. Hooper authored Elections in Tennessee (1946), and his autobiography, The Unwanted Boy, was published posthumously in 1963. Hooper died of pneumonia in 1957 and was buried in Newport.