Benton McMillin, governor, congressman, and diplomat, was born on September 11, 1845, in Monroe County, Kentucky, the son of John and Elizabeth Black McMillin. After completing preparatory studies at Philomath Academy in Tennessee, he attended the Kentucky Agricultural and Mechanical College (later University of Kentucky) at Lexington. At the outbreak of the Civil War, McMillin’s father, a wealthy planter, withheld his permission for his youthful son to join his two older brothers in the Confederate army. When Union troops captured the young McMillin, he refused to swear allegiance to the federal government and was imprisoned briefly. After the war, McMillin read law under Judge E. L. Gardenshire in Carthage, Tennessee. Admitted to the Tennessee bar in 1871, he established his practice in Celina, before moving to Carthage.
McMillin’s long political career began in 1874, when he was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives as a Democrat. In 1875 Governor James D. Porter commissioned McMillin to negotiate with Kentucky officials on a territorial purchase. Two years later the governor appointed him as special court judge of the Fifth Judicial Circuit. McMillin served as a presidential elector in every election from 1876 to 1932 except the 1916 contest and attended every Democratic National Convention except that of 1920, earning the sobriquet of “Democratic War Horse.”
In 1878 McMillin won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving continuously from 1879 to 1899. Known for his impromptu oratorical powers and his skill as a parliamentarian, he served on the Rules Committee, where he frequently challenged House Speaker Thomas B. Reed, a Maine Republican. McMillin served fourteen years on the important Ways and Means Committee. He opposed government extravagance, condemned Republican tariff policies, favored antitrust laws, denounced the Federal Election Bill, castigated imperialism, warned against federal court encroachments, and supported currency expansion, including the free coinage of silver.
Beginning in 1879, McMillin advocated an income tax as an equitable means of raising revenue. When Democrats introduced a tariff reform bill in 1894, McMillin attached an income tax provision for a 2 percent tax on incomes above four thousand dollars. President Grover Cleveland allowed the Wilson-Gorman Tariff, with McMillin’s income tax amendment, to become law without his signature. After the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the income tax in Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Company (1895), a disappointed McMillin lobbied for a constitutional amendment to allow such a tax. This finally occurred with the adoption of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913.
Unsuccessful in a contest for the U.S. Senate in 1897, McMillin quit Congress to run for governor. He served as the state’s chief executive from 1899 to 1903. During his administration, McMillin reduced the state debt by creating a sinking fund and presiding over a strict management of the treasury. He also signed legislation establishing uniform textbooks for public schools, providing for factory inspection, and changing the minimum age for factory employment from twelve to fourteen years. After his second term, McMillin engaged in the insurance business in Nashville. He never again held elective office, though he sought a Senate seat in 1910 and 1930 and ran for governor in 1912 and 1922.
In 1913 President Woodrow Wilson appointed McMillin as minister to Peru, where he served until September 1919. After six years in Peru, McMillin was transferred to Guatemala, where he served until 1922.
McMillin married Birdie Brown, daughter of Tennessee Governor John C. Brown, in 1869. She died a few years after their marriage, leaving him with a son. In 1887 he married Lucille Foster, by whom he had a daughter. McMillin died in Nashville on January 8, 1933, and is buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery.