Gordon W. Browning, three-term governor and U.S. congressman, was born in Carroll County in 1895. He attended local schools and opened a law practice in Huntingdon in 1915. He served in the National Guard in World War I. In 1922 he entered politics, winning a congressional seat and serving six consecutive terms with little opposition to his reelection.
In 1934 he ran for a two-year term in the U.S. Senate against Nathan Bachman, who had been appointed to fill the vacancy created in 1933 by the appointment of Cordell Hull as U.S. secretary of state. Browning failed to win, in part because the voters of East Tennessee did not want two senators from West Tennessee (Kenneth McKellar of Memphis was the other senator). E. H. Crump’s support for Bachman was another reason for Browning’s defeat.
In 1936 Browning entered the gubernatorial race. Governor Hill McAlister decided not to run for reelection and backed his ally Burgin Dossett. Initially, Crump claimed neutrality, not liking either candidate. Browning conducted an effective and energetic stump campaign, promising to clean up corruption in state government, maintain prohibition, reform the state financial structure, and support the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Dossett advocated a repeal of the state’s “bone dry” prohibition law and accused Browning of wanting to cripple the TVA. Late in the campaign, when Browning’s lead became apparent, Crump joined his cause. Consequently, Browning won the primary by more than a two-to-one margin and easily defeated his Republican opponent, P. H. Thach, in the fall.
When Browning became governor in January 1937, he found the state in severe financial difficulty. From 1924 to 1937 the state debt had risen from $16 million to $129 million, and the servicing of the debt crippled efforts to accomplish other objectives. In May 1937 Browning persuaded the legislature to adopt six important measures to reorganize state debt and move forward on various social programs. The Debt Reorganization Act brought all state debts into a single plan for orderly retirement and enacted additional taxes for retirement of the debt. By 1948 the debt of Tennessee had been reduced by 40 percent. Other measures created a Department of Conservation, implemented the state’s portion of the Social Security Old Age Pension programs, further increased cooperation with federal welfare programs, significantly increased state appropriations for public education, and created a civil service merit system for the state.
The death of Nathan Bachman in April 1937 opened the U.S. Senate seat for legislative appointment. Since he wanted to accomplish his state reforms and was unwilling to openly solicit the office from the general assembly as previous governors had done, Browning took no action on his own behalf. He reportedly offered to support Crump in a race for the U.S. Senate against McKellar in 1940 if Crump would support him for the Senate and Lewis Pope for governor in 1938. Browning appointed labor leader George L. Berry to fill Bachman’s term until the next general election.
Any deals between Browning and Crump became moot when a major break occurred between the two men. Crump refused to run against his old friend McKellar, and Browning decided to run for reelection as governor. The Browning-Crump split occurred for several reasons. The dominant personalities of the two men refused compromise. Crump represented the urban progressive succession to the planter aristocracy, while Browning always based his power on rural small farmers. Finally, Browning successfully personified Crump as the epitome of evil in state government, in essence a Judas of Tennessee. In 1938 Browning lost the gubernatorial election to Prentice Cooper, but the split eventually realigned Tennessee’s entire political structure.
After serving in various World War II appointive positions, Browning returned to politics in 1948 and mounted a campaign against the reelection of incumbent governor Jim Nance McCord. Browning won the Democratic primary by focusing on McCord’s unpopular enactment of the state’s first sales tax. Both Browning and Estes Kefauver, who successfully ran for the U.S. Senate, recognized the voter willingness to reject boss-controlled politics and used the 1948 race to destroy Crump’s statewide power.
In 1949 Browning launched another period of reform. In education, he signed legislation guaranteeing a minimum salary for teachers, increased funding for school construction, raised appropriations for higher education, and established the first effective teacher retirement system. The legislature accepted without change his $48 million appropriation for farm-to-market roads. Finally, a series of election reforms provided for permanent voter registration, abolition of the poll tax for women and veterans in primary elections, open meetings for the State Elections Board, and improved absentee voter regulations.
In 1950 Browning won the Democratic primary in a close race over Clifford Allen, which automatically gained him a second term, since the Republicans had failed to run a gubernatorial candidate for the first time since the Civil War. In his third term Browning successfully enacted a call for a limited Constitutional Convention. When voters adopted the measure in 1952, it became the first Constitutional Convention in the state since 1870.
In the 1952 election Browning faced his most formidable candidate, the charismatic, thirty-two-year-old Frank G. Clement. Clement toured the state with a ten-point “indictment” of the Browning administration on charges of corruption and favoritism. Clement easily mastered the new medium of television, a feat that proved impossible for the older Browning. Saddled with explaining the high cost of a lease-purchase agreement for state office space in the Memorial Apartments near the Capitol building and forced to battle voter unhappiness over his recent Democratic Convention endorsement of Estes Kefauver at the expense of the Virginia delegates, Browning saw his support lag behind that of the energetic Clement. Clement won the Democratic primary by more than fifty thousand votes.
Two years later, over the objections of many supporters, Browning ran against Clement again and lost every county except Carroll. Browning then went into semi-retirement and returned to his law practice in Huntingdon, where he lived as Tennessee’s elder statesman until his death in 1976. Browning’s six years as governor witnessed significant legislative achievements and helped to break the power of Boss Crump. The former McKenzie post office, built by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, now houses a museum and archives centered around the career of Gordon Browning.
William R. Majors, Change and Continuity: Tennessee Politics Since the Civil War (1979)