Henry Horton was elected governor of Tennessee with the support of Luke Lea, head of a powerful faction of the Democratic Party, and was little more than a front man for the Lea political machine. When Lea’s political and financial empire crashed with the stock market in 1929, Horton faced charges of corruption that led to calls for his impeachment.
Born in Alabama in February 1866, Horton graduated from Winchester College in 1888 and attended the University of the South at Sewanee, 1891-92. He opened a law practice in Marshall County and launched his political career when he ran for school district director. A Prohibition Democrat, Horton served one term in the State House, 1907-9. He returned to Nashville in 1927 as a state senator and was chosen to be Speaker of the Senate. The political fortunes of the obscure Marshall County senator took a dramatic turn when Governor Austin Peay died unexpectedly and Speaker Horton fulfilled his constitutional duty of finishing out Peay’s term.
The inexperienced Horton turned to Luke Lea of Nashville for guidance. Lea, a former U.S. senator, owned several powerful state newspapers and was a highly successful investor in real estate, banks, and other enterprises throughout the South. Like Horton, Lea had entered state politics as a prohibitionist and supported Peay’s reorganization of state government and his programs to improve the state’s roads and schools. Under Lea’s tutelage, Horton implemented Peay’s road building program and initiated the state’s first eight-month school terms.
Peay’s reorganization and rationalization of state government increased efficiency, but it also enlarged the political patronage system and consolidated it under the governor’s control, or, as proved the case during Horton’s term of office, under the control of his chief advisor. Getting and holding a job in state government depended upon the will of Luke Lea. Through the exercise of patronage, Lea emerged as the chief rival to Memphis’s Ed “Boss” Crump.
By the late 1920s Lea’s political and financial fortunes were closely linked with those of Nashville financier Rogers Caldwell, who had built his wealth on the marketing of southern bonds. Lea invested heavily in Caldwell’s projects, which included banks, newspapers, and manufacturing establishments. Among his other enterprises, Caldwell owned a company named Kyrock that produced road building materials. Horton allowed the state highway department (run by a Lea ally) to award contracts to Kyrock without competitive bidding. More seriously, Horton placed state funds in Caldwell-owned banks, where they were used to bolster the Caldwell financial empire; the superintendent of banks, a former Caldwell employee and Lea appointee, warned Caldwell of imminent state audits.
When Horton ran for reelection in 1928, Kyrock became a symbol of Lea’s domination of the candidate. Hill McAlister, the supposed Memphis machine candidate, and Lewis L. Pope, an independent Democrat, opposed Horton, but the governor won reelection with the help of a Caldwell-financed slush fund. Riding high, Lea attacked Crump, threatening to use state patronage to undercut Crump’s control of Memphis. Crump and Lea cut a deal: Lea backed out of Memphis and Boss Crump swung his formidable political machine behind Horton in 1930. Horton won his second term easily.
Lea’s Caldwell connection brought down both Horton and his advisor. The Caldwell empire was already tottering when the stock market crashed in 1929. Caldwell and Company collapsed only a few days after Horton won the 1930 election and carried with it banks throughout the South–including the banks in which the state deposited its funds. Almost seven million dollars of public funds disappeared. An investigation by the general assembly produced charges that Horton had conspired with Lea and Caldwell to let them effectively run certain branches of the state government for their own financial gain in exchange for Lea’s political support. Boss Crump led the charge to impeach Horton. Ironically, the fact that Crump wanted him removed probably saved Horton; many rural legislators feared that a vote to impeach the governor would be seen as a vote for Crump, thus strengthening the Memphis machine. The House voted fifty-eight to forty-one against impeaching Horton, and the aging governor was allowed to serve out his term and retire to Marshall County. He died of a probable stroke in 1934.
William J. Majors, Change and Continuity: Tennessee Politics Since the Civil War (1986)