Herman C. Nixon, historian, political scientist, and member of the Southern Agrarians, was born in Merrellton, Alabama, in 1886. He was educated at the Alabama State Normal School, the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University), and the University of Chicago. Nixon served in the military in World War I. While working on his dissertation on the Populist movement in Iowa, Nixon taught at several schools in Alabama, then at Iowa State College (now University), and from 1925 to 1928 he taught history at Vanderbilt University. From 1928 to 1938 Nixon taught political science at Tulane University, serving as chair of the Department of History and Political Science, 1931-38. For the next two years he was Visiting Professor of History at the University of Missouri. In 1940 Nixon returned to Vanderbilt as Lecturer in Political Science; he was promoted to full professor in 1953, two years before his retirement. Nixon also served as editorial director of the Vanderbilt University Press. He was elected second vice-president of the American Political Science Association in 1940 and president of the Southern Political Science Association in 1944. Nixon was married in 1927 to Anne Trice, and they had three children.
During the late 1920s Nixon was recruited by the organizers of the Southern symposium I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930) to write the chapter on the southern economy. In I'll Take My Stand, the Agrarians did not recommend a specific program of action but urged the people of the South not to surrender the region's “moral, social, and economic autonomy” to the increasingly prevalent industrial system. In “Whither Southern Economy” Nixon expressed concern that the region's reliance on agriculture as the basis for its society was being threatened by industrialism and admonished the region to move cautiously in embracing wholesale the industrial order, with its attendant evil of unbridled consumerism.
Nixon agreed with his colleagues about the evils of unregulated industrialization of the region's economy, but he parted philosophical company with them when it came to determining the most effective remedy for the region's economic ills. Nixon would soon be urging more cooperative, and therefore less individualistic, solutions for the poverty-stricken rural South than the other Agrarians could accept.
Remembered as the Agrarian who moved farthest from the ranks philosophically, Nixon held political views that were always more liberal than those of most of the group, including African Americans, in his advocacy of practical measures to lift the rural South out of poverty and in support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Subsistence Homesteads program and the Tennessee Valley Authority. In 1935 he lobbied Congress for the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenancy bill, and, as chairman of the Southern Policy Committee, he coordinated hearings on the cotton tenancy programs of the New Deal's Agricultural Adjustment Administration. As a member of the Social Science Research Council's Southern Regional Committee, he conducted research projects and helped plan conferences on southern rural poverty. He was one of the organizers and first field agent of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare. Nixon never failed to support–often at tremendous personal cost–progressive, liberal initiatives, the goal of which were to relieve poverty and promote social justice.