Hilary Howse, significant Nashville politician and mayor in the early twentieth century, was born in Rutherford County. In 1884 Howse came to Nashville, found work in a furniture store, and helped five of his siblings get started in the city. By 1900 he and his brother had opened their own downtown furniture store and entered politics. Howse began as a party operative for the local Democratic organization and was elected first to the county court and then to the state Senate, where he assumed a role as leader of the powerful Davidson County delegation.
As the prohibition movement gained strength, Howse joined forces with the “wets.” He ran successfully for the office of mayor of Nashville in 1909 on the promise that he would not enforce the laws closing saloons. Howse was well known in the “Gentleman's Quarter” around Nashville's Printer's Alley as a man who frequented saloons. “I'm not a drinking man,” he once told incredulous reporters, “but as long as I stay in a free country I will eat and drink as I please.” (1) On another occasion, when challenged as to whether he actively protected the saloons from prosecution under the prohibition laws, he retorted: “Protect them? I do better than that. I patronize 'em.” (2)
Howse won financial support from the liquor interests, but he earned popular support from the white and black working-class poor in the inner-city districts. The Howse “machine” extended personal aid to poor families in need of coal and groceries and used patronage to reward loyal party supporters. Howse welcomed black and poor white voters shut out of the political process by restrictive voting laws. He paid their poll tax and perhaps treated them to a drink on election day. The Howse machine was a political organization with a style much like the boss politics that emerged among immigrant neighborhoods of large northern industrial cities. These types of urban political machines were based on a more personal style of politics in which leaders exchanged favors for votes and used government to help the city's poor. Howse stands as an example of how this American political style was adapted to the southern urban environment, where there were fewer foreign immigrants and more African Americans.
As mayor, Howse expanded the public park system, cleaned up some of the worst slums in Black Bottom and North Nashville, sponsored free health dispensaries and milk stations in poor neighborhoods, and instigated a major addition to the city hospital. He also worked to improve the city's public schools and sponsored the construction of a new city high school, later named Hume-Fogg High School.
Howse reached out to black as well as white voters. Among the more notable political plums he offered to black voters were Hadley Park (the first major city park for blacks in America), a county hospital for black tuberculosis victims, a Carnegie Branch Library for Negroes, and Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial Normal School for Negroes (now Tennessee State University). Howse's 1911 reelection ticket included Solomon Parker Harris, the city's first black councilman since the early 1880s.
On the other side were Progressive-era advocates of good government who thought the business and professional elites should run the city. These leaders, often referred to as “goo goos” by their opponents, struck back with a series of government reforms intended to destroy the Howse machine's foundations in neighborhood politics. In 1913 they introduced the commission plan of government, which they hoped would remove the “odor of politics” from city government. When Howse managed to win reelection under the new charter in 1913, the “goo goos” took another line of attack by exposing what the local press decried as a serious financial scandal in which several Howse compatriots were accused of graft and corruption. The 1915 crisis ended in Howse's resignation after some accounting books were declared missing.
Between 1915 and 1923 Nashville's city government came under the control of the downtown business elite, but instead of good government efficiency and moral reform, a period of chronic factionalism and spotty leadership ensued. Howse married, joined a church, denounced his past ways, and prepared his comeback. Women voters, persuaded by his personal reform, proved important to his reelection in 1923. Nevertheless, Nashville remained “wide open” for illegal saloons, bootleggers, gamblers, and petty political corruption. Howse's brand of “urban liberalism” with its emphasis on health, schools, hospitals, slum cleanup, and other human welfare policies counted for more among the city's working people than did the moral concerns of his enemies.
During the next fifteen years Nashville enjoyed stable government during a period of rapid growth in the 1920s and severe economic crisis in the 1930s. The new suburban neighborhoods of Hillsboro, Belmont, and Sylvan Park joined the city in a major annexation in 1925. But other wealthy suburbs, Richland and Belle Meade in particular, resisted falling under the control of the city machine, and for his part Howse cared little for bringing more “silk stocking” districts into the city to vote against him. During the New Deal of the 1930s, Howse managed to turn federal welfare projects to local political advantage and in the process bring large federal grants to Nashville projects. Charges of corruption continued to hound Howse, who died in office in January 1938. Howse had served Nashville as its mayor twenty-one years. A new high school named in his honor was later renamed West End High School after voters and students protested.