Philander P. Claxton, the “Crusader for Public Education in the South,” was born in a log cabin in rural Bedford County in 1862. He attended several “cabin” schools and received a secondary education at a backwoods academy, where, at age sixteen, he taught classes for a remission of fees. He attended the University of Tennessee and graduated from its classical curriculum in two and one-half years, second in his class of sixteen. He later studied Teutonic languages at Johns Hopkins University, but did not earn a degree.
Claxton taught and served as an administrator in several small school systems in North Carolina. From 1893 until 1902 he taught pedagogy at North Carolina Normal and Industrial College. In 1902, Charles W. Dabney, president of the University of Tennessee and a leader in the campaign to create better public schools in the South, employed Claxton to administer the Southern Education Board (SEB)’s promotional efforts and edit its journal, Southern Education. With support from the SEB and the interlocking Rockefeller-financed General Education Board (GEB), Dabney and Claxton created a department of education at the University of Tennessee. They also organized the Summer School of the South with GEB funds. Claxton served as head of the Department of Education and superintendent of the Summer School of the South from 1902 until 1911. During that period, more than twenty thousand teachers attended the school, which became the largest summer school in the United States.
Together with R. L. Jones, S. G. Gilbreath, Seymour Mynders, J. W. Brister, and P. L. Harned, Claxton led a political struggle for state financial support for Tennessee’s public schools, which culminated in the passage of the far-reaching General Education Bill of 1909. During the campaign, Claxton and the others covered the state, speaking to an estimated one hundred thousand people. The law significantly increased appropriations for public schools, established three normal schools, and provided for permanent state funding for the University of Tennessee budget.
In 1911 Claxton was appointed U.S. commissioner of education and served through both the Taft and Wilson administrations. One of the best-known peace advocates among World War I-era educators, Claxton became the target of angry attacks from members of patriotic societies who accused him of distributing pacifist literature at government expense. He further angered his critics by resisting attempts to prohibit the teaching of the German language.
Claxton served as provost at the University of Alabama (1921-23) and superintendent of schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1923-29). He was president of Austin Peay Normal School in Clarksville from 1930 to 1946, retiring at the age of eighty-three. While at Austin Peay, he led a second, but much less successful, statewide public school campaign. Claxton made no pretense of being a scholar, but he was a prolific writer of position papers and opinion columns in journals, newspapers, and pamphlets. In 1957, shortly after his death, officials at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, dedicated the Claxton Education Building in his honor.