FROM INSIDE THE MIND OF A HISTORY PROFESSOR –
SBI: A THINNING CROWD
Last year, I was asked to write an article about Cordell Hull for the Tennessee Baptist History Journal. During the process, I did quite a bit of research. However, the best part of the assignment was the day I spent at his birthplace. My parents joined me on the drive through the back roads of Tennessee, and we spent the day looking at the scenery and talking about all kinds of things.
The article was recently published, but I could find no online resource. Instead of sharing a link, I decided to share the article. Oh, if you have never heard of Cordell Hull, then let me introduce you to the man.
In 2013, the State of Tennessee proposed the demolition of the Cordell Hull Building, which has housed government employees since the 1950s. Uproar ensued as preservationists and citizens expressed outrage toward the plan, and, after furious debate, state officials determined that renovation of the Cordell Hull Building was the best option.
Despite the intensity of the argument, few people mentioned the person for whom the building is named. Perhaps that was because Middle Tennessee is dotted with places named in his honor: Cordell Hull Dam, Cordell Hull Lake, Cordell Hull State Park. Perhaps it was because people who argued against the demolition of the building did not realize the important role he played in the history of the United States and the history of the world. As Harold B. Hinton wrote, “There are scores of Tennesseans who have helped mightily in the building of the United States, and Cordell Hull must be numbered among them.”
On October 2, 1871, Cordell Hull was born in a log cabin on a twelve-acre farm rented by his sharecropper father, Billy. In his memoirs, Hull described Olympus, the nearest community, as “the only store in the entire section. This was also the post office.” This was also the rural setting from which he learned the value of hard work and from which his love for learning began.
Hull’s childhood was filled with days working with his siblings in his father’s fields. They cultivated oats, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, corn and made molasses to give all of that a sweeter flavor. When his father bought a larger farm and built a store, Hull continued to assist the family economically. At age eleven, he clerked at the store, and, as Hull wrote, “Sometimes a customer would come in and ask for the man in charge. I would reply proudly, ‘I am the man in charge.’” His father agreed, as he once stated, “Cord was always just like a grown man, from the time he could walk.”
Hull also helped his mother, Elizabeth, with spinning, weaving and milking the cows. However, it was from his mother that he gained his love for learning. Hull wrote:
With all her work, however, she taught us our A B C’s and the first portion of Noah Webster’s old blue-back speller, which was current for generations in all public schools. She required us children to read the Bible as much as possible, and she herself read it constantly.
Obviously, religion played an important role in the daily life of the Hull family, and Cordell Hull looked fondly upon this foundation of his faith. In his memoirs, he recounted:
The people of our section were mostly Primitive Baptists and Methodists…We had to go between one and two miles to the Primitive Baptist church on Wolf River, though sometimes services were held in private homes. The preacher was generally a farmer who tried to make a living on a farm and also undertook to preach. He was known locally as “the preacher.” Members of the church gave a little toward paying the preacher but not much.
Sometimes they had a preacher come from a distance and then they held splendid meetings. People went to the church from far and near. They walked or rode on horseback or in wagons and carts. There were no buggies in the ridge country at that time. Young men joined up with girl friends and went together to church. The boys wore stiff-standing paper collars, which on hot days were pretty well wilted down by the time they got to church walking or riding. I shall never forget the solemnity and fervor with which those people sand the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.”
He also remembered the important role of faith in local society when he wrote:
If a person was “skeptical,” he was promptly discovered and branded as an infidel, which rendered him somewhat unpopular and at that time deprived him of the right to testify under oath. Such persons were few and far between. The social life in the ridge country revolved largely around the church.
Hull’s work ethic; thirst for knowledge; and strong faith served him well as his world expanded through higher education, but, at a time when rural families often chose one son to pursue a professional career, he first had to convince his father with what Hinton called “the most important speech in his life.” Local parents established a debating society because, as Hull wrote, “they were deadly earnest that their children should get the utmost from their schooling.” In 1885, Hull took his turn at the podium and argued that George Washington was more important to American history than Christopher Columbus. In front of a crowded room, he won the contest, and his father decided that his son “should go away to the best school he could afford,” which was the Montvale Institute in Celina, Tennessee.
From Montvale, Cordell Hull matriculated to a normal school in Bowling Green, Kentucky and, after a few semesters, transferred to the National Normal University in Lebanon, Ohio. Normal schools specialized in training students to become teachers. Despite this training, Hull wanted to study law, and his father rented an office in Celina where his son could begin reading the law.Lawyers had been learning in this fashion for decades, however, in last decades of the 19th Century, the American Bar Association asserted that more rigorous training was needed.
In 1891, Hull enrolled in the law school at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee, an institution with the reputation of developing some of the nation’s best legal minds. As Hinton wrote in his biography of Cordell Hull, “Ever since the Civil War many of the greatest figures in Tennessee’s legal and political life have had their principal training at Cumberland.” Hull recalled, “When I went to Congress sixteen years later I found in Washington four or five Senators, one Justice of the Supreme Court and twelve to fifteen Congressmen who were graduates of Cumberland University.”
In addition to his academic growth, Hull gained experience outside the classroom that prepared him for the future. At age fourteen, he attended his first court session and first became interested in law. At age seventeen, he read his first newspaper, the Nashville American and listened to the ideas of men who gathered at the general store. From them he learned that “a person can’t ever amount to something unless he stands for something.”
When Hull traveled to Bowling Green, he rode a train for the first time, and, when he attended school in Lebanon, Ohio, he first experienced life outside of the South. However, his political career began back home when he was asked to speak at a rally. The organizers ran out of speakers but remembered his previous debate performance. At age sixteen, Hull spoke in support of Grover Cleveland for president of the United States. Cleveland lost, but, a few years later, Hull was elected Chairman of the Clay County Democratic Committee.
In 1892, Hull ran for the State Legislature. While not yet old enough to hold office, his birthday would come before the general election. Until that time, he had to face a formidable opponent for the Democratic nomination. Realizing that he could not win in a party convention, Hull maneuvered his opponent into a primary election. He bought and horse; stumped throughout four counties; and carried each one. He also won the general election and served in the State House until 1897.
SEE ORIGINAL ARTICLE INCLUDING REFERENCES: Cordell Hull, Peacemaker – Direct comments to the original author, please!