Hickman: Tennessee's governor 100 years ago was Austin Peay

Gov. Austin Peay presided over the state just 100 years ago. Some historians describe him as “The Maker of Modern Tennessee.”

Others declare that he was the greatest Tennessee governor following the Civil War era.

Austin Peay was born on June 1, 1876, in Christian County, Kentucky, where his father was a farmer.  Although he was educated in rural schools, he was able to enter Washington and Lee University in Virginia.  He graduated from Centre College in Kentucky. He was admitted to the bar in Clarksville where he practiced law for six years and developed not only further knowledge of the law but also kindness, integrity, devotion to duty and courage.  These qualities prepared him for the challenges which he would face when he became involved in politics.

In 1895, when he was 19, he married Sallie Hurst, and they had two children.  She became a great influence in her husband’s life and was noted for her charming personality.

From 1901 to 1905 Peay represented Montgomery County in the Tennessee House of Representatives. He became chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Committee and entered politics again.

In 1908, he managed Malcolm Patterson’s reelection campaign for governor.  Working with Peay was Duncan Cooper.  Duncan and his son Robin killed Patterson’s political foe, Edward W. Carmack, for whom Columbia’s Carmack Boulevard is named. The Duncans’ actions so incensed Peay that he gave up politics and returned to Clarksville to practice law.

Although Peay ran for governor in 1918 and lost, he decided to run again in 1922.  Campaigns in the early part of the 20th century required candidates to come right to the people.  Peay’s opponent was Alfred Taylor, famous for earlier running for governor against his younger brother.  Peay’s campaign relied on the traditional stump speeches throughout the state, and he impressed his audience with his sincerity and patriotism.  Taylor had more entertaining rallies including a quartet made up of his sons. In 1922, Peay defeated Taylor with 57.89% of the vote.

After winning the election Gov. Peay was inaugurated on January 6, 1923.  Both branches of the General Assembly attended the ceremony as did the preceding five governors and an immense crowd.

“I am determined to be governor of the people without distinction of class, and to administer the trust with justice and courtesy to all.  My prayer is to Providence for strength and vision to keep my faith and win the race,” Peay said.

He immediately began his work to put the business of the state in order and to reorganize state departments.  There were 64 bureaus, boards, commissions, and offices.  Each one acted independently, and there was no collaboration among them.

The Reorganization Bill was passed and became effective on Feb. 1, 1923.  Instead of 64 bureaucratic entities, Tennessee had eight departments headed by commissioners.  They were Finance and Taxation, Agriculture, Education, Insurance and Banking, Highways and Public Works, Labor, State Institutions, and Public Health. Those formerly employed in the 64 bureaus lost their jobs and appealed to the Supreme Court.  The court declared the bill constitutional, and they had no recourse.

Peay’s reduction of state expenditures increased the state treasury, and the state resolved $8 million dollars of debt.  When he was reelected in 1924, Peay with help of the legislature passed a tobacco tax.  The tobacco tax supported a general education bill.  In three years every Tennessee county had an eight-month school year. In education reform Peay established a state salary schedule for teachers.  He increased funding for the University of Tennessee to assist the school in helping farmers. The University of Tennessee at Martin was established as a junior college, and a teachers’ college opened at what is now Austin Peay University.  Through Peay’s efforts one million dollars was appropriated for rural schools.

He created the department of Highways and Public Works, presently the Tennessee Department of Transportation.  Before this department was established, Tennessee had only 244 miles of paved highways and few major bridges. Peay revised the state’s revenue system by passing sales tax on gasoline for roads. By 1927, Tennessee had 4,000 miles of paved roads and a highway from Memphis to Bristol, four paved roads across the state from north to south, and seventeen new bridges over major rivers.

In 1925, the legislature supported Peay’s proposal of a park in the Smoky Mountains and the first state park at Reelfoot Lake.  A $2 million bond bill was passed for purchasing land for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Continuing Peay’s progressive programs was the State Department of Health which was well-funded for public immunizations, sanitation, and disease control. The modernization of state government touched every Tennessean’s life.

In the early part of the 20th century governors served two year terms, and Peay won three consecutive elections.  He was the first governor since the Civil War to do so. He is remembered as an effective governor because of his fairness and integrity.  After he was elected for a third term, Peay died at the Governor’s Mansion on October 2, 1927.

On Nov. 8, Tennesseans will vote for the next governor.  For months the television, radio, and emails have proclaimed the worthiness of both candidates.  Bill Lee, the incumbent, is a Republican who has had four years to prove he is worthy to serve Tennessee again.  His challenger, Jason Martin, a Democrat and a Nashville physician, seems focused on support for education.

Whoever wins the governor’s race has an opportunity to make decisions and support the legislation which will affect 7.2 million Tennesseans.  Also that governor has the potential to develop policies, programs, and laws which may still be in effect for the next 100 years.  May the next governor have the foresight of Austin Peay!

Sources:  A History of Tennessee from 1603 to 1924 by Gentry McGee and the 2022 Tennessee Blue Book

Sheila Hickman, Columbia
Sheila Hickman, Columbia

This article originally appeared on The Daily Herald: Hickman: Tennessee's governor 100 years ago was Austin Peay