John Seigenthaler was one of the most interesting and influential people in Nashville over the past 60 years.
This story is not only some of the best writing you will ever read, it illustrates John Seigenthaler’s place and impact on Nashville’s history.
Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Delores, John Michael, his son, as well as his family.
I will miss him.
– Steve Brumfield, Publisher
Sports & Entertainment Nashville
Originally published in a special issue of Celebrate Nashville commemorating Metro Nashville’s 50th anniversary.
Metro Government Ahead Of Its Time
By John Seigenthaler
As everybody now knows, that was the word–the controversial word–used 50 years ago to identify the plan to merge the two governments of Nashville and Davidson County.
For those who opposed the proposed merger, “Metro” was defined in pejorative terms. Some described it as “un-American.” Big government, some said, was “communistic.”
“Castro Loves Metro!” said negative street signs, posters and graffiti that decorated the city.
“Russia Has One Government!” warned another.
Supporters of the merger, on the other hand, argued that Metro made common and political sense. It was the near-perfect way to provide a more effective, more efficient, more progressive method of local government. It would eliminate duplicating and overlapping services–and provide services, such as fire protection and garbage collection where the county government had provided none.
“Let’s Go with Metro!” they urged.
And it did make sense. We were, after all, one community. “Nashvillians.” Nobody from this community claimed to be “a Davidson Countian.”
Tourists didn’t come to Davidson County when they visited the Parthenon (inside city limits), or the Hermitage (outside city limits), or the Country Music Hall of Fame (inside) or the “new” home of the Grand Ole Opry (outside). They came to Nashville.
And so, in 1962, the voters of both the city and county decided separately, by comfortable margins, that the total community would “Go with Metro.”
But it was by no means a new idea. In fact, the concept first had been proposed almost a century ago–in 1915, when the power structure of the business community was seeking to get rid of Nashville Mayor Hilary Howse, a popular and benevolent political dictator. The idea was proposed, then dropped, for fear it would give Howse more power.
Most Nashvillians who, over the last several months have been celebrating the half-century birthday anniversary of Metro–whether they were born and raised here, or moved here from afar–are not aware of the somewhat seamy history that led community civic leaders long ago to consider embracing Metro as an antidote to the crime and corruption of Hilary Howse.
It is a dramatic part of the city’s history, although it may be difficult to envision a time when this city, so expertly managed by Mayor Karl Dean and five preceding mayors, was run by a bent politician.
Howse had been mayor for three years when one of his political foes published a book whose title described Nashville as “Tennessee’s Pond of Liquor and Pool of Blood.” That was Nashville as seen through the author’s prism of C. D. Johns, a former sheriff who had been badly beaten by Howse in a race for mayor.
While the “pond and pool” publication presented a defeated politician’s slant on a flawed city administration run by the incumbent who had defeated the author, the problems the book exposed were, by no means, all Johns’ imagination.
Howse had been elected mayor after acknowledging that he had no intention of enforcing Tennessee’s new prohibition law. Asked on one occasion whether he was protecting the operators of the city’s estimated 120 saloons, Howse, incredulous, responded, “Protect them? I do better than that, I patronize them.”
He had come to Nashville from Rutherford County as an ambitious young man with a natural charm and keen mind. He took a job as a salesman in a furniture store–and by 1900 owned one downtown.
He was first elected as a county magistrate, then as a State Senator, building a potent machine with the funds from liquor and gambling interests.
In his race for mayor in 1909, he received 75 percent of the primary vote then swept 20 of 25 wards to defeat Johns.
An investigation later disclosed that, once in office, he had collected a slush fund from salaries of city employees and used the money to pay the poll taxes of impoverished black and white voters, to whom Howse was a hero.
After becoming Mayor, Howse ignored the demands and petitions of reform-minded, good-government groups –The Committee of One Hundred, the Law Enforcement League, the Anti-Saloon League, the Commercial Club and the Committee for Public Safety. They wanted him to close down the saloons.
Prohibition was much on the public mind in Tennessee that year–and soon was on the law books, a full decade before Congress adopted the Volstead Act which was supposed to make the entire nation “dry.”
The early prohibition drive in Tennessee had been accelerated on Nov. 8, 1908 by a shocking, public exchange of mid-day gunfire on Seventh Avenue, just south of Union Street. Edward Ward Carmack, the prohibitionist editor of The Nashville Tennessean and a former United States Senator, was shot dead.
Carmack’s killers, Duncan Cooper, the leader of the state Democratic Party, and his son, Robin, were convicted of second degree murder. Carmack had published two satirical opinion columns linking the elder Cooper, by inference, with liquor interests.
Complicating the case was the fact that Carmack, before becoming the newspaper’s editor, had lost a campaign for governor to the Coopers’ friend, Gov. Malcolm Patterson–who after their conviction, granted them instant pardons. That prompted a wave of moral outrage that inundated liquor interests with a series of prohibition laws banning the sale, purchase or manufacture of beverage alcohol.
Carmack became the martyr of the prohibition movement. A larger-than-life statue of him was erected in front of the State Capitol (where it still stands). Prohibition in Tennessee became law just as Howse was taking office as Nashville’s mayor.
The reform-minded city fathers were diligent in their attempts to defeat Howse at the polls and to install a clean, responsive, law-abiding administration to replace him. After his first term, they got the legislature to change the local government in Nashville from a mayor and city council, to a five member city commission.
Howse simply got himself and two other commissioners elected. When 1913 rolled around, the reformers considered changing again–to a “city manager” type government–hiring a municipal affairs expert to “manage” Nashville. That plan quickly faded. Howse seemed unshakable.
It was then that the business and civic leaders came up with the merged city-county government concept but dropped it, realizing that Howse would be elected to run the new county-wide government.
Howse finally ran into trouble in 1912 when questions began to be asked and answers demanded about the city’s finances.
A committee of 14 local bankers reviewed the facts behind the city’s growing budget deficit and demanded an independent audit by a New York accounting firm. As audit time neared, Mayor House suddenly admitted that most of the city’s financial records had vanished!
Finally, an ouster suit forced Howse out of office in 1915. There were unfunny jokes that the city’s records had been washed into the Cumberland River, or that there had been a fire at city hall.
The investigation that followed documented numerous abuses: secret government contracts between the city and Howse’s furniture company, the slush fund to which city employees were required to contribute, and wasteful expenditures feeding political cronyism. It demonstrated that Nashville was in deep financial trouble. A court placed the city in receivership.
Don Doyle, a historian whose books have detailed Nashville’s evolution as a city, records what happened next:
“The reformers at last had triumphed over the machine. Now it seemed, good government would flourish in Nashville…What followed, however, was an interlude of farcical disarray in city government…a period of factional backbiting, wild experimentation with new city charters, and uncontrolled vice…”
It ended with the return of Boss Howse to power.
That was in 1923. Howse, always a crafty vote-getter, realized before the 1923 race, that the voting patterns of the electorate had been meaningfully altered three years earlier when Tennessee became the state that ratified the federal amendment to give women the right to vote.
He now campaigned on the skirts of “the high class Christian woman” he had married after he had been expelled from office. He had become a church deacon, he said, and pledged to uphold and enforce all laws. He was elected with 62 percent of the vote.
After sixteen more relatively stable years as mayor, he died in office in 1938.
Howse was succeeded by Tom Cummings, a lawyer with strong support from business and civic leaders. After three terms of stable government, he was defeated by Ben West, a lawyer and former criminal prosecutor who was to revive and (for four years) give life to the concept of Metro.
A series of studies by professional planners and academics had kept the concept alive, and West knew it made sense.
So did Judge Beverly Briley, the Davidson county executive administrator, who effectively was mayor of the 500-plus square miles outside the city limits.
Both of them endorsed Metro which was to be a government with a strong mayor and a 20-member city council. In the county, Judge Briley presided over 49 magistrates who effectively made up the county council (called a “court,” but without judicial powers) that met once each quarter.
Supporters of Metro were ecstatic as Election Day approached. Many organizations endorsed it–the Tennessee Taxpayers Association, the League of Women Voters, the Nashville Trades and Labor Council and the Chamber of Commerce.
On election night, they were all disappointed. Voters inside the 22.7 square miles of the city limits voted for it–but voters in the county outside the city rejected the idea. It was not a concept whose time had come. Not yet. The issue was dead. It would remain so for four years.
It was inadvertently revived by Mayor West, who now decided to take his city in another direction. In doing so, he resurrected the concept he thought was dead.
A visionary, Ben West knew that Nashville had to grow. He chose annexation instead of Metro as the path to follow.
With support of the City Council, Nashville now moved twice to arbitrarily annex land in the county, contiguous to the city. That meant West brought into Nashville, with two annexation sweeps, voters of the county who had cast ballots in 1958 against coming into the city. West also imposed a tax on automobiles to gain funds to support an expansion of services for the areas that had been annexed.
His actions unwittingly revived interest in one government, and in 1962, Metro became the idea whose time, indeed had come–a century after it was first proposed.