Gordon Browning (November 22, 1895-May 23, 1976) was an American politician who represented Tennessee in the United States Congress and was later Governor of Tennessee from 1937 to 1939 and again from 1949 to 1953.
Browning was a native of Carroll County, Tennessee and attended public schools. He graduated from Valparaiso University in Indiana in 1913. In 1915 he graduated from the Cumberland School of Law in Lebanon, Tennessee, passed the bar examination and began practice as an attorney in Huntington. Upon U.S. entry into World War I, he enlisted in the Tennessee National Guard, later being sent to Europe, where he was eventually promoted to the rank of captain. After the conclusion of his service in World War I, he returned to the practice of law and ran for the Democratic nomination for the United States House of Representatives in 1920, but lost. Running again for that position in 1922 he was successful, serving six terms in that body. In his final term he was selected to be one of the "managers" (prosecutors) in the Senate impeachment trial of Harold Louderback, judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. However, his race for the 1934 Democratic nomination for United States Senate was not successful and he returned to the practice of law in Huntington. When Memphis political "boss" E. H. Crump had a falling out with Governor Hill McAlister, McAlister elected not to run for a third term, and Browning became Crump's chosen candidate to succeed him. Browning received the Democratic nomination for governor in August, 1936, then tantamount to electoral success when campaigning for statewide office in Tennessee, coasting to election in November of that year.
However, Browning and Crump came to a parting of the ways shortly after Browning's inauguration as governor, and Crump threw his support to newly-elected state senator Prentice Cooper, who defeated Browing for renomination in August, 1938. Browning never removed himself very far from politics, however. Returning to his hometown of Huntingdon, Tennessee, Browning bided his time through three terms by Cooper and two by his successor, Jim Nance McCord. During this time he served from 1942 on as a chancery court judge, this service being interrupted by a return to active military duty in World War II from February, 1943 until January, 1946, again serving in Europe. During this period he was promoted to lieutenant colonel.
In 1948 Browning, bolstered by the support of Estes Kefauver, then a popular five-term Congressman making his initial race for the Senate, saw his opportunity. McCord had pushed through the legislature the first sales tax (2Éin Tennessee history, and had been an advocate of right-to-work legislation, both of which were very unpopular with much of his base of support. In August, 1948 Browning defeated McCord for the Democratic nomination for governor. With an opponent of his winning statewide nomination, the influence of E. H. Crump over politics at the statewide level was largely over, although he still wielded considerable influence within Memphis itself until his death half a decade later.
However, for the first time over a quarter of a century, the Democratic nominee for governor faced a very well-known and reasonably well-funded Republican opponent in the November general election. Country music entertainer Roy Acuff was the 1948 Republican nominee for governor. Acuff's position in the race was largely unexpected, even to himself. His entry into the Republican primary had been encouraged by state Republican officials as a publicity stunt to foster interest in the Republican primary. The idea was that the presence of Acuff on the ballot would serve as a drawing card to Republican events; the crowds thus assembled would learn about serious Republican candidates, bolstering the party. This tactic backfired when Acuff's popularity, especially in East Tennessee where he was originally from and where the vast bulk of Republican voters in Tennessee were in that era, resulted in Acuff's receiving the nomination, much to chagrin of party officials, and even Acuff himself.
Thus thrust into the fray, Acuff decided to take his position seriously; however the entertainer versus the experienced former governor proved to be the mismatch that could have been anticipated, and Browning won in a landslide. Acuff sent along his congratulations, admitting that the outcome was probably the best one possible for all concerned. (When a Republican was elected governor of Tennessee over two decades later, one of the first controversial decisions Winfield Dunn was to make as governor was to purchase Dunbar Cave, a large cave located near Clarksville, Tennessee which had previously been used as a summertime entertainment venue prior to the advent of air conditioning and which was owned by Acuff, for a state park. This was widely regarded as a payback to Acuff for his role as a political "sacrificial lamb" over twenty years earlier.)
Browing resigned his chancery court judgeship just before his second term as governor began. A staunch advocate of education, he found that he could not push his educational agenda adequately if the sales tax were to be repealed. In many ways Browning was progressive for a Southern governor of his era, supporting first Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and then Harry S. Truman's Fair Deal. He did not get the right-to-work legislation repealed, however; Tennessee is an "open shop" state until this day. Browning was renominated, turning back the challenge of Nashville attorney Clifford Allen, and was re-elected in 1950. However, he faced a new challenge in 1952 in addition to another one from Allen, that from fellow attorney Frank G. Clement of Dickson. A brilliant orator and World War II veteran, who was only 32 at the time, Clement saw Browning's ties to the railroad interests as a weakness and exploited it by garnering the backing of roadbuilders. Also, although Browning had been fairly recently something of an insurgent himself, and only in his mid-50's, he now came across as part of the Old Guard, the last gasp of the World War I generation desperately staving off the young bulls who had served in World War II (even though he also had done so himself), and he lost the 1952 nomination to Clement.
In retirement back in his hometown of Huntingdon, he continued to show an active interest in Democratic politics until very shortly before his death in 1976, apparently being used as an unofficial advisor to many younger Democratic political figures on several occasions. He also engaged in farming and headed an insurance concern. He died in Huntington and was interred in that community's Oak Hill Cemetery.
This article incorporates facts obtained from the public domain Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
Governors of Tennessee