The Great Depression & WW II
Depression TN Leaders Byrns 03 Speaker Depression TN Leaders Byrns 02 Byrns TIME Depression TN Leaders Byrns 01 Byrns

Representative Joseph W. Byrns

Joseph Byrns was born in 1869 in Cedar Hill, Tennessee, and graduated from Vanderbilt University with a law degree. Although he began a law practice in Nashville, he soon started a political career.  He ran and won the office of state representative in 1895. He served as State Speaker of the House before being elected to the State Senate.

Byrns ran for and won the 5th Congressional seat in the U.S. Congress in 1908. He remained in that seat, winning every reelection campaign, until his death in 1936.

As he served in the U.S. House of Representatives, Byrns gained political power, serving as chairman of several important committees. In 1935 Byrns was elected Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, the most powerful position in Congress. 

During the early years of the Great Depression, Byrns criticized President Herbert Hoover for failing to meet the needs of suffering Americans. Even though he was a conservative, Byrns fully supported President Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Byrns played a critical role in getting Congress to pass many of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. For example, he sponsored the House bill that created the Civilian Conservation Corps. He also supported the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. He was committed to getting Roosevelt’s measures approved by Congress even if he personally disagreed with some of the provisions.

Byrns explained why he had supported every proposal that Roosevelt made, even if his personal views were different. “In this particular emergency,” Byrns said, “people are looking to him, and him alone, to lead them out of this slough of despond and despair into the sunlight of prosperity ….”

Roosevelt returned the admiration, when, after Byrns’ death of a heart attack, he described Byrns as “fearless, incorruptible, unselfish…who served his state and nation with fidelity, honor and great usefulness.”

For more information on Byrns, click here.

Picture Credits:
  • U.S. Rep. Joseph Byrns talks with Davidson County school children in 1935.  Tennessee State Library and Archives
  • Speaker of the House of Representatives Joseph Byrns on the April 22, 1935 cover of TIME magazine.  The caption says "Speaker of the House.  He may have to be spoken to."  This referred to the article inside which said President Franklin Roosevelt had summoned Speaker Byrns to the White House about getting the Social Security bill passed by the House.  The writer offered the opinion that if Byrns didn't get the president's bill passed that he might "have to be spoken to more sternly than he was at last week's White House conference."  The article was generally critical of Byrns' leadership saying "as a driver [of the president's legislation] Speaker Byrns is more accustomed to a pair of plodding mules in his native Tennessee than he is to Capitol race horses."  Tennessee State Museum Collection
  • U.S. House of Representative Speaker Joseph Byrns talks to reporters after his return from the Phillippines in December 1935.  Photo from Bettmann/CORBIS.  This image may not be copied without permission of CORBIS.

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