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Secretary of State Cordell Hull

Cordell Hull was born in a poor family in the Cumberland Mountains of Overton County. He became one of the most noted Tennesseans, serving as a U.S. congressman, the U.S. secretary of state, and eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in setting up the United Nations. 

He was first educated at home and then in public schools. When he was 11 years old, he worked as clerk at his father’s store. When his family’s financial situation improved, he attended private schools and then received his law degree from Cumberland Law School in Lebanon, Tennessee. 

In 1890, Hull’s political career began when he was selected as the chairman of the Democratic County Executive Committee. He was 19 years old. Hull wrote in his memoirs that being selected as chairman “thrilled me more than any other since that time.

Hull ran for political office two years later and was elected a state representative in 1892. After he served as circuit judge, Hull was elected as a U.S. congressman in 1906. During this time, he led a fight to set up a federal income taxing system.  This law eventually was passed as a proposed amendment to the constitution. It was ratified by the states and became the 16th amendment. Hull considered it one of his greatest achievements while congressman.

Cordell Hull lost his seat in Congress in the election of 1920 when Republican Warren Harding won the presidency. Hull returned to Congress, winning in the next election of 1922. Later in 1930, he won the election as one of Tennessee’s two U.S. senators. 

Hull was frustrated with President Herbert Hoover’s inability to deal with the Great Depression. He supported Franklin Roosevelt’s bid for the Democratic nomination, serving as a floor manager for Roosevelt during the convention. 

After Roosevelt’s election, but before he was sworn into office, Hull took Roosevelt on a tour of the Tennessee valley and promoted the development of water power for the area. This later became the Tennessee Valley Authority project.

Then, President Roosevelt chose him to serve as his secretary of state. While secretary, Cordell Hull promoted international free trade as a means of improving America’s economy. He strengthened relations between the United States and Latin American countries. 

Hull set his goal for how to work towards achieving world peace early in his time as secretary of state. He stated that “all nations, especially the large commercial countries…should combine in working out plans and programs for the full world development of freer commerce."  

This would result in an increase of production, employment, consumption, and "the firm establishment of a basis of friendship and confidence on which permanent peace could be built,” Hull explained.

In 1941, Hull negotiated with the Japanese over several months trying to avoid a war. He was suspicious that the Japanese were dragging out the meetings, perhaps buying time until they would be ready for war. 

Hull even warned the military that the Japanese could stage an attack to signal the end of negotiations.   Hull was correct. On the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Japan’s two envoys delivered a document breaking off the meetings.

Hull, who knew about the attack, looked over their copy of the fourteen-part message declaring that negotiations were at an end.  Hull astonished the Japanese diplomats, who did not know that their country had attacked the U.S., by responding in anger. “In all my fifty years of public service,' he told them, 'I have never seen such a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehood and distortion.'
Hull served as secretary of state through most of the war, but he still wanted to set up a way for countries to work out their differences rather than go to war. 
During his last years in office, Hull prepared a blueprint that would set up an international organization dedicated to peace. Although he resigned from office in 1944 due to ill health, Hull attended the first United Nations (U.N.) conference in 1945. Later that year, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in creating the U.N. 

For more information on Hull, click here.

Picture Credits:
  • Cordell Hull's official portrait as Secretary of State.  National Archives
  • Cordell Hull (hat in hand) walks down the street on a visit to his hometown of Carthage in June 1936.  By this time, Hull was serving as secretary of state under President Franklin Roosevelt.  Courtesy of The Tennessean
  • Cordell Hull at 26 years old wearing his army uniform.  Hull served as a captain in the Spanish American War.  This image was reshot by Ed Clark, a photographer with The Tennessean.
  • Sec. of State Cordell Hull greets two Japanese envoys on their way to a meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt at the White House on Nov. 17, 1941.  Hull would later meet with the same two men on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed.  Distributed by the Defense Department.  Courtesy of The Tennessean archives

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