Old Smoke: J. Thomas Heflin, Democrat


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Some claim that Motherís Day was first suggested by Frank E. Hering, a district governor of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, who first called for Motherís Day in a speech in Indianapolis on Feb. 7, 1904. Others hold that Anna M. Jarvis, a wealthy Philadelphia spinster, thought of it first. Yet, if any man fathered Motherís Day, he is Hon. James Thomas "Cotton Tom" Heflin of Alabama, who as a representative in Congress introduced a joint resolution to designate the second Sunday in May as a day dedicated "to the best mother in the world: your mother." In 1914, President Wilson signed Cotton Tomís bill. Some argue this was Heflinís major contribution to American life. It would be more than we get from most politicians.


He was born on April 9, 1869, the second son of Dr. Wilson and Lavicie Catherine Heflin. After his admission to the Alabama bar in 1893, he practiced law for about a year and then found a job as a clerk in the county courthouse. He would not leave the public payroll for nearly 40 years.


For a politician, the ability to entertain an audience may be more useful than intelligence or common sense. Tom Heflin was a great entertainer. He had been a storyteller from childhood, developing a standup comicís sense of timing, and combined this skill with a great natural instrument, described by the New York World on January 29, 1928 as "a voice of marvelous flexibility and power which he used with conscious and calculated effect. He can be strident when he is denouncing his enemies, or his voice can sink to the soft diapason of an organ when he grows tender."


Heflinís eloquence was more a thing of manner than content. Derived from the full-blown bombast current in his youth, Tomís oratory was filled with showers of rhetorical sparks and Roman-candle phrases, rich with alliterative generalities and mellifluous polysyllables that, like fireworks, were meant to glow and expire. One supporter said, "He can take any two words you mention and turn them into the Declaration of Independence, and have enough left over to write the Book of Revelations." Thus, he eulogized Alabamaís leading crop: "Cotton is a child of the sun; it is kissed by the silvery beams of a southern moon, and bathed in the crystal dew drops that fall in the silent watches of the night." Or he denounced his opponents as those who would "tear the stars from the flag of Alabama and leave the stripes as a token of her shame." Whether his audiences were edified or stupefied by his magniloquence is another question.


He dressed the part, affecting white linen or cotton suits in summer, with ivory double-breasted waistcoats. In winter, he wore spats, frock coats and striped trousers. Around a high, stiff collar, Tom knotted a huge flowing bow tie and topped off the ensemble with a black, broad-brimmed slouch hat. And, as was said of Warren G. Harding, "the son-of-a-bitch looked like a United States Senator."


He was elected mayor of Lafayette in 1892, register in chancery of Chambers County in 1894, state representative in 1896, delegate to the State Constitutional Convention in 1901 and Alabama secretary of state in 1902. In 1904, he went to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he remained until 1920. He favored free trade and a progressive income tax, opposed high railroad-freight rates and denounced corporate monopolies. Later, he supported the League of Nations, whose detractors he considered tools of arms merchants.


He also defended lynching as a natural response to interracial rape and called for racial segregation on public transportation. One March evening in 1908, Tom was taking a Washington trolley. As the car stopped, he noticed a negro passenger take a drink of whiskey only a few seats from a white woman. The outraged congressman dragged the negro from the streetcar. Bystanders separated them and Tom climbed back on the trolley. Witnesses later said that the negro cursed at Heflin and reached into his own pocket. Heflin thought he was going to be attacked. Like any self-respecting Southern gentleman of the day, Tom was packing heat, and, drawing his revolver, fired on the man, hitting him in the neck and an innocent bystander in the leg. The police arrested Tom for assault with a deadly weapon. According to Allan A. Michieís Dixie Demagogues, the conversation at the stationhouse went like this:


"Whatís your name," growled the sergeant.


"J. Thomas Heflin."


"Nationality?"


"Democrat."


"What?"


"Iím a Democrat."


"Oh! Well, whatís your occupation?"


"Iím a Democrat."


Eventually, the charges were dropped.


Heflin was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1920 and reelected in 1924. As a freshman senator, he launched a crusade against the Federal Reserve when it raised the discount rate, causing a deflation that threw five million people out of work. Tom denounced this as a deliberate plot of the Money Kings. He told his constituents such anecdotes as: "A man said to a Republican, ĎHarding and his crowd put me on my feet.í Well, the Republican interrupted him with delight. "You didnít let me finish," the man said. "When the Democrats were in office, I could afford a car. Now I have to walk."


Tomís oratory was most attractive when ironic. Once, after Sen. William E. Borah, the self-proclaimed Lion of Idaho, had roared in feigned opposition to a bill to raise senatorsí salaries, Tom replied to the old phony in lush prose. "Senator Borah," the Alabamian purred, "reminds me of John Allen, an old soak who pretended he had no taste for the mint julep his wife was preparing. After protesting long enough, John Allen took that mint julep, with frost on the sides of the glass, a bank of sugar an inch deep on the bottom, and three strawberries nesting thereon like so many eggs in a robinís nest, while the mint leaned lovingly over the rim of the glass; John Allen took that mint julep in his hand, and the amber-colored liquid flowed over the velvet folds of his stomach like a dewdrop sinking into the heart of a rose."


During the 1920s, the Mexican revolutionary government began nationalizing its American-controlled oil industry. Some investors demanded an American invasion to restore their property. Heflin opposed any intervention, charging that the Knights of Columbus were conspiring with Big Oil to interfere with Mexico. The charge was not wholly unfounded. In fact, the Knights of Columbus openly favored the overthrow of Mexicoís anti-clerical regime and wealthy Catholic oil investors financed some of its propaganda. However, Heflin made other accusations of bewildering irrelevance. He charged that a Catholic employee of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving had drawn a rosary on a new dollar bill (it was the filigree work around Washingtonís portrait). He even attacked the White House for purchasing drapes of cardinal red, further proof of the Vaticanís long arm.


Heflin began attacking Catholicism across the country, drawing thousands to Klan-sponsored meetings (for $150 to $250 a speech). When the 1928 Democratic national convention nominated the Catholic governor of New York, Alfred E. Smith, for president, Heflin brought his campaign to the Empire State, addressing thousands at a meeting sponsored by the United Protestant Alliance in Richmond Hill, Queens amidst posters reading KEEP THE ROMAN MENACE OUT.


Bigotry was one thing; bolting the party was something else. The Alabama Democratic State Executive Committee ruled that only loyalists who had supported Smith in 1928 could enter the 1930 primaries, preventing Tom from seeking the Democratic nomination. After an unsuccessful appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court, Heflin ran as an independent.


The Democrats nominated John H. Bankhead Jr., son of a former U.S. senator. Tom campaigned from town to town, amusing enormous crowds with stories on subjects like Uncle Johnny and the telephone. Uncle Johnny was afraid of the contraption and didnít believe it would work. One day his friends put a call through to his wife several miles away and dragged him to the telephone. Just as he picked up the receiver, a bolt of lightning struck the building, followed by a blast of thunder. Uncle Johnny was knocked ten feet. "It works!" he yelled. "That was my old woman all rightĖit sure was." Tom would then say, "It takes a good bolt of lightning to wake up some people. Maybe some of us need a shock like Uncle Johnny to realize that behind the strange doings of Alfred E. Smith is their masterís voice in the Vatican at Rome. The Pope is ready to try again in 1932."


Bankhead defeated Heflin by 150,000 to 100,000 votes. Contending that he had been illegally barred from the primary and that the general election had been fraudulent, Heflin contested the outcome. After an investigation spanning 15 months and costing more than $100,000, the Privileges and Elections Committee found that Bankheadís nomination was valid, Bankhead was not directly linked to any irregularities and the disputed votes would not have changed the outcome. On April 26, 1932, as the Senate considered the committeeís recommendation against Heflin, he requested permission to speak from the floor. It was an extraordinary request. By now, Bankhead had been seated. Nonetheless, over the fierce objection of the majority leader, the Senate granted Heflin its permissionĖby one vote. Red-faced with emotion, Heflin held the floor for five hours. As he thundered to a conclusion, the gallery audience, packed with his supporters, jumped to its feet with a roar of approval. Two days later, the Senate voted against Heflin, 64 to 18.


Heflin never lost hope of a comeback. He ran for Congress in 1934 and lost. He scraped out a living on patronage, serving as a Federal Housing Administration special representative and a special assistant U.S. attorney. When FDR nominated one of Alabamaís U.S. senators, Hugo Black, to the Supreme Court, the old war-horse ran for the vacant seat at a December 1937 special election. He lauded FDR as the greatest man who ever lived and attacked the Federal Reserve, the "great money masters of the East (who) shear us with panics like the shepherd does his sheep."


In the last days of the campaign, Tom developed pneumonia. He was delirious in a hospital bed during the voting and did not know he had lost by nearly two to one for several days. "When I told him," his secretary said, "he wasnít bitter at all. He just said, ĎThe Lord takes care of his children, and there are other things to be thankful for!í" By springtime, Tom was out campaigning, this time for Congress, and again he lost. He managed to get his job back at the Federal Housing Administration, where he remained until 1942. Whenever he was in the nationís capital, he found time to use his privilege as a former senator of access to the floor, often finding a vacant seat and sitting quietly with his eyes closed, listening to the debate.


In his last years, his mind wandered, and he believed himself still a senator and needed in Washington. His relatives occasionally had to come down to the Greyhound station in Lafayette and gently take the old man, dressed in his threadbare frock coat and battered slouch hat, off the Washington bus. He died in Lafayette, AL, on April 22, 1951.




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