The Gentleman From Alabama: Lister Hill


IF YOU want to relapse into obscurity, become a United States Senator. This is the finding of a recent survey of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Denver. Only one out of three Americans — about 33 per cent — can name both his United States Senators. Another 22 per cent can name one Senator correctly, but 43 per cent won’t attempt to name either Senator, It was also found that twice as many men as women can name both Senators correctly. These almost incredible findings are a shocking reflection on our entire system of education, and they cause one to wonder how democracy can work effectively if the citizens do not know even the names of the men they elect to public office.

A limited number of Senators, however, are well known not only to their constituencies but also to the nation. Some of them are able men. But others achieve sectional or national notoriety because they are buffoons, noisy demagogues, hustling headline hunters, or renters of hillbilly bands.

If, in addition, these men have some command of picturesque speech and are given to mannerisms such as wearing red galluses or dunking cornbrcad in pot likker at public luncheons, they are certain to become the subject of frequent newspaper copy and appearances in newsreels. We confuse conspicuousness with distinction, and love a clown even if he is one of the ninety-six men who to a large extent preside over the destinies of the nation. But public servants who suffer the crippling handicap of modesty and good manners may languish for years in comparative obscurity, however important their contributions to the nation’s welfare.

The results of all this arc unfortunate. For the constant publicity given to buffoons and demagogues may make us unmindful of the fact that there are able and devoted men in high public office, and so breed in us an attitude of cynicism toward representative government. The situation indeed is such that it might almost be reduced to a natural law: namely, that our publicity tends to drive superior men from the public notice while elevating inferior men.

Without indulging in odious comparison, how many Americans know anything about Senator Thomas of Utah? Formerly a Mormon missionary in Japan, he speaks its language, is familiar with its history, and has broadcast overseas in Japanese. He is the Senate’s own authority on Japan and as such is able to render his country distinguished services. Consider Senator Maybank of South Carolina. His colleague, “Cotton Ed” Smith, has been re-elected to the Senate for thirty years largely on a platform of white supremacy, but Maybank was recently elected to the Senate from the same state although he ran against a formidable opponent who stood upon this issue. How many of us know anything about these men?

This paper is an effort to retrieve from comparative anonymity another Southerner who is an able public servant. He is Senator Taster Hill of Alabama, and the thesis we have been considering is pointed up by his first Senate battle. There lie found himself a member of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, serving under a chairman who was none other than the nationally notorious Senator (“Our Bob”) Reynolds of North Carolina. The chairman had shortly before returned from Europe to tell the country that it was nonsensical to be worried about a European war. He, Bob Reynolds, had visited leading European figures on both sides and could slate emphatically that there would be no war. But even if it should come, he added, it was none of our concern. You could do business with Hitler.

Hill violently disagreed with “Our Bob.” During his fourteen years in the House he had served constantly on the Military Affairs Committee, first, as a member and then as its chairman. He had advocated and fought for an adequate American military establishment during those years between the wars when we let our armed services sink until they were little more than a corporal’s guard. He had been a co-worker with General Billy Mitchell, whose vision into the air wars of the future brought him before a court-martial. Hill had long elaborated upon the third dimension of the air and had insisted, without success, that air power should be given a place of cardinal importance in our military services. He is, moreover, in the tradition of the days when Southern Senators were not only gentlemen but also scholars. Conversant with European affairs, he was convinced that war was imminent, and he argued that we should immediately rearm on a large scale.

Contemptuous of Reynolds’s views, Hill threw himself into the struggle to arm the defenseless United States politically and militarily. He advocated speedy passage of the Lend-Lease Act; pointed out the dangers of Western Hemisphere invasion or infiltration by the Axis; urged the establishment of convoys to protect our commerce, and the repeal of the Neutrality Act, which operated to aid our enemies and strangle our friends. Knowledgeable in military affairs by reason of long years of study, he understood the country’s needs and provided much of the Senate majority leadership looking toward the mobilization, the training, transportation, and fighting of our armed forces.

In 1942 he became one of the prime movers in proposing that there should be created a combined Chiefs of Staffs board. Only in this way, Hill contended, could the United Nations achiex’C the indispensable unity of command and strategy. The high commands of the United Nations are separated by great distances. They have diverse points of view and different traditions. Their countries often have conflicting national interests, and inevitable jealousies arise.

During the First World War the Allies had no such overall body, and indeed had no unity of command until Foch was appointed generalissimo late in the war. For this failure they paid a tragic price. Today we take the Combined Chiefs of Staffs for granted. Yet this board is without, precedent and, considering national pride and national jealousies, it might have seemed impossible. Nonetheless it operates smoothly, enabling Great Britain and the United States to move almost as one in their complex, world-wide operations, while other United Nations collaborate with it.


SENATOR HILL, having done what he could to prepare the country for war, has long been attempting to prepare it for an effective peace. One day, on the Senate floor, he suggested to Senator Ball of Minnesota that, since Ball had been a newspaperman, he ought to draw up a resolution incorporating the plans for peace that they had been discussing with other Senators of like mind. Ball soon produced a document which became known as the B2H2 resolution because it was jointly advocated by Senators Ball, Burton, Hatch, and Hill.

The resolution did not pass the Senate in its original form, but the version finally adopted embodies its general sense and principles. The Senate resolves that “the United States . . . join with free and sovereign nations in the establishment and maintenance of an international authority with power to prevent aggression and to preserve the peace of the world.” Moreover, “that the Senate recognizes the necessity of ... a general international organization, based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all peace-loving states, . . . for the maintenance of international peace and security. . .

This is certainly no earth-shaking document. Yet, considering the long history of Senatorial sabotage of treaties, it marks a long step forward. No other body is so decisive as the Senate in determining our post-war policy. Nevertheless, Secretary Hay’s gloomy comment is still pertinent: “A treaty entering the Senate is like a bull going into the arena: no one can know just how or where the final blow will fa!!, but one thing is certain — it will never leave the arena alive.”

In this light the resolution is of high importance and perhaps points the future. It is a creation of the Senate itself— not of the Executive, of whom the Senate, in its treaty-making function, is deeply jealous. Its sponsorship by two Republicans and two Democrats is nonpartisan. It does not come after the war, but during the war when victory is still distant. And it was passed by an overwhelming majority. The resolution, it is true, may be variously interpreted and does not commit the Senate to any definite course of action. But its passage does indicate that the Senate may one day express the desires of the majority of the American people to erect an international organization that will everywhere keep the peace. Whatever its ultimate effects, the immediate effects of the resolution were large.

This move by the Senate kept the President from appearing empty-handed at the Teheran and Cairo conferences. The world is aware, since the disastrous days of Wilson, that although the American President may make promises and initiate treaties, these treaties cannot come into being except when approved by a two-thirds vote of the Senate. Consequently the Senate resolution, although not binding upon it, is at least indicative of that body’s future intentions. And this radical break with the past greatly strengthened the President’s hand in his historical conferences with Churchill and Stalin.


IT IS a long distance from Montgomery, Alabama, where Lister Hill was born in 1894, to Teheran in 1943. He is the son of Dr. Luther Leonidas Hill of Montgomery, an eminent surgeon who performed the first successful suture of the heart in the United States, and of Lilly Lyons, who was a member of one of Alabama’s well-known families. Dr. Hill had studied in London under Lord Joseph Lister and named his son for that scientist.

The son, however, did not follow in his father’s footsteps. He entered the University of Alabama at the age of sixteen and graduated within four years with the degrees of Bachelor of Arts and Laws and a Phi Beta Kappa key. Here an experience in his senior year caused him to determine to enter politics.

As one of a number of students drafting a constitution for student government at the University, Hill became a contestant in a struggle as to whether coeds should have equal rights with men. He led the fight for the ladies with such success that coeds were given equal rights with men, and he was elected first president of the student body. Thereupon Dr. George Denny, president of the University, who had watched the struggle, advised Hill to enter politics when he left the campus.

Even then, however, Hill was under the illusion that an officeholder ought to be at least as well educated as his constituents, — an illusion which has brought many a lesser man to grief, — and on leaving Alabama he entered the Columbia University Law School. This was at a time (1916) when Eastern universities were likely to regard degrees from Southern universities as on a par with membership in the Beavers; but Hill was such a brilliant student that he was awarded a law degree after one year. Then he headed for Montgomery to become a lawyer.

The next year (1917) was a crowded one for him. First he was elected, at the ripe age of twenty-two, to the presidency of the Montgomery Board of Education, the youngest school board president in the nation. Before the year closed he was a lieutenant in France. He was finally mustered out in 1919. Again he went home, practiced law for four years, and in 1923 was elected to the House. He was re-elected seven times without opposition before being sent to the Senate in 1938.

During his third term he married Henrietta Fontaine McCormick of Eufaula, Alabama, who, he says smilingly, found him irresistible when she heard him make a Mother’s Day address. They have two children and live simply in a small house that is not, by definition of Washington society editors, in a fashionable section of the city. It is, however, a book-cluttered home filled with friends who find there gracious manners, Southern cooking, and the satisfying talk which the Hills, as enlightened provincials, inspire.

Lister Hill is a slender, gentle, simple man who, far from resembling the professional Southern politician with a noble Roman visage, looks like a puckish professor of English still exuberant despite years of reading freshman themes. He is extremely energetic, and his Alabama constituents say that if “you write Hill he will wire you, and if you wire him he will telephone you.”

As a political campaigner he goes to every corner of his state, making dozens of speeches at fish fries and old-fashioned political rallies. And since Southern audiences and Southern orators are long-enduring, he sometimes talks for two hours. Hill is a highly articulate man who likes to talk whether on or off the platform. Once when he was camping in Alabama this propensity betrayed his calling. “ Mister,” said the guide, “you’re shore funny. You cain’t cook worth nothing. You cain’t even build a hot fire. You cain’t row a boat right. It looks like you ought to be a politician because you shore can talk.”

Aside from fishing and hunting, Hill likes to take long walks in the ’woods with his retriever spaniel and attend the theater whenever he can. He is an addict of five-cent candy bars, Walt Whitman, anything having to do with military affairs, The Federalist, English poetry, Thomas Jefferson, and he believes that North and South could be brought to a better understanding if the North would omit sugar from cornbread.


LISTER HILL is neither a dazzling political theoretician nor a political genius of the pragmatic school. He finds his place simply because he is intelligent, hard-working, possessed of a passion for the public service and a fear that America may fail to rise to greatness after the war. Thus he believes it his duty to be a Senator of the United States as well as a Senator from Alabama. This concept has often proved fatal to its holder, as reflected in the cynical political aphorism, “What shall it profit a man to gain the whole nation if he loses his state?” Hill, however, sticks to his faith, despite certain powerful groups that are quite content for him to be a Senator of the United States so long as he does not encroach upon their private preserves at home.

His position can be made clear only by some understanding of his state. Alabama, rich in minerals and metals, has long been an absentee-ruled feudalism. In the all-important field of electric power, for example, it was dominated by the Alabama Power Company — a corporation largely controlled by non-Alabamians. Yet, against its bitter opposition, Hill was the House champion of the TVA. Perhaps his most brilliant victory there came in 1935, when he piloted through the House the many amendments to the TVA bill which made possible that great experiment in the regeneration of a huge area of eroded land and eroded people.

Then there is Birmingham — of which the local adage has it that “hard times come here first and stay longest.” It is the state’s largest city and stands over it like a colossus. At the 1930 census it was one of ninety-four American cities with a population over 100,000. But, says George Leighton, in his Five Cities:

. . . Birmingham stood at the very bottom in per capita public expenditures; it was eighth from the bottom in the amount spent on education, sixth from the bottom in appropriations for public health. It had one of the highest homicide rates in the country. ... Its venereal disease rate was similarly high. ... It numbered more illiterates among its inhabitants than any other city in the country with a population between two and three hundred thousand. Among those cities Birmingham had in 1935 . . . the lowest spendable income; its housing condition was about as bad. . . .

Birmingham is more than a city. It is the name that stands for a vast area of coal mines, iron furnaces, steel mills, and ore belts — the great iron and coal producing center of the South, second only to Pittsburgh in output. Nowhere else in the United States do enormous deposits of iron, coal, and limestone— the ingredients for steelmaking — lie so close together. Why, then, has this potentially rich city so long been a municipal shambles?

Is it that, as Leighton suggests, it is dominated by “the great absentee landlord, the United States Steel Corporation. . . . What is man, that they at 71 Broadway are mindful of him?” Is it that Eastern bunkers have made Birmingham subordinate to Pittsburgh, so that when times are bad it is shut down while Pittsburgh goes ahead, and is permitted to operate fully only when times are so good that there is enough business for both steel cities? Is it that low wages, on the one hand, and the draining off of profits, on the other, have kept it poor and made it a loan shark’s paradise? Is it that absentee domination for years fixed the price of Birmingham steel at Pittsburgh with an added five dollars a ton — the famous “Pittsburgh plus”— although costs are lower in Birmingham than they are in Pittsburgh? Could it be that Birmingham has been kept down so that investments in other steel areas could be kept up?

These are considerations that trouble the mind of Lister Hill as Senator from Alabama. It is true that Birmingham is now one of America’s great boom cities; that there are jobs for all at high wages. But in the post-war period, if there is not enough business to go around, will Birmingham be shut down while Pittsburgh takes most of the available orders? Hill is not content that the principal city of his state should be subject to the arbitrary dictates of absentee owners. He can understand how, in terms of human greed, Southerners might exploit other Southerners, but he is puzzled by their apparent eagerness to permit themselves to be exploited by absentee owners. Then, despite the inevitable political risks, he is presumptuous enough to believe that the rights of labor are not less than those of capital, and he is dead set against monopoly.

In 1940, foreseeing the immense need for aluminum, Hill urged the Reynolds Metals Company to produce this essential metal. At that time, says the Truman Committee, “this was an industry dominated by a single producer” — the Aluminum Company of America. To get cheap electric power from the TVA, the project had to have the approval of the Office of Emergency Management. This government agency, however, strenuously objected, and it was only after a prolonged struggle that its approval was obtained. Reynolds then obtained a loan from the RFC, at 4 per cent interest, secured by a first mortgage on its plants. Yet, notes the Truman Committee, the RFC loaned $25,000,000 to the Aluminum Company of Canada, controlled by the Aluminum Company of America, at 2 per cent interest without collateral.

Out of gratitude to Hill for his efforts, Reynolds named its town site at Muscle Shoals Listerhill, and is now annually producing 100,000,000 pounds of aluminum there. Whether because of improved facilities of production or competition, or both, the fact is that during the First World War when there was one producer the price of virgin aluminum advanced from eighteen to thirty cents a pound, whereas in this war, with two producers, the price has been reduced from twenty to fifteen cents a pound. Consequently the country now has a greater production of this metal, vital in war and essential in peace, than it had ever had before — and is getting it at a lower price.

Hill has twice been elected Democratic Whip of the Senate — a place second only to that of Majority Leader Barkley, in whose absence Hill is the Acting Leader. An unassuming, soft-spoken man who rarely lifts his voice above conversational level, Hill is hard to visualize as a political leader of the sometimes turbulent Senate. Yet his Democratic colleagues have seen fit to make him Whip rather than some of his associates who are more like steamboats blowing for a landing.

It is characteristic of Hill that he has never formulated a political credo, and it would be difficult to (it him into any political category other than that of Democrat and democrat. On the evidence of his actions, however, he would seem to be a liberal in the best sense of that much abused word. Hill’s liberalism consists of believing deeply in the importance of the individual, the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, constitutional government, the scientific spirit of inquiry, a rational outlook, and the improvability of men through social reform. Consequently he is much nearer to the great eighteenth-century Southerners, who were at once revolutionaries and builders, than he is to many contemporaries of his region. And as such he is a refreshing figure in our national life.