A McAlister Governor (or, the Right Man for the Job)

On this day in 1959, Harry Hill McAlister died at the age of 84. McAlister, who was born in Nashville in 1875, served as Tennessee’s governor from 1933 to 1937. He began his political career as the city attorney for Nashville, and in the 1920s he served as state treasurer before being elected for two terms in the state senate. During this decade, he warned repeatedly that the state was facing a financial crisis – and this was before the stock market crashed in 1929. 

When Governor McAlister took office, the country was in the grips of the Great Depression and Tennessee had an operating deficit of $6 million. Many banks and businesses had failed. McAlister sharply cut back expenditures, reducing state spending by $7 million, and worked to restore trust in the banks. In his first term, he managed to balance the state budget.[1] He also worked closely with the federal government to implement many of Roosevelt’s New Deal programmes in Tennessee,  putting people back to work and developing the state’s infrastructure. In 1934, he was reelected by a significant majority.

During his second term, Governor McAlister fell out with Ed H. Crump, a Memphis political ‘boss’ who had been his primary supporter to that point. The former allies disagreed on the repeal of prohibition (McAlister was reluctant to follow the federal government’s example and overturn the law) and on a sales tax that the governor hoped to introduce as a means of reducing debt and helping underfunded public schools. Crump’s associates in the state legislature defeated the sales tax, and with Crump now in opposition, McAlister decided not to run for a third term.[2] He retired from political life after only four years as governor. But he had accomplished a lot in those four years. McAlister had managed to turn Tennessee’s disastrous finances around, and he left the state in better shape economically than it had been in when he took office – no small feat in the midst of the century’s worst economic crisis.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013


[1] Pierce, Dan, “Hill McAlister”, in Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, accessed 29 October 2013.
[2] National Governors Association, Tennessee Governor Harry Hill McAlister, accessed 29 October 2013.
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