John Emmett Edgerton was an industrialist who gained prominence as the president of the National Association of Manufacturers from 1921 to 1931. Born in North Carolina on October 2, 1879, he moved to Lebanon, Tennessee, to join his older brother, Howard K. Edgerton, a physician, in 1896. He attended Cumberland University for prep school and his first year of college. After receiving the Wilson County Cartmell scholarship, he went to Vanderbilt University, earning an A.B. in 1902 and an M.A in 1903. Active in social and athletic circles during his college years, he played football for the five years he attended Vanderbilt and was team captain in 1901, the year Vanderbilt won the Southern Conference championship.
After Vanderbilt, Edgerton taught at Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon for one year. In 1905, he moved to Columbia, Tennessee, where he and Colonel J. P. Hardy began the Columbia Military Academy and Edgerton served as co-principal. He remained in Columbia for seven years, and there he met and married Harriet Figuers in 1909.
In 1912, Edgerton returned to Lebanon to help his brother run Lebanon Woolen Mills. Dr. Howard K. Edgerton had opened the mill in 1909 to produce blankets for hospitals. The mill was a public corporation and by 1913, it employed seventy-five people. Edgerton was the mill’s secretary-treasurer and general manager until his brother died and John became president. Shortly before his brother’s death, Edgerton dabbled in politics when he ran for the state senate in 1914 against Walter Cartmell, a descendant of the Cartmell scholarship donor, and lost by 298 votes out of 3,638 votes cast.
After his career shift into industrial management, Edgerton became active in the Tennessee Manufacturing Association and was the organization’s president by 1915. This organization was one of the state associations that comprised the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). He quickly became involved in the leadership of the national group, becoming director-at-large in 1916. Elected president of NAM in 1922, Edgerton became the first representative of a southern state to hold that position. He was reelected annually ten times.
Edgerton’s national prominence led to notable government appointments. In President Warren Harding’s administration during the early 1920s, he was a member of the president’s conference on unemployment, and later in President Herbert Hoover’s administration from 1929 to 1933 he was on the National Reconstruction Conference and the National Re-employment Committee. He also supported Prohibition causes and served as chairman of the United Prohibition Forces to preserve the Eighteenth Amendment.
Edgerton was active in the Southern Methodist Church and served on the boards of Cumberland University, Vanderbilt University, and the YMCA throughout the 1920s and 1930s. His Christian beliefs were instrumental in shaping his views of life and work. He backed up the values he held early in his career at the mill by starting a Bible study for all employees. In 1916, he began the practice of reading a short devotional and singing a hymn before the workday began, a routine that continued into the 1950s, long after Edgerton’s death. Edgerton claimed that this practice was the secret to the mill’s success.
During his tenure as NAM president from 1922 to 1931, he promoted a strong anti-union sentiment, emphasized public education to strengthen industry, and lobbied Congress for the good of the industry. After resigning from the presidency in 1931, he served as chairman of the board for two years. Edgerton, like many industrialists of that era, considered economic problems of the Great Depression to actually be moral problems, solved not by structural change but by hard work and sacrifice. He favored child labor and opposed “handouts” such as old-age pensions and unemployment insurance. Leisure, he said, was the enemy of the economy. He fought for railroad freight weight differentials so the South could compete with northern industry.
In December 1933, Edgerton and several prominent southern industrialists founded the Southern States Industrial Council to fight Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The council strongly opposed the National Recovery Administration and its labor policy. They also opposed the Tennessee Valley Authority, arguing that government should not compete against industry. The SSCIC named Edgerton president, and he held the position until his resignation in 1938. On August 4, 1938, Edgerton died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-eight.