Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Joseph W. Byrns was an important political leader in early twentieth-century Tennessee, serving in the Tennessee General Assembly and then fourteen terms in the U.S. Congress. Born at Cedar Hill in 1869, Byrns attended Vanderbilt University, graduating with a law degree in 1890. His legal practice began in Nashville, and by 1895 he had been elected to the Tennessee House as a Davidson County representative. A staunch, loyal Democrat, Byrns enjoyed rapid political success and during his third term, fellow Democrats chose him as Speaker of the House. In 1901 he won election to the state Senate, but failure came in 1902 when the voters rejected Byrns's bid to become district attorney general for Davidson County. Byrns rebounded in 1908 and won the Democratic nomination for the Fifth District seat in the U.S. Congress. From that point on, Byrns never faced serious political opposition and won every congressional election in his district until his death in 1936.
As Byrns gained seniority in the U.S. Congress and his party's political fortunes improved during the Great Depression years, he exercised significant influence in the nation's capital. In 1928 he was chosen as chairman of the Democratic National Congressional Committee; two years later, once the Democrats gained control of the House, he became the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful positions in Washington. In 1933 he advanced to the position of majority leader, a key political role once newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced his New Deal in March 1933. Although a conservative, Byrns embraced the New Deal out of party loyalty. He introduced the bill creating the Civilian Conservation Corps and successfully maneuvered other major New Deal initiatives through Congress.
In 1935, due to his seniority, debts owed from his leadership of the Democratic National Congressional Committee, and his loyalty to the New Deal, Byrns was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives. He was an effective Speaker, which surprised some of his detractors. The Republican minority leader, however, noted that it was Byrns's “intense loyalty to the chief executive and his adroit and skillful leadership that piloted administrative measures through the shoals and over the rocks of legislative processes.” (1) Byrns's career as Speaker, unfortunately, was cut short by his sudden death from a heart attack on June 3, 1936. “Fearless, incorruptible, unselfish, with a high sense of justice, wise in victory,” observed President Roosevelt, Byrns “served his state and the nation with fidelity, honor and great usefulness.” (2) No Tennessean since has served as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Ann Irish, Joseph W. Byrns: A Political Biography (2001)