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  • Brand New District, Same Old Fight: The Bankhead–Hobson Campaign of 1916
  • Kari Frederickson (bio)

Spanishamerican war hero and prohibition crusader Richmond Pearson Hobson defeated ten-term Congressman John Hollis Bankhead in 1906 in a spirited and nasty campaign of ideological and temperamental opposites.1 His victory over Bankhead was equal parts political triumph and personal vendetta. For Hobson, Bankhead had become a personal nemesis determined to block the rise of a younger, more dynamic foe. Despite his victory over John Bankhead, Hobson remained especially sensitive to the Bankhead influence in the state and to what he regarded as politically imperious behavior by the family. When Hobson was defeated in a race for the U.S. Senate in 1914, most political observers believed his political career over. They were wrong. Hobson’s suspicion of all political moves by the Bankheads within the state of Alabama, in addition to his desire to usher a prohibition amendment through Congress, prompted him to make a fateful political decision. In 1916, Hobson challenged John Bankhead’s forty-two-year-old son William for the newly created Tenth Congressional District. But the son was not the father; Will Bankhead was better able to counter Hobson’s claims to the prerogative of political leadership by drawing on some of the same masculine conventions that had powered Hobson to victory over the senior Bankhead in 1906. The charismatic younger Bankhead and Hobson’s political missteps proved impossible for the war hero [End Page 267] to overcome. The results of the 1916 election set the combatants on opposing tracks: Hobson would never again hold political office while Bankhead’s victory would be the first of many that would bring him to the pinnacle of power in the nation’s capital.

Richmond Hobson took his seat in Congress as the representative of Alabama’s Sixth Congressional District when that body convened in December 1907. For the next seven years, Hobson proved himself to be a staunch advocate of a strong navy. He spoke frequently of his concern about Japan’s growing power and urged his fellow Congressmen to support generous naval appropriations and general military preparedness. Hobson also became a reliable advocate of progressive reforms. He opposed protective tariffs, which he believed hurt rural folks and promoted “an abnormal growth of city life,” and supported additional federal aid for education, constitutional amendments instituting the graduated income tax and for the direct election of U.S senators, as well as the Clayton Anti-Trust and Federal Trade Commission Acts. Though popular with his constituents, Hobson was not well liked by his fellow congressmen, particularly those from his own state. While in Congress, he developed a reputation as something of a maverick and was not considered a reliable southern Democrat. For example, Hobson supported New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 1912, breaking with Alabama’s Congressional delegation, which supported favorite-son candidate Representative Oscar Underwood.2

Hobson stood apart from his southern colleagues on a number of critical issues. Viewing women as natural allies in the progressive reform battle, Hobson was one of the few southern representatives to actively support women’s suffrage. Of the value of women’s political participation, Hobson argued, “We find ample provisions of law for dealing with cholera in hogs or foot-and-mouth disease in cattle, but [End Page 268] there is nothing to reach infant mortality and little to reach child labor, debauchery, and moral obliquity.” Giving women the vote would make it more likely that political solutions would be found for these problems. When the National American Woman Suffrage Association staged the first suffrage parade in Washington D.C., in 1913, it named Congressman Hobson as a parade leader. Some political observers spoke of his potential as a vice presidential and perhaps even a presidential candidate.3

More conspicuous than his support of women’s suffrage was his response to what became known as the Brownsville Affair. In late 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered a dishonorable discharge of 167 African-American soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment stationed at Fort Brown in Texas. The presence of the black troops had exacerbated racial tensions...


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pp. 267-295
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