Bankhead, Tallulah. "My Life with Father." Coronet 31 (November 1951): 56-60.
Speaker William Bankhead of Alabama balanced allegiance to the conservative South with New Deal liberalism during a career in the U.S. House of Representatives that spanned more than two decades. A scion of a political family, Bankhead was revered as a master parliamentarian and advocate for President Franklin D. Roosevelt's program to combat the Great Depression. "I was raised on politics even from childhood. I have eaten of political pabulum; I have breathed the air of the conference, the hustings, the forum. I guess it might be said it is the breath of my nostrils," he once said.1
William Brockman Bankhead was born in Moscow, Alabama, on April 12, 1874. He was the second son of Senator John Hollis Bankhead and Tallulah Brockman Bankhead. His brother was the future Senator John Hollis Bankhead II. He attended local schools before being admitted to the University of Alabama, where he was a member of the university's first football team.2 He graduated in 1892 and then, at his father's request, attended Georgetown University's law school and graduated in 1895. Bankhead briefly pursued an acting career in Boston, but a forbidding letter from his mother on the eve of his first rehearsal aborted his aspiration.3 Bankhead traveled to New York to practice law but quickly returned to Alabama, where he joined his brother's firm. He served as Huntsville, Alabama's city attorney and as solicitor (prosecutor) of the 14th judicial circuit of Alabama. Bankhead married Adelaide Eugene Sledge in 1900 and had two daughters, Eugenia and Tallulah, the actress. Adelaide died just weeks after Tallulah's birth in 1902, and Bankhead later married Florence McGuire.
Bankhead lost the Democratic Party's nomination for a U.S. House seat in 1914. Two years later, Bankhead defeated his Republican opponent, Newman H. Freeman, by nearly seven percentage points for an open seat representing northwestern Alabama in the 65th Congress (1917-1919).4 Bankhead easily won subsequent re-election campaigns, even as Southern Democrats suffered defections following Alfred E. Smith's 1928 presidential campaign and divisions over Prohibition.5
After he took office, Bankhead mirrored his father, who was then Alabama's senior U.S. Senator. Following his father's simple advice to "learn the rules," Bankhead earned a place on the Rules Committee during the 68th Congress (1923-1925).6 In 1933, during the prolonged illness of then-Chairman Edward D. Pou of North Carolina, Bankhead served as acting chairman of the committee and then permanent chair following Pou's death in 1934. He also followed his father and sought federal grants-in-aid for Alabama. Bankhead served on the House Education Committee and secured federal money for vocational rehabilitation, among other early legislative victories.7 In 1934, Bankhead, along with his brother who had taken their father's seat in the Senate, passed the Bankhead Cotton Control Act that sought to protect small tenant farmers from land speculation and make it easier for them to buy land.
While a staunch Democrat, Bankhead was never doctrinaire. As his party confronted the ongoing financial crisis in 1932, Bankhead promised "a real test of democracy in America" during a speech on the House Floor. "New developments, new conditions, social and economic and financial, are going to call upon us as a challenge to exercise our genius for legislation and our constructive leadership to meet the new conditions, and we may not expect to rely absolutely upon the old, archaic, and unstable policies of the past that are not sufficient to meet the conditions with which we are now confronted," he said.8
Bankhead was a regular figure in party leadership races. Before the 74th Congress (1935-1937), he dropped out of the Speakership contest after Illinois Representative Henry T. Rainey's death, but he was elected Majority Leader instead. Incapacitated by a heart attack before election, Bankhead managed floor proceedings by telephone during the frenetic first session of the Congress. House Democrats passed Social Security, the Works Progress Administration, several labor bills, and multi-billion dollar infrastructure legislation during this period.9 Bankhead returned to the House in 1936 and continued to shepherd New Deal legislation through the chamber, despite court rulings against its constitutionality.
Bankhead was not the Democrats' floor leader for long. Speaker Joseph Byrns of Tennessee died on June 3, 1936—the first time a Speaker died while Congress was in session. After his party decided to forego a leadership contest, Bankhead became Speaker by resolution the next day without opposition.10 As Speaker, Bankhead continued to be President Roosevelt's legislative lieutenant in the House, publicly leading the fight for Roosevelt's court-packing plan in 1937. Yet he cultivated a conciliatory demeanor, rarely spoke from the floor on legislation, and had strong relationships with Republican colleagues. The new Majority Leader, Sam Rayburn of Texas, worked behind the scenes to exercise the power Bankhead often lacked.11
During the 1940 Democratic Party Convention, Bankhead was among the candidates for Vice President, but he stepped aside for Roosevelt's personal choice, Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace of Iowa. Bankhead campaigned for the Roosevelt-Wallace ticket, and he was about to deliver a speech in Baltimore on their behalf when he suffered another heart attack. Bankhead died on September 15, 1940, and his funeral two days later was the last held in the Hall of the House.12 Reflecting on his life, Bankhead said he often wondered if he had made a mistake abandoning the stage for a life in politics: "But after all, all the world's a stage and I have a good part. I hope that I shall play it satisfactorily and that the critics will not be too harsh with me."13
1Walter J. Heacock, "William B. Bankhead and the New Deal," Journal of Southern History 21 (August 1955): 347.
2"Speaker Bankhead," 16 September 1940, New York Times: 1.
3S.J. Woolf, “Bankhead Tells What the Speaker Should Be,” 14 February 1937, New York Times: 31.
4Alabama had an at-large seat in the U.S. House following the 1910 Census, but before the 1916 election, the state legislature created a distinct district for that seat. Michael J. Dubin, United States Congressional Elections, 1788–1997 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland Publishing, 1998): 409.
5Evans C. Johnson, “Bankhead, William Brockman,” in American National Biography, John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds. Vol. 2 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 111.
7Heacock, “William B. Bankhead and the New Deal”: 349.
8Congressional Record, House, 72nd Cong., 1st sess. (3 June 1932): 11931.
9Heacock, “William B. Bankhead and the New Deal”: 353.
10Congressional Record, House, 74th Cong., 2nd sess. (4 June 1936): 9016.
11Ronald M. Peters Jr., The American Speakership: The Office in Historical Perspective (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990): 120.
12“Funerals in the House Chamber,” http://artandhistory.house.gov/house_history/funerals.aspx (accessed 27 July 2012).
13“Bankhead Tells What the Speaker Should Be.”
Bankhead, Tallulah. "My Life with Father." Coronet 31 (November 1951): 56-60.
Heacock, Walter J. "William B. Bankhead and the New Deal." Journal of Southern History 21 (August 1955): 347-59.
------. "William Brockman Bankhead: A Biography." Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1953.
Johnson, Evans C. "John H. Bankhead 2d: Advocate of Cotton." Alabama Review 41 (January 1988): 30-58.
Van Hollen, Christopher. "The House Rules Committee, 1933-1951: Agent of Party and Agent of Opposition." Ph.D. diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1951.