George Samuel Huddleston (1869-1960) was a Democratic Representative to Congress for 22 years, from 1915 to 1937. A champion of progressive laws, racial equality, prohibition, organized labor, and free speech, Huddleston also initially opposed U.S. entry into World War I, the xenophobia of the 1920s, and U.S. military intervention in Nicaragua and Haiti but he became more conservative during his tenure. He was also an attorney, veteran, and civic leader.
Huddleston was born on a farm near Lebanon, Wilson County, Tennessee, on November 11, 1869, to Joseph Franklin and Nancy Emeline (Sherrill) Huddleston. He attended public schools until the sixth grade and then worked at several jobs, including selling newspapers and working in a country store to earn the $500 necessary to enter the Cumberland University School of Law in Lebanon, Tennessee. In 1891, he received his bachelor of law degree and was admitted to the Alabama State Bar. He opened a law practice in Birmingham, Jefferson County, and his clients were primarily owners of small businesses from Birmingham's community of German Jews. In 1898, he became a private in the First Regiment Company K of the Alabama Volunteer Infantry, known as the "Birmingham Rifles," during the Spanish-American War. He never saw any combat, though, spending six months encamped in Mobile and Miami and suffering from jaundice, rheumatism, malarial fever, and diarrhea during the course of his service. He was honorably discharged and returned to his law practice. In 1910, he served as an alderman. In 1913, he retired, sold his practice and purchased 50,000 acres in the piney hills of Shelby County; he also spent a year touring cathedrals in Europe.
In 1915, Huddleston was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat to represent Alabama's Ninth District, which was previously represented by Democrat Oscar W. Underwood. He won a seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and voted for legislation that provided a pension to a blind veteran of the Spanish-American War. He opposed U.S. participation in World War I and the subsequent Selective Service Act, but on April 6, 1917, he voted in favor of the declaration of war. He felt the economic burden of the war should fall onto the bankers, businessmen, industrialists, and publishers who were poised to profit from the conflict.
On Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 1917, Huddleston married Bertha L. Baxley, and the couple would have five children. (Son George Huddleston Jr. would become a lawyer and serve in the U.S. Congress from 1955 to 1964.) In the 1918 election, Huddleston was accused of socialism for his economic views by the Alabama press but retained his seat with a 2,453-vote win, primarily from the rural and mining areas. He supported the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and opposed violence against immigrants, many of whom were relocating to the state following World War I. His pacifist and political views led some constituents, as well as the Birmingham News, to question his patriotism and loyalty. Anti-Huddleston political rallies persuaded voters to agree with Pres. Woodrow Wilson's open letter of condemnation of Huddleston's voting record.
In 1920, Huddleston supported repealing the 1918 Sedition Bill for its restrictions on free speech. Two years later, he voted against the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, despite his vehement opposition to the Ku Klux Klan and racial violence, because he worried it would threaten his reputation among his white constituents in Alabama. Huddleston ran unopposed in the 1926 and 1928 elections. In 1928, he denounced Pres. Calvin Coolidge's decision to send a military expedition to suppress the Sandino movement in Nicaragua. During his tenure, he sponsored bills that required the labeling of goods produced by child or prison labor and that created an employment program for veterans and was involved in passing the Securities Act of 1933 to regulate the financial industry in the wake of the Great Depression.
In 1931, Huddleston delivered the Democratic response to Pres. Herbert Hoover's State of the Union message, in which he addressed Hoover's failure to provide aid to Americans suffering from the Depression. He also introduced a bill authorizing the administration to spend $100 million in direct relief to individuals. It was the first such bill in American history, and President Hoover rejected it. Additional legislation sponsored by Huddleston focused on home building, public works, and for the development of electrical power at Niagara Falls, which inspired the Tennessee Valley Authority program. As a senior member of the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, Huddleston helped facilitate President Roosevelt's "Hundred Days," in which he maneuvered 15 major bills through Congress and set the standard for subsequent administrations. In 1934, he won reelection with nearly 61 percent of the vote, but after withdrawing his support for Roosevelt's New Deal programs over legislation relating to public utilities and opposing an energy bill, he lost support. After serving ten terms in Congress, he lost his seat to conservative-backed Luther Patrick in 1936.
Returning to Birmingham, Huddleston sold 46,000 acres of his land in Shelby County and used the profits to purchase several
downtown Birmingham buildings, which provided a modest rental income during his retirement. He was active in civic and political
affairs in Birmingham and Alabama, becoming a Freemason, Grand Master of the Odd Fellows, Commander of the United Spanish
War Veterans, and a member of the Knights of Pythias and the Improved Order of the Red Men. He generally avoided national
politics and refrained from newspaper interviews for ten years after his retirement from Congress. He died on February 29,
1960, in Birmingham after a long illness and was buried in Elmwood Cemetery. Birmingham-Southern College established the Bertha and George Huddleston Sr. Scholarship in his honor.
Barnard, William D. "George Huddleston, Sr., and the Political Tradition of Birmingham." Alabama Review 36 (October 1983): 243-258.
Packer, George. Blood of the Liberals. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.
Brett J. Derbes
Published August 10, 2012
Last updated September 27, 2012