During his twenty-eight-year public career, Hubert Durrett Stephens was a Mississippi district attorney, a United States congressman and senator, and a member of the board of directors of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Nonetheless, he is little known due to his desire for privacy and his reluctance to match political adversaries in their clamor for public attention. At retirement he directed the burning of his papers. Without access to the kind of material by which a public official’s influence can best be evaluated, historians have relegated him to the sidelines.
Stephens was born in New Albany, Mississippi, and attended New Albany public schools and graduated in law from the University of Mississippi in 1896, having scored something of a lasting memory among graduates for having played on the second university football team. Admitted to the bar before he was twenty-one years old, he began his practice in his hometown and served as an alderman for one term.
In 1907 he was appointed to fill a vacancy as district attorney for the third judicial district and was elected in 1908 to a full term. At that time Union County attorneys and officials, in an open letter to voters, touted Stephens as “a clean upright Christian gentleman … public spirited and always on the right side of all moral questions.” In April 1910 he resigned to become a candidate for Congress, defeating the incumbent Thomas Spight that summer. Subsequently, Stephens was elected to represent the Second Congressional District four more times and remained in the House until 1921.
Congressman, 1911 to 1921
In Hubert Stephens can be seen a prototype of the southern congressman described by one scholar of progressivism as “a curious mixture of conservatism and liberalism.” An ardent disciple of President Woodrow Wilson, he readily accepted those components of Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom that Deep South Democrats had teethed upon. In his maiden speech in 1911 Stephens denounced the protective tariff as “simply robbery perpetrated by law.” Opposed by supporters of free trade, a protective tariff protects home industries from lower-priced foreign goods. As the vice chairman of the Banking and Currency subcommittee, Stephens heard revelations on banking and investment malpractice that created in him a lifelong hostility to “high finance.” He called the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, which established the Federal Reserve System as the central banking authority of the United States, “the greatest piece of constructive legislation that [had] been enacted in the history of the nation.”
Representing an agricultural constituency, Stephens advocated federal appropriations for rural post roads. His posture as a southern rural congressman was never as rigid as in his support of the prohibition amendment in 1917. The amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale, transportation, importation, or exportation of intoxicating liquors. He was repulsed by the liquor traffic, an enterprise he was convinced “produces idleness, disorder, pauperism, and crime.”
Stephens was never identified as one of the “southern agrarians” who pressed Wilson toward advanced social legislation, and his role as a progressive was constrained by his dedication to states rights, “one of the first great political principles that was instilled into [his] mind.”
Silent during the debate on woman suffrage, Stephens voted against the amendment to give women the right to vote, as did every other Mississippian in Congress except for Senator James K. Vardaman. His vote in 1912 against the creation of the Children’s Bureau was an omen of his vote against the Keating-Owen child labor bill in 1916, which prevented the shipping of goods over state lines that were produced by child workers under age sixteen. As did other congressmen from primarily agricultural states, Stephens feared that child labor laws would control the work of children and youth on family farms.
He merely responded “present” when the House of Representatives passed a bill in 1914 limiting state public service commissioners in their approval of new issues of railroad stock and again in 1916 when the House voted to compensate federal employees for injuries. Stephens did support the bill to create an eight-hour workday for railroad employees. He accepted reluctantly the federal operation of the nation’s railroads during World War I as a war emergency measure, and when the war ended, he told the House, “I favor the immediate return of the railroads to their owners.”
Stephens retired from the House of Representatives in June 1920 for health reasons; in his early adulthood he had developed diabetes and he wished to return home to recover his health. Political forecasters, however, did not believe that he had retired from public life. After Senator John Sharp Williams announced his retirement and after James K. Vardaman, who had previously served one term as U.S. senator, announced his intention to run for Williams’s seat, Stephens announced his candidacy for the vacant Senate seat in August 1921.
Mississippi voters learned during the summer of 1922 that the man from New Albany was not a spell-binding orator. Stephens was described by Vardaman’s biographer as “bland and colorless.” Nonetheless, voters chose the sure and steady Stephens by a vote of 95,351 to Vardaman’s 86,853.
Senator, 1923 to 1935
Stephens began his new career when the Senate convened in December 1923. Because his primary committee assignment was the Committee of Claims, it appeared that in the Senate, as well as in the House, much of his time would be spent handling public claims against the government. As a fiscal conservative, Stephens was careful with the public pocketbook.
During his first term as senator, Stephens became a serious student of various and conflicting proposals affecting the Mississippi River Delta. Following the catastrophic 1927 flood, the Commerce Committee, which was now his primary assignment, held lengthy hearings over controversial flood control plans. Mississippi Delta leaders credited their senator as a “prime mover” in holding the flood control bill in committee until spokesmen for the lower Mississippi Valley could be heard. Not a speechmaker, Stephens declined to debate the bill when it became clear that the measure was slated for passage, but he did direct the passage of the flood control bill in March 1928. Outlook magazine commented in 1928 that “Stephens of Mississippi has the distinction of being the only senator in recent times who has evinced a willingness to forego his right to talk.”
In 1929 and 1930 Stephens did yeoman service on the Immigration and Judiciary committees, as well as Commerce and Claims. Although he had been an outspoken critic of liberal immigration policies, for the Committee on Immigration he managed a set of bills to liberalize the admission and naturalization of foreign women married to servicemen. Sensitive to the needs of agricultural states for cheap labor, he also spoke in favor of the admission of Mexican beet sugar workers because they were willing to do work that American laborers refused. For the Judiciary Committee, he brought to passage a bill to reorganize federal prisons and create the Bureau of Prisons.
Because Stephens left no written records that articulate his political thought, it is useful to analyze his congressional behavior. He was not a maverick among Mississippi or other southern Democrats; his votes were usually cast along the same lines as those of his colleagues. On balance, however, Stephens appeared to be less willing than Senator Pat Harrison, also from Mississippi, to accept national standards for social and economic change, e.g., child labor reforms and national railroad management. Stephens simply believed that individuals should have the largest degree of liberty consistent with an orderly society. The improvements Stephens hoped to effect would come within the traditional framework of private enterprise and freedom of contract — precepts he had not had to abandon as a steward of President Wilson from 1913 to 1920. The real test of Stephens’s flexibility, however, would come in a period of rapid social and economic change — after the Great Depression had left the country in a state of collapse.
In 1932 Stephens served as a manager of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s candidacy for the Democratic nomination and was counted upon at the Democratic Convention as a reliable supporter of the New York governor. With the ascent of the Democratic Party in 1933, Stephens became chairman of the Committee on Commerce, yet he was not ideologically fortified for the brave new world he entered under President Roosevelt.
Stephens supported Roosevelt’s New Deal measures of the Hundred Days with the exception of the measure doing away with the gold clause in debt payments. Near the end of the historic 1933 session, the Senate passed a five-day-workweek bill. Stephens voted against the bill that later died in the House and his vote against what would have been a landmark in labor reform would not be forgotten in Mississippi.
By late summer 1933 Mississippi’s share in the national New Deal approximated nearly $100 million in expenditures for relief, public works, flood control, cotton subsidies, and other recovery programs. Stephens had opposed few of the programs advanced from the White House, but he was reluctant to tour Mississippi that summer. In 1934 Stephens continued to support administration measures, and his greatest success that year was his behind-the-scenes management of legislation to construct a national road to be known as the Natchez Trace Parkway, along with Mississippi congressman Jeff Busby.
In his bid for re-election to the Senate in 1934, Stephens’s platform consisted of one plank: “Stand by the President and his program.” He lost his re-election bid to a man with a raging Potomac fever, former governor of Mississippi Theodore Bilbo. Stephens most likely lost to Bilbo because he had opposed organized labor and had antagonized veterans by supporting the Economy Act which reduced compensation for veterans. In addition, administration supporters resented his reluctance to offer Senate rhetoric on behalf of the president’s policies. In fact, some of his Democratic colleagues were said to have been shocked that he had run on the claim that he had stood by President Roosevelt. For his part, the defeated senator simply said, “I have never appealed to the passions and prejudices of the people … there are some things which a gentleman cannot do and say.”
Whether or not Stephens would have followed Roosevelt to the left after 1934 is questionable. Stephens’s image as a conservative can be traced to a great extent to his subdued style and failure to engage in orations on the Senate floor or heated debates at the public lectern. His silent and calm approach to the New Deal made him an easy target for radical political foes.
In March 1935, shortly after Stephens’s defeat, he was nominated and confirmed by the Senate for the position on the Reconstruction Finance Corporation board of directors vacated by Harvey Couch of Arkansas. He had voted for the creation of the RFC in 1932 during the Herbert Hoover administration. He resigned the position in less than a year. Stephens continued to live in Washington and renewed his practice of law. Early in 1941 Stephens retired from his Washington practice and returned to Mississippi to look after his farming interests near New Albany.
On March 14, 1946, at the age of seventy, he died in his sleep at his home after a long period of declining health and after an even longer period of political descent. He once told his son that he knew that “Bilbo and Vardaman would both be in the history books and, if they were, he would just as soon be left out.” To a great extent, Hubert Stephens undeservedly got his wish.
Martha H. Swain, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Texas Woman’s University and the author of “Hubert D. Stephens: Mississippi’s “Quiet Man” in the Senate, 1923-1935,” published in the Winter 2001 edition of The Journal of Mississippi History, Volume LXIII, No. 4, and from which this article is condensed.
Congressional Record, 1912-1935
Holmes, William F. The White Chief: James Kimble Vardaman. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1970.
Hubert D. Stephens Collection (copies of clippings and letters), in possession of author.
Swain, Martha H. Pat Harrison: The New Deal Years. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1978.
John Sharp Williams Papers, Library of Congress
Jackson Daily News, 1928-1946
Jackson Clarion-Ledger, 1922-1928
Memphis Commercial Appeal, 1921-1928