Baylor University has been relatively quiet since finals week last December. The student body’s annual mid-winter migration transformed the campus into a ghost town populated by faculty, university employees, and, of course, archivists. Coincidentally, the 114th Congress is also returning to its second session, and so our first blog post of 2016 commemorates Hatton W. Sumners. Sumners served in Congress during the passage of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, which sets the meeting dates for both houses. Congressman Sumners did not attend college (though he was eventually given an honorary doctor of laws degree by Southern Methodist University), but he became known as one of the early 20th century’s sharpest legal minds. Because he lacked the finances to pursue formal education, Sumners taught himself through law books. He passed the bar after seven months of intense study at the Dallas City Attorney’s office and law library and went on to become an authority on constitutional law. President Taft, who worked with Sumners to amend judicial code, called him “the best lawyer in Congress.”
“When we, the private citizens, become the kind of citizens we ought to be, there will be less difficulty keeping in office the kind of public officials we ought to have … we must fight the political battles necessary to keep statesmen in office and politicians out.” – Hatton W. Sumners, qtd. in Dallas Morning News, 30 April 1961
Sumners joined Congress in 1913 and soon began making a name for himself. He believed in practical governing, even at the expense of tradition. Campaign materials proclaimed that Americans “must meet [their] problems upon the responsibility of [their] own judgment” rather than rely on conventional wisdom and outdated advice. He served in the House of Representatives for 34 years, eventually becoming Chairman of the Judiciary Committee in 1932. Congressman Sumners became known as a dogged champion of fairness, investigating corruption among federal judges and representing Congress before the Supreme Court on four separate occasions. In a 1939 Life magazine poll, Sumners ranked first among members of the House in integrity. His convictions eventually cost him a seat on the Supreme Court; Sumners’s public opposition to President Roosevelt’s Judicial Procedures Reform Bill was instrumental in the bill’s defeat, and the Congressman faced political repercussions. Having served seventeen consecutive two-year terms, Congressman Sumners retired in 1946 and established the first legal center in the world at Southern Methodist University. He passed away in 1962.
As our students return to their studies and our congressmen return to their duties, we remember Hatton W. Sumners’s self-inspired zeal for the law and affection for democracy. The Congressman’s incorruptible passion stands as a testament to the policies of ‘strength by struggle’ he advocated.