The Hatton W. Sumners Library is your opportunity to learn more about Congressman Sumners' life, career and beliefs.
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Congressman Hatton W. Sumners was a key figure in the unfolding drama of American democracy during the first half of the 20th century, a period that encompassed two world wars and produced startling changes in many phases of this nation's life. Sumners' role was not that of a spectator. He served as a decision-maker and as a policy formulator throughout his 34 years of congressional service, which spanned the first administration of President Woodrow Wilson to the end of World War II.
Born near Fayetteville, Lincoln County, Tennessee, on May 30, 1875, Sumners was raised as a farm boy in an era in which hard work and responsibilities came at an early age. As a young man, Sumners moved with his family to Texas. There, despite little formal education, he "read law" in the office of the Dallas City Attorney, and was admitted to the State Bar of Texas. Throughout his life he would continue to educate himself by wide reading, deep thought and acute observation.
At the age of 24, Sumners was elected prosecuting attorney of Dallas County, at a time when, as he said, "Dallas was just emerging from the wild west days." In this position, he served two non-consecutive terms in spite of the determined opposition of organized gambling interests, apparent election frauds and threats to his life.
In 1912 he was elected Congressman-at-Large from Texas, one of two elected from more than 20 candidates. Two years later, after the state had been redistricted, he was elected representative from the Fifth District of Texas. Reelected every two years, he served continuously until his voluntary retirement in 1947.
Hatton W. Sumners was an extraordinary public servant. Respected and admired by those who knew him, he was universally recognized as a man of great moral courage, possessed of a sincere and deep spiritual conviction. As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee (1931-1947), Sumners acquired a justly-deserved reputation as the greatest constitutional lawyer in Congress and it was common knowledge that by 1937 he was in line for the next vacancy on the United States Supreme Court.
It was around this same time that cases challenging the Social Security Act and the Wagner Act were pending before the Court. In 1935 the Schecter decision nullified the NRA codes and in 1936 the Court ruled against the AAA processing taxes. In an effort to ensure holdings validating the acts pending before the Court and other New Deal legislation, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed the reorganization of the Supreme Court, including the appointment of as many as six new justices.
Sumners immediately notified the president of his opposition to the proposal as a flagrant violation of the "checks and balances" and separation of powers principles of the United States Constitution. He declared that he would fight against the proposal to the finish, knowing that his public opposition to the measure ended his chances of becoming a member of the high court. His untiring efforts and leadership were successful, and the plan was defeated, although at great cost to his personal career.
Following his retirement from Congress in 1947, Sumners continued to work for the public good. He set forth his lifelong belief in the maintenance of the balance of power and responsibilities between the federal government and the states in his book, The Private Citizen and His Democracy, published in 1959. He believed in vigorous participation by individual citizens in their government, and he recognized that a strong and independent judiciary and legal system are necessary to the survival of the American system of constitutional government.
In 1949 he established the Hatton W. Sumners Foundation for the Study and Teaching of the Science of Self-Government and thereafter willed to the foundation the property which produces the income that enables the Foundation to carry on its work.
He died in Dallas, Texas, on April 19, 1962.
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For more information on the life and career of Hatton W. Sumners, you are invited to download the following documents. You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to open these files. If you do not have it, this program can be downloaded from:
A Day in July -- Hatton W. Sumners and the Court Reorganization Plan of 1937 - The Best Lawyer in Congress (Chapter 1), The University of Texas at Arlington, August 1973. This chapter of a Masters Thesis by Mary Catherine Monroe covers Congressman Sumners' early years and the development of his reputation as the best lawyer in Congress. [96k]
The Congressional Record, U.S. House of Representatives, July 13, 1937. This is a reprint of Congressman Sumners' speech on the floor of the House of Representatives in opposition to President Roosevelt's plan to "pack" the U.S. Supreme Court. [84k]
Capitol Leaders in Revolt, The Evening Star, Washington, D.C., Tuesday, May 17, 1938. By Ray Tucker, this story was one of a series on Congressional leaders' opposition to many New Deal initiatives. [84k]
The Gentleman Who Does Not Yield, The Saturday Evening Post, May 10, 1941. By Raymond Moley & Celeste Jedel, this story reviews Congressman Sumners' career and the role the Congress in the political affairs of the nation. [76k]
The Congressional Record - Extension of Remarks, U.S. House of Representatives, March 11, 1946. This is a reprint of Congressman Sumners' announcement that he would not be seeking re-election, and his reasons for that decision. [96k]