FW: ANB - Bio of the Day: Lister Hill
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American National Biography Online
Hill, Lister (27 Dec. 1894-20 Dec. 1984), U.S. congressman and
senator, was born Joseph Lister Hill in Montgomery, Alabama,
the son of Luther Leonidas Hill, Jr., a prominent physician,
and Lilly Lyons. Dr. Hill named his son for the world-renowned
British surgeon Sir Joseph Lister, under whom he had studied
in London. At his mother's insistence, Lister Hill--as he preferred
to be known--attended a Catholic grade school and was reared
in the Catholic church. Before embarking on a political career
in overwhelmingly Protestant Alabama, Hill publicly announced
his conversion to Methodism, the faith of his paternal ancestors.
After graduating from Starke School, an elite prep school in
Montgomery, Hill attended the University of Alabama (1911-1915),
where he earned A.B. and law degrees, and Columbia University
Law School (1915-1916), where he earned a second law degree.
Returning to Montgomery, he entered the practice of law. During
World War I he served eighteen months in the Seventeenth U.S.
Infantry, rising from private to first lieutenant. Although hostilities
had virtually ended by the time he reached France, Hill acquired
the valuable political credential of war veteran.
Thanks in large measure to his father's wide acquaintance with
physicians, nurses, hospital administrators, and grateful patients,
Hill was elected in 1923 on the Democratic ticket as representative
of Alabama's Second Congressional District, which encompassed
the infertile piney hills of south central Alabama as well as
Montgomery and a strip of rich Black Belt soil. Unlike many politically
ambitious Alabamians in the 1920s, Hill did not affiliate with
the then-powerful Ku Klux Klan, perhaps in part because of his
Catholic upbringing and because some of his maternal ancestors
had been Jewish.
When he took the oath of office at the age of twenty-eight,
Hill became the youngest member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
He retained his House seat with ease, running unopposed in seven
Democratic primaries and encountering only token opposition in
1932 and 1936. A highly eligible bachelor during his early years
in Washington, D.C., Hill married Henrietta Fontaine McCormick,
member of a socially prominent southern family, in 1928; they
became the parents of two children.
When Democrats took over the presidency and leadership of Congress
in 1933, Hill came under the charm and influence of Franklin
D. Roosevelt, who inspired the young congressman with the spirit
of noblesse oblige. Originally cautious about expanding the role
of the federal government, Hill became in 1933 the House sponsor
of a bill that embraced the sweeping concept, originated by Nebraska
senator George Norris, of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Joining
the congressional majority that authorized the New Deal, Hill
supported its public works and employment programs, the National
Industrial Recovery Act, and federal subsidies to cut back agricultural
production; he even took political risks by opposing a bonus
for war veterans and by supporting Roosevelt's plan to enlarge
the Supreme Court. Following Roosevelt's reelection in 1936,
the president named Hill to head the steering committee that
in 1937 helped frame and enact the Farm Security Administration,
which offered government loans to aid small farmers in becoming landowners.
In 1938 Hill won the Senate seat vacated by Hugo L. Black, Roosevelt's
first nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. Campaigning against
former Alabama senator J. Thomas Heflin, Hill vigorously supported
the principle of a federally mandated minimum wage and maximum
work week, the major issue in this contest. His victory, closely
followed by that of Senator Claude Pepper in Florida, helped
bring about passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Hill's ardor for New Deal programs won him the honor of placing
Roosevelt's name in nomination for a third term at the 1940 Democratic
In 1946, however, faced with the prospect of having to rally
support for President Harry S. Truman's civil rights proposals,
Hill resigned as Democratic whip, thereby relinquishing his chance
to succeed Kentucky senator Alben Barkley as majority leader.
A political pragmatist, Hill, in order to keep his Senate seat,
had opposed attempts by Congress to abolish the poll tax, outlaw
lynching, and curb the filibuster. After the Supreme Court's
1954 Brown decision, he publicly supported the Alabama legislature's
futile gesture, a resolution declaring the decision null and
void within their state, and he joined one hundred other members
of Congress in signing the Southern Manifesto of protest. Referring
to another politician who had made a similar compromise, Hill
once remarked to a friend, "Do you want him to stick his neck
out and get beat, or stay here and get something done?" (Hamilton, p. 291).
Having thus deflected the politics of race, Hill won easy reelection
over token opposition in 1950 and 1956. Thereafter he concentrated
his enormous power and influence on sponsoring legislation in
the less controversial fields of health and education. In 1946,
with Ohio senator Harold Burton as titular cosponsor, he had
won passage of the Hill-Burton Act, which forestalled Truman's
proposal for national health insurance by providing federal funds
for a vast hospital construction program, particularly in rural
areas. In 1956 Hill and Alabama representative Carl Elliott cosponsored
the Library Services Act, which provided federal funds to upgrade
the nation's libraries.
In 1958 Hill and Elliott succeeded in persuading Congress to
enact the so-called National Defense Education Act, passed amid
the national hysteria that followed the Russian launch of Sputnik.
Invoking the need to educate more scientists for national defense,
this legislation pioneered federal loans for college students
in all fields of study. Hill, occupying the powerful post of
chairman of the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare,
also convinced Congress to commit billions to expand the National
Institutes of Health into a medical research empire funding thousands
of projects concerned with the causes and control of major diseases
and other health problems.
But as the civil rights movement became stronger and parts of
it more militant during the 1960s, Hill's longtime opponents--leaders
of big business, agriculture, and the timber industry--sensed
the opportunity to lure Alabama's white, working-class majority,
heretofore loyal Democrats due to the economic benefactions they
had received from the New Deal, into the ranks of the Republican
party. By fielding a vigorous, young candidate, James D. Martin,
and inciting the emotions of white voters over issues such as
school prayer and the integration of the neighboring University
of Mississippi, Republicans almost defeated Hill in 1962. George
C. Wallace, obsessed by his presidential ambitions, encouraged
further defections from the New Deal wing of the Alabama Democratic
party during his first term as governor (1963-1967).
Rather than face a reelection campaign centered on the issue
of race, Hill retired in 1968, having served forty-five years
in the House and Senate. On the Senate floor, colleagues paid
high tribute to Hill's long and productive career; Texas senator
Ralph Yarborough declared that Hill ranked among the top five
members who had rendered "the greatest service to the people"
in the history of the Senate (Hamilton, pp. 280-81). Numerous
organizations in the fields of medicine, education, and librarianship
honored Hill; he received a special Lasker Foundation Award for
his sponsorship of health research, and in 1980 the Lister Hill
National Center for Biomedical Research was dedicated on the
campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
Hill lived quietly in his unpretentious bungalow in Montgomery
until his death there a week short of his ninetieth birthday.
Although he deliberately chose political survival over the championship
of civil rights, Hill, because of his major legislative achievements
in the areas of education and health, indirectly benefited all Americans.
Hill's papers, a collection of more than 1.8 million pieces
containing detailed files on all aspects of his long congressional
career, are housed at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.
An immense clipping file, located in the Alabama Department of
Archives and History in Montgomery, complements the papers. Further
materials related to Hill can be found in the papers of the presidents
under whom he served: Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower,
Kennedy, and Johnson. For a comprehensive overview of his career,
see Virginia Van der Veer Hamilton, Lister Hill: Statesman from
the South (1987).
Virginia Van der Veer Hamilton
Back to the top
Virginia Van der Veer Hamilton. "Hill, Lister";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published
by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
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