Hoke Smith, a trial attorney and publisher of the Atlanta Journal, was most influential as the leader of Georgia’s Progressive movement during his years as governor (1907-9, 1911) and as a U.S. senator (1911-21).
Michael Hoke Smith was born on September 2, 1855, in Newton, North Carolina, to Hildreth H. Smith, a New England educator then serving as president of Catawba College, and Mary Brent Hoke, a member of a prominent North Carolina family. The Smiths moved to Chapel Hill in 1857, when Smith’s father joined the faculty at the University of North Carolina. Hoke was too young for military service during the Civil War (1861-65) and instead remained at home in the university community under the tutelage of his father, whose keen instruction enabled the boy to rise to legal and political heights without formal education.
In 1868 Smith’s father lost his position at the university and moved his family to Atlanta, after accepting a post in the city’s public school system. Smith immediately set out to establish his own place in the city that would remain his home for the rest of his life. He read for the law at an Atlanta firm, proving the quality of his father’s instruction by passing the bar examination at the age of seventeen in 1873. Although he began his legal practice with few connections and fewer assets (he saved money by sleeping in his office), he rose to become one of the most prominent injury attorneys in the Southeast, representing workers and passengers against the railroads. As he became financially and professionally established, Smith mirrored his father’s devotion to education by serving on the Atlanta Board of Education, first as a member in the 1880s, then as its president (1896-1907). In 1883 he married Marion “Birdie” Cobb, daughter of Confederate general Thomas R. R. Cobb; together they had five children.
Smith used his growing wealth to purchase the Atlanta Journal in 1887, soon building it into the archrival of the Atlanta Constitution. The investment demonstrated his skills as a businessman and publisher; in only thirteen years the initial $10,000 investment had grown to $300,000. In addition to being profitable, the Journal gave Smith a platform with which to enter Democratic politics. The use of the paper to promote Grover Cleveland’s successful 1892 presidential campaign led to Smith’s appointment as U.S. secretary of the interior (1893-96). Smith resigned when Cleveland lost the 1896 Democratic nomination to William Jennings Bryan, the noted orator and proponent of the free-silver monetary policy.
Supporting Bryan effectively allied Smith with Thomas E. Watson’s Populist Party because the Populists had also nominated Bryan as their presidential candidate, with Watson as his vice-presidential running mate. The election resulted in a solid victory for the Republican candidate, William McKinley, and in a crushing defeat for the Populists both nationally and in Georgia. Smith’s association with them made him a political exile in Georgia for most of the next decade.
Early in the twentieth century, Smith resurfaced in Georgia Democratic politics. With the backing of the Atlanta Journal and Watson, he entered and won the 1906 gubernatorial race against Clark Howell, publisher of the rival Atlanta Constitution. But Watson had not been a disinterested supporter; he gave his support on the condition that Smith would disenfranchise Black voters.
Smith devoted his first term (1907-9) to a flurry of Progressive legislation: he greatly strengthened the Railroad Commission’s power to regulate railroads, increased public school funding, established the juvenile court system, and abolished the notorious convict lease system. As was true throughout the South, the strong influence of Jim Crow racism marred the Progressive movement in Georgia. Smith kept his promise to Watson by leading the adoption of a constitutional amendment to impose a grandfather clause that effectively disenfranchised Black Georgians.
The volatile Watson nonetheless transferred his support in the 1908 governor’s race from Smith to Joseph M. Brown in retaliation for Smith’s refusal to commute the death sentence of a Watson supporter. The race was a grudge match not only with Watson but also with Brown, who sought political revenge after Smith had fired him from the Railroad Commission for being too favorable to the railroads. Although Smith lost the 1908 election, he won a rematch against Brown in 1910.
Soon after Smith began his second term in 1911, the General Assembly elected him to fill Georgia’s U.S. Senate seat held by Joseph M. Terrell, who had suffered a major stroke. The legislature expected Smith to resign the governorship immediately for the new office, but he refused to comply. Instead, he frustrated his opponents by remaining as governor until the end of the 1911 legislative session in order to extend his Progressive agenda. He created the Department of Commerce and Labor, established the state Board of Education, reduced the maximum work week for textile workers to sixty hours, and passed an antilobbying bill.
At the end of the session, Smith entered the U.S. Senate, where he led the passage of the Smith-Lever Act (1914) to create a national agricultural extension system and the Smith-Hughes Act (1917) for vocational education in secondary schools. Smith continued to face opposition from Joseph M. Brown and Tom Watson in his Senate reelection campaigns. He defeated Brown in 1914 but lost to Watson in 1920. The defeat marked the end of Smith’s political career.
He stayed in Washington, D.C., to practice federal claims law until 1924; that same year he married Mazie Crawford, his first wife having died in 1919. Smith returned to Atlanta in 1925 and remained active in legal and civic affairs there until his death in 1931. Despite his regrettable role in the disenfranchisement of Black voters, Smith’s legislative initiatives in business, government, and education justly earned him the reputation of Georgia’s leading Progressive reformer.