Kenneth McKellar, US Senate & House

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Kenneth Douglas McKellar

Birthdate: (88)
Birthplace: Dallas, Dallas County, AL, United States
Death: October 25, 1957 (88)
Memphis, TN, United States
Place of Burial: Elmwood Cemetery Memphis Shelby County Tennessee
Immediate Family:

Son of James Daniel White McKellar and Caroline McKellar

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Immediate Family

About Kenneth McKellar, US Senate & House

Kenneth Douglas McKellar (January 29, 1869 – October 25, 1957) was an American politician from Tennessee who served as a United States Representative from 1911 until 1917 and as a United States Senator from 1917 until 1953. A Democrat, he served longer in both houses of Congress than anyone else in Tennessee history, and only a few others in American history have served longer in both houses.

Early life and career

McKellar was a native of Dallas County, Alabama and was graduated from the University of Alabama in 1891 and its law school in 1892. He moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and was admitted to the bar the same year. McKellar was first elected to the House in a special election in November 1911 to succeed George W. Gordon in the 10th Congressional District, which included Memphis. He won the seat in his own right in 1912 and was reelected in 1914 serving until his election to the United States Senate.

United States Senate

McKellar ran for the Senate in 1916, defeating incumbent Senator Luke Lea in the Democratic primary and winning the general election against former Republican Governor Ben W. Hooper. He was reelected to the Senate in 1922 (defeating former Senator Newell Sanders), 1928 (defeating former U.S. Assistant Attorney General James Alexander Fowler), 1934, 1940 (against Howard Baker, Sr., father of future Senator Howard Baker), and 1946.

McKellar was considered something of a progressive in his early days in the Senate, supporting many of President Woodrow Wilson's reform initiatives as well as ratification of the Treaty of Versailles. He also staunchly supported the New Deal, especially the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. He was also a close ally of Memphis political boss E. H. Crump.

Despite his early support for Franklin Roosevelt's policies, McKellar grew more conservative in his political stances and began opposing the Roosevelt administration's appointments. The most noted of these would be a prolonged feud with FDR's appointee to head the TVA, David E. Lilienthal.

As Head of the Appropriations Committee he successfully forced the TVA to properly reimberse landowners whose property was taken over by the TVA for such purposes as dam building. Prior to McKellar's threats to withhold Federal appropriation's for the purchase of Uranium early in World War Two, the TVA was commonly offering to give landholders "pennies on the dollar" for their property taken over by the TVA. As head of the Appropriations Committee, McKellar had full knowledge of the appropriations needed for the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb. He was often called upon to "keep the secret" of the Manhattan Project by mingling funds for the bomb project with other projects, or through carefully planned (secret) War Projects Funding. As the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was centered in Tennessee, his home State, McKellar felt that the harsh treatment of his Constituents in Tennessee by the TVA was a personal affront by David Lilienthal.

McKellar's threat to withhold funding for purchases of uranium had a much deeper meaning though. Lilienthal was also intimately associated with the Manhattan Project's work done to electromagnetically enrich uranium at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Ernest Lawrence's "magnetic" enrichment of uranium at Oak Ridge would eventually use the electricity created by the TVA to enrich every single bit of uranium used in the first (test) bomb as well as the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan to end the War. By "threatening" to withhold funding for the purchase of uranium, Tennessee Senator McKellar was making it clear to David Lilienthal that it was he (MacKellar, as head of the Appropriation's Committee) who was holding the cards, and that it was Lilienthal who was being forced to give a fair market value for land appropriated by the TVA.

McKellar twice served as President pro tempore of the United States Senate, commencing in 1945, being the first to hold the position under the system that has prevailed since of reserving it for the most senior member of the majority party. When FDR died, and Harry Truman became President of the U.S., Truman did not appoint a Vice President, and McKellar became a sort of post facto Vice President. As the Presidential line of succession had been to the Vice President and then the President pro tempore of the Senate in the past, Truman honored that tradition by seeing McKellar as the logical wartime replacement for himself, and asked McKellar to attend all Cabinet meetings. As there was no Vice President during the wartime (first) Truman Administration, Senator McKellar would likely have been found to be the rightful President of the United States had Truman died during the War. He also served as chairman of the Civil Service Committee, Post Office and Road Committee, and, most notably, the powerful Appropriations Committee from 1945–1947 and again from 1949–1953.


He is the only Tennessee senator to have completed more than three full terms; except for McKellar, Tennessee has generally not fully joined into the Southern tradition of reelecting Senators for protracted periods of service. (Before the era of popular election of U.S. Senators, Senator William B. Bate was elected to a fourth term by the Tennessee General Assembly, but died only five days into it. Senator Isham G. Harris had also died early in his fourth term. Senator Joseph Anderson was elected by the General Assembly to three full terms after completing the term of William Blount, who was expelled from the Senate.)

1952 election

In 1952 McKellar stood for a seventh term (the first Senator to do so), despite being by then quite elderly (age 83). He was opposed for renomination by Middle Tennessee Congressman Albert Gore. McKellar's reelection slogan was "Thinking Feller? Vote McKellar.", which Gore countered with "Think Some More – Vote for Gore." Gore defeated McKellar for the Democratic nomination in August in what was widely regarded as something of an upset. At this point in Tennessee history, the Democratic nomination for statewide office was still "tantamount to election", as the Republican Party's activities were still largely limited to East Tennessee, as they had been since the Civil War. Gore went on to serve three terms in the Senate.

McKellar's 1952 defeat was part of a statewide trend. 1952 also saw the defeat for renomination of incumbent governor of Tennessee Gordon Browning by Frank G. Clement. Browning, who had served a total of three terms as governor, the last two successive, had also at one point been a close ally of Crump's but had since broken ranks with him. As Clement and Gore were both considerably younger and regarded as more progressive than their predecessors, some historians cite the 1952 elections as an indication that Tennessee was earlier to enter into the "New South" era of Southern politics than most of the other Southern states. This election also marked the end of Crump having any real influence in Tennessee beyond Memphis.


McKellar wrote a book about his Tennessee predecessors in the Senate called Tennessee Senators as Seen by One of Their Successors (1942). In recent years it has been updated by one of his successors, former Senate Majority Leader Dr. Bill Frist.

Some have speculated that Senator McKellar was the inspiration for the character of South Carolina Senator Seabright Cooley in Allen Drury's novel Advise and Consent.

Lake McKellar, bordering the Memphis President's Island industrial area along the Mississippi River and McKellar Airport in Jackson, Tennessee ("MKL") are both named in his honor.

McKeller is interred at Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee. He was portrayed by actor Ed Bruce in the film, Public Enemies (2009).

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Kenneth McKellar, US Senate & House's Timeline

January 29, 1869
Dallas, Dallas County, AL, United States
October 25, 1957
Age 88
Memphis, TN, United States
Elmwood Cemetery Memphis Shelby County Tennessee