Luke Lea, U.S. Senator

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Luke Lea

Birthplace: Nashville, TN, USA
Death: Died in Nashville, TN, USA
Immediate Family:

Son of John Overton Lea, and Ella Lea
Husband of Percie Percie Lea and Mary Louise Lea
Father of Luke Lea, Jr. and Percy Lea
Brother of Overton Lea; Laura Lea and Elizabeth Lea

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Immediate Family

About Luke Lea, U.S. Senator

Luke Lea (April 12, 1879 – November 18, 1945) was a Democratic United States Senator from Tennessee from 1911 to 1917.


Lea was the great-grandson of an earlier Luke Lea who was a two-term Congressman from Tennessee in the 1830s. Initially an ardent supporter of Democrat Andrew Jackson he later later became a member of the Whig Party.

The younger Lea attended public schools and then the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, graduating from that institution in 1899. He then attended the Columbia Law School in New York City, completing his studies at that prestigious institution in 1903 and being admitted to the bar the same year, beginning practice in Nashville.

Lea was the founder of the Nashville Tennessean and its first editor and publisher. He was elected to the Senate by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1911. He was an enthusiastic supporter of most of the progressive policies of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, a fellow native of the South and to that point only the second member of the Democratic Party elected President (in 1912) since the end of the Civil War. During the 63rd Congress, Lea was chairman of the Senate Committee on the Library (of Congress).

Socially progressive but fiscally solvent, Lea actively supported lowering the tariff, the creation of the Federal Reserve, the regulation of major corporations and the breaking up of trusts. He also supported women's suffrage and a national prohibition amendment. He allied with Robert La Follette and supported his seaman's act. He approved of the eight-hour day and opposed child labor.

In 1913, he began his most ambitious undertaking in the Senate when he attempted to launch a federal investigation of the railroads and political corruption in Tennessee. The investigation encouraged the railroads to cease distributing free passes as political favors, but the growing crisis of the First World War eventually overshadowed concerns about corruption and the investigation was shelved.

During Lea's term, the Seventeenth Amendment changed the method of election of Senators from election by the state legislatures to direct popular vote. Lea supported this measure. Lea contended for the 1916 Democratic nomination for the seat but was defeated by Kenneth McKellar, a colleague of Memphis political "boss" E. H. Crump, who went on to serve six terms as Tennessee's longest-serving senator. Despite his lame duck status, Lea continued to work on the progressive agenda. He voted to confirm Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court, and supported a number of progressive measures in the Senate including immigration reform, the Shipping Act of 1916, and the Revenue Act of 1916.

Shortly after the end of Lea's Senate term, the U.S. entered World War I. Lea volunteered and was commissioned as an artillery officer, serving in Europe, where he was promoted to the rank of colonel. In January 1919, Lea and a group of officers from his unit, the U.S. 114th Field Artillery, traveled to Kasteel Amerongen in the Netherlands in a failed attempt to seize the recently exiled German Kaiser Wilhelm II and bring Wilhelm II to the Paris Peace Conference for potential trial for war crimes. One of the officers accompanying Lea was Larry MacPhail, later the part-owner and general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees and father of baseball executive Lee MacPhail.

After the close of the war, Lea returned to Nashville and resumed operation of his newspaper. In 1919 he was one of the founders of the American Legion and served prominently in various leadership roles. In 1929 Lea was nominated for appointment by governor of Tennessee Henry H. Horton to Tennessee's other Senate seat, vacated by the death of Senator Lawrence D. Tyson who had been one of Lea's colleagues in the U.S. 30th Division during World War I. Lea, however, declined this appointment, choosing instead to enter the banking and real estate businesses in an era when the speculative nature of practices in those industries was about to contribute to the Great Depression. In the 1920s, Lea was a major investor in and backer of the Nashville investment banking firm of Caldwell & Company, due in part to his friendship with its founder Rogers Caldwell. Many accusations were subsequently made about Lea and his friends, and he became the subject of much rumor and innuendo. The book At Heaven's Gate by poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren is said to be a roman à clef about the events of this era in the Nashville area, as are aspects of the novel A Summons to Memphis by the novelist Peter Matthew Hillsman Taylor.

Lea was indicted in North Carolina with others, including his eldest son, for bank fraud resulting from the 1930 collapse of the Central Bank and Trust Company of Asheville, North Carolina, a bank with which he had become affiliated through his connection with Caldwell & Company. Both Lea and his son were tried in North Carolina in 1931. L.E. Gwinn, a prominent Memphis attorney whose specialty was criminal law, was brought in along with other attorneys, and the detailed preparation of the North Carolina case was entrusted to him. The Leas were convicted on three of seven counts. After the Leas’ appeals were exhausted and after the U.S. Supreme Court denied their petition for the writ of certiorari, both Leas reported for imprisonment at Raleigh in May 1934. Lea received a parole in April 1936, and he received a full pardon in June 1937. To the end of his life, Lea maintained that he and his son were wrongly prosecuted and convicted and that the prosecution was political in nature, with Lea being made the scapegoat for the Central Bank and Trust’s failure by his Republican foes in North Carolina and Tennessee.

Lea made many efforts to reintegrate himself into Tennessee business and political life after his release, but his interests in his newspapers and other investments had been liquidated or placed into receivership during his imprisonment. Lea died in Nashville in 1945 at the age of 66 and is buried in that city's Mount Olivet Cemetery, the final resting place of several Tennessee governors and senators.

Lea Heights in Nashville's Percy Warner Park, a place offering an excellent view of the downtown Nashville skyline, is named in his honor. The original land grant establishing Percy Warner Park was donated by Lea and his family to Nashville, and the park is named for Lea's father-in-law.

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Luke Lea, U.S. Senator's Timeline

April 12, 1879
Nashville, TN, USA
Age 29
November 18, 1945
Age 66
Nashville, TN, USA