Prentice Cooper, Governor

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William Prentice Cooper, Jr.

Birthdate: (73)
Birthplace: Bedford County, Tennessee, United States
Death: May 18, 1969 (73)
Rochester, Olmsted County, Minnesota, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of William Prentice Cooper, Sr. and Argentine "Argia" Cooper
Husband of Hortense Powell
Father of Jim Cooper, U.S. Congress
Brother of Mildred Cooper

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About Prentice Cooper, Governor

William Prentice Cooper, Jr. (September 28, 1895 – May 18, 1969) was an American politician who served as Governor of Tennessee from 1939 to 1945. He led the state's mobilization efforts for World War II, when over 300,000 Tennesseans joined the armed forces, and numerous defense-related facilities were established across the state. He later served as U.S. Ambassador to Peru (1946–1948), and chaired Tennessee's 1953 constitutional convention.

Early life

Cooper was born at the home of his maternal grandparents along the Duck River in Bedford County, Tennessee. He was the son of William Prentice Cooper, an attorney and businessman, and Argentine (Shofner) Cooper. He attended private schools in nearby Shelbyville, and graduated in 1913 from the Webb School in Bell Buckle, where he was president of the debate team.

In 1914, Cooper enrolled in Vanderbilt University, where he was a member of Phi Delta Theta and vice president of the freshman class. After two years, he transferred to Princeton University, from which he graduated in 1917 with a Bachelor of Arts. Following the U.S. entry into World War I, he enlisted in the Army, initially serving with the 307th Field Artillery before being transferred to Fort Monroe in Virginia. He was discharged in January 1919 with the rank of second lieutenant.

Cooper enrolled in Harvard Law School in February 1919, and graduated with an LL.B in 1921. He was admitted to the bar in 1922, and began practice in Shelbyville. That same year, he was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives, where he secured passage of the state's Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act.

Cooper left the house after one term, and was elected district attorney of the state's Eighth Judicial District in 1925. He later served as a city attorney for Shelbyville. In the 1930s, he helped organize the Duck River Electric Membership Corporation, an electric cooperative.


In 1936, Cooper was elected to the Tennessee Senate, representing Bedford, Coffee, and Moore counties. In 1938, he ran for his party's nomination for governor with the support of Memphis political boss E. H. Crump. Crump was at the height of his power in state politics, and had had a falling out with the incumbent, Gordon Browning, over state appointments. He spent thousands of dollars on ads to boost Cooper's image and assail Browning, and Cooper won the nomination, 231,852 votes to 158,854. In the general election, he defeated the Republican candidate, Howard Baker, Sr., 210,567 votes to 83,031.

In the 1940 governor's race, Cooper defeated Knoxville inventor George Roby Dempster in the Democratic primary, and defeated C. Arthur Bruce by a more than 2-to-1 margin in the general election. In the 1942 race, Judge J. Ridley Mitchell, who despised Crump, sought the party's nomination for governor, but was defeated by Cooper, 171,259 votes to 124,037. Cooper easily defeated Republican candidate C.N. Frazier in the general election. Constitutional term limits prevented Cooper from seeking reelection in 1944.

Cooper was Tennessee's governor during World War II. In 1940, anticipating the U.S. entry into the war, he organized the Tennessee State Defense Council, which many other states would later imitate. He also coordinated the establishment of draft boards, organized a state guard to replace the National Guard (which had been called up to active service), and established a model Home Food Supply Program. Large defense-related facilities were built throughout the state, including Fort Campbell, most of which is in Tennessee despite its Kentucky address, a naval training base in Millington, and Sewart Air Force Base in Smyrna. Defense-related plants, employing thousands of Tennesseans, were also built, among them a gunpowder plant at Millington, a shell-loading factory in Milan, and an aircraft factory in Nashville.

In 1942, the federal government began appropriating land in what is now Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for the Manhattan Project, the operation which would build the world's first atomic bomb. The project was so secret, Cooper was not informed of its purpose, and when Anderson Countians complained to Cooper of the land appropriations, Cooper accused the federal government of stealing the land for a "socialist" project. When he received the federal proclamation establishing the site, he angrily ripped it to pieces.

Along with defense mobilization, Cooper increased funding for state schools, and implemented a program that provided free textbooks for children in grades 1 through 3. He also increased aid to the elderly, established a system of tuberculosis hospitals, and acquired land for state parks and state forests. He cut the state payroll and placed taxes on alcohol, and managed to reduce the state debt by $21 million.

In January 1941, a Cooper-supported bill calling for a repeal of the state's poll tax was introduced in the state legislature, but was defeated. In 1943, the repeal passed, but was thrown out by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Later life

At the 1944 Democratic National Convention, Cooper was among the candidates for vice president, but placed well behind eventual winner Harry S. Truman in the balloting.

In 1946, Cooper was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Peru by President Truman. He convinced Peru to repay an outstanding loan to the United States, and had a reputation as a frugal entertainer. An Argentine newspaper accused Cooper of inciting a rebellion by APRA members in Callao in October 1948 (the rebellion took place several months after Cooper had left office), but Cooper adamantly denied any involvement.

Cooper was chairman of the limited state constitutional convention of 1953, which proposed eight amendments to the Tennessee State Constitution, all of which were subsequently adopted by voters. The most notable of these amendments included the repeal of the poll tax, and the extension of the gubernatorial term from two years to four years.

Encouraged by pro-segregation interests, Cooper challenged freshman U.S. Senator Albert Gore, Sr., in the 1958 Democratic primary, but lost handily, with Gore taking about 60% of the vote. Cooper remained an active participant in Democratic Party events until his death from cancer on May 18, 1969, at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Family and legacy

Cooper married Hortense Powell in 1950. They had three sons. Since Cooper was a bachelor during his tenure as governor, his mother served as the state's first lady. Cooper's son, Jim Cooper (b. 1954), is a U.S. congressman.

Prentice Cooper State Forest, located west of Chattanooga, is named for Cooper. Most of the land for the forest was acquired during Cooper's tenure as governor. Residence halls at Tennessee Technological University and the University of Tennessee at Martin have also been named for Cooper.

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Prentice Cooper, Governor's Timeline

September 28, 1895
Bedford County, Tennessee, United States
June 19, 1954
Age 58
Nashville, Davidson County, Tennessee, United States
May 18, 1969
Age 73
Rochester, Olmsted County, Minnesota, United States