Governor Tom C. Rye

By 1914, alcohol had become the number one political issue in the state of Tennessee. Democrats had been divided over prohibition for years, but it finally started to cost them politically.

Prohibitionist Democrats sided with the Republicans in 1910, electing Ben Hooper, the first Republican Governor in Tennessee in almost thirty years. He won simply because he was for prohibition and the Democratic Party found itself in disarray.

After losing again in 1912, the Democrats decided to regroup and choose a prohibitionist candidate for the Governor's race in 1914. They chose Thomas Clark Rye. He was a supporter of prohibition and most Democrats on both sides of the issue supported him. The party was finally united when former Governor Malcolm Patterson, who had been against prohibition, decided to endorse Rye.

Tom C. Rye was born in Benton County, but at an early age moved with his family to be educated in Dickson County at the county seat of Charlotte. He attended school at Tracy Academy. Tracy Academy was a well known and respected school at the time and people came from all over to be educated there. While living in Charlotte, Rye also studied law under his uncle Thomas Clark Morris. Rye was named in honor of Morris and there was a special bond between the two men.

Tom C. Morris was a well known and prominent citizen who had represented Dickson County at the Tennessee State Constitutional Convention in 1870. That convention was special because after the Civil War, the Tennessee state government had to create a new Constitution and Tom C. Morris was able to be part of that process.

Once Rye received the nomination for Governor, he began to plan a tour across Tennessee. With his campaign traveling all over the state, it was only a matter of time before the campaign came to Dickson County.

Rye’s campaign made its way to Dickson in October of 1914. He arrived by train after making an appearance in Lebanon the day before. When he got to the Dickson train depot at 8:30am there was a large crowd there to greet him. After greeting the crowd, Rye traveled from Dickson to Charlotte on the recently built pike. The new road made traveling between the two towns much easier.

Rye arrived in Charlotte after being gone for many years. He was scheduled to give a speech in front of the old courthouse on the square. He was introduced by his uncle Tom C. Morris. A large crowd had showed up to hear him speak. When Morris introduced his nephew, he thanked the crowd for their attendance to “hear a former Dickson County boy speak.”

After Rye’s speech, he spent some time in Charlotte before heading back to Dickson. He had to catch the train to his next stop as his campaign for governor raged on.

Rye went on to defeat the incumbent Governor Ben Hooper a few weeks later, becoming the 32nd Governor of Tennessee. It was a close race with Rye getting 53% of the vote. The Republican, Hooper, had been defeated, and the Democrats were back in control.

Rye began his first term as governor at the beginning of 1915 and his first order of business was to do something about alcohol. Before becoming Governor, Rye was a District Attorney. He gained a reputation as the states most stringent law enforcement agent when it came to liquor. He was described by some as a “terror to bootleggers of whiskey.”

Rye made it his mission to outlaw alcohol across the state. In his second term which began in 1917, the “Bone Dry” bill passed under his leadership. This new legislation, passed by the General Assembly, made it illegal to possess liquor altogether. It also prohibited the transportation of liquor into or out of the state of Tennessee.

Governor Tom C. Rye had completed the prohibitionist campaign in Tennessee. These new additions to the laws already passed a few years earlier made Tennessee a “Bone Dry” state.

The federal government would pass similar laws a few years later and prohibition would go into effect nationwide. Starting in 1920, alcohol became illegal across the United States.

Following the ban on alcohol, criminal enterprises gained control of the illegal liquor industry. Gangsters like Al Capone became rich and famous.

By the end of the 1920’s public opinion had shifted and there was an opposition to prohibition that began to emerge. After several years of debate, national prohibition ended in 1933.

Even though it ended nationwide, prohibition continued in Tennessee for another five years. Finally, in 1938, prohibition was repealed in Tennessee. The ban on alcohol was over and people were allowed to legally drink again.