Joseph Wellington Byrns was born in 1869 in a small house near the location of Jo Byrns High School. When he was 16, the family moved to Nashville. Byrns graduated from Nashville High School in 1887 and then was admitted to Vanderbilt.
For two years, he was in the literary department at Vanderbilt. He then entered Vanderbilt’s law department.
He graduated in 1890 and on September 1, 1890, was licensed to practice law.
During the years when Jo Byrns was in school however, he often returned to Robertson County. He worked in the tobacco fields of his uncle, John W. Jackson, who lived near Cedar Hill.
Byrns said, “I worked in tobacco every year from the time I was old enough to stumble barefooted from hill to hill dropping plants, until I was 21 years of age.” That was said during a campaign speech in 1914, a campaign that came later.
Joseph Wellington Byrns began practicing law in Nashville and was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives in 1895, 1897 and 1899. He was Speaker of the House during the 1899 term.
In 1898, he had married Julia Woodard. She was the daughter of Judge John Woodard, another Robertson Countian, a farmer and businessman. Byrns and his wife had known each other when they were young.
In 1901, Jo Byrns was elected to the State Senate. A rare political defeat came the next year, when he lost the race for District Attorney General of Davidson County. After that, he began looking toward Washington, D.C.
He was elected to the 61st Congress of the United States in 1904. He was re-elected 13 times from March 4, 1909 until his death.
During the 73rd Congress, he became Chair of the Democratic Party and Majority Leader. And in the 74th Congress, Joseph Wellington Byrns became speaker of the House of Representatives.
The President at that time was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
A brief history of the life of Jo Byrns says that “He was born on a dark-fired tobacco farm and he worked in dark-fired tobacco fields. He did not forget it.”
It is suggested that the best thing that he ever did for farmers was organizing the presentation of their problems to the Federal Farm Board in 1932. On that day, he said, “These are my people, and they are entitled to what they ask.”
Letters of the correspondence between Byrns and Robertson County farmers survive. He sought their advice and then he listened.
In the Eagle’s Eye is sponsored by the Robertson County Historical Society. Call 615-382-7173 for more information.