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George Washington Hays

Courtesy of the Arkansas History Commission

Born in Camden in 1863, Hays farmed, clerked in a store, and taught school before obtaining a law degree from Washington and Lee University in 1894. He married Ida Virginia Yarborough the following year. The couple had two sons. From 1900 to 1905 Hays served as probate and county judge from Ouachita County. Elected judge of the Thirteenth Judicial District in 1903 he was reelected four years later.

In the final year of his second term Hays won a special election called in 1913 to elect a governor to replace Joe T. Robinson whom the legislature had elected to the U.S. Senate. Hays's opponents for the Democratic nomination in 1913 were Charles Hillman Brough, a professor of history and political science at the University of Arkansas and former congressman Stephen Brundidge. Despite such formidable opposition, Hays had the support of the remnants of Jeff Davis's political machine and the St. Francis Levee District Board, which dominated politics in the delta. At election time the race appeared neck and neck. Then, the Phillips County Election Commission, which delayed reporting until all the other county reports were in, came in with just enough margin to put Hays over the top. This turn of events was all the more surprising because Brundridge was widely expected to carry Phillips County and Hays had not even bothered to campaign there.

Hays seems to have spent much of his first term trying to build the necessary political machine to assure reelection. Though the legislature continued to enact progressive measures, these were largely in spite of the governor. The most progressive reform of Hays's tenure, for example, was an initiative banning child labor, but the governor instructed his attorney general not to enforce the measure for fear of creating hardships during the cotton harvest.

Hays easily won reelection in 1914, but made the mistake of backing Supreme Court Justice W.F. Kirby in his unsuccessful challenge of U.S. Sen. James Paul Clarke. When Kirby was counted out in the primary, it became apparent that Clarke and Robinson had seized control of the party machinery. Hays found himself on the outside looking in.

Hays further alienated supporters by what was perceived as attempting to play all sides against the middle. Prohibitionists accused him of attempting to "run with the 'drys' and drink with the 'wets'" that is to support prohibition with rhetoric while giving practical aid to the liquor interests.

In March 1915 the governor sent a veto to the House rejecting a measure which would have legalized betting on horse races at Hot Springs. This came as a surprise to the bill's supporters who had been present when Hays signed the measure at a special ceremony. When the bill was returned, it indeed bore Hays's signature, but the word "disapproved" had been added.

"I have never had such pressure brought to bear upon me in all my life to get me to do something that I did not feel was right," Hays offered by way of explanation. "I mediated, I hesitated...when the test came I had the manhood to do what I thought right."

When Hays left office in 1917 he established a private law practice in Little Rock, sometimes in partnership with his friend W.F. Kirby. He also found time to write an occasional article for Scribner's. Hays died of influenza on September 15, 1927.

Next: Charles Hillman Brough