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Nathan L. Bachman Called ‘Brightest Wit in the Senate”

Many are familiar with the Bachman name in Chattanooga, but few know much about Nathan L. Bachman, a U.S. senator in the 1930s.  

Bachman was born during the yellow fever epidemic in Chattanooga in 1878. His father, Dr. Jonathan Bachman, served as a Confederate chaplain and pastor at First Presbyterian Church. His mother was Evalina Dulaney, daughter of a frontier physician. He attended Baylor School and several other schools, including the University of Chattanooga. After earning a reputation as a formidable football player and “the student who took a horse into the dormitory” at the University of Virginia where he received his law degree, he returned to Chattanooga to practice law in 1903. A year later he married Pearl McMannen Duke of the family that founded Duke University.  

Bachman was appointed city attorney in Chattanooga in 1906. Six years later, at age 33, he was elected circuit judge. After sending individual typewriter campaign letters with his own pen and ink instead of printed form letters, he became associate justice to the Tennessee Supreme Court- before resigning to run for the U.S. Senate in 1924. He ran a credible race in the Democratic primary but lost to Gen. I.D. Tyson, a World War I hero and former speaker of the Tennessee House from Knoxville. He returned to his Chattanooga law practice. 

Tyson won the 1924 U.S. Senate race and then died in office in 1929. Chattanoogan William E. Brock Sr. was appointed to fill the vacancy and chose not to seek reelection. Congressman Cordell Hull was  

elected to that office in 1930 but served only two years of his term because Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him Secretary of State.  

In 1933, Gov. Hill McAllister appointed Bachman to fill the position vacated by Hull. His friend, Tennessee Senator Kenneth McKellar, noted, “As a freshman senator, Judge Bachman had devoted himself diligently to committee work and to the needs of his consistency. He had not spoken on the floor a great deal.” Bachman enjoyed the work and companionship and became an effective legislator plus a good storyteller. 

Congressman Gordon Browning of Huntington, Tennessee, ran against Bachman in the Democratic primary in 1934. Bachman declared himself in support of the general policies of President Roosevelt, including the economic recovery of the country and especially TVA, pointing out that its initiatives “for cheaper lighting to cities, towns, on the farms, and cheaper power for industry will have my every aid and assistance.” 

He highlighted his support for “welfare of the veterans of the Spanish-American and world wars,” relief of homeowners and farmers, and labor. He proclaimed, “I am free and independent of any influence other than that which comes from a high sense of duty to the people and the government to whom my energies are sincerely dedicated.” Bachman defeated Browning in the primary by 40,000 votes and was re-elected handily for a full six-year term. 

Sadly, Bachman served only three months of the new term before suffering a heart attack and dying in Washington, D.C., on April 23, 1937, at the age of 58. McKellar wrote, “He was one of the most loveable men I ever knew… He was always desirous of serving his constituents. His death will be a great loss to the state and nation.” A New Free-Press editorial titled “Miles and Miles of Smiles” described his qualities of “gentleness, good humor, unfailing courtesy and kindliness,” and noted his magnetism, lovableness, and his store of stories, [made him] the brightest wit in the senate.” 

With his Stetson hat and black string tie, the colorful raconteur was often the center of a group. 

The wife of Vice-President John Nance Garner wrote, “Mr. Garner has lost one of his most beloved friends… whose place will never be filled.” A 10-member delegation of congressional representatives, including Senator Harry S. Truman attended a large funeral at Chattanooga’s Forest Hills Cemetery.  

His name was attached to the elementary school (now the Bachman Community Center) on Walden’s Ridge, where he spent summers beginning in 1912. The stately house and land passed to his daughter, Martha Bachman McCoy, who provided after her death in 2004 for a “park and arboretum” to go to the Town of Walden. It is now the 38-acre community greenspace and venue available for weddings and special events known as McCoy Farm & Gardens.  

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