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Brookhart, Smith Wildman
(February 2, 1869–November 15, 1944)

–county attorney, progressive politician, president of the National Rifle Association, and U.S. senator—was born in a log cabin in Scotland County, Missouri. The Brookhart family moved several times before settling in Van Buren County, Iowa. Educated in local country schools, Brookhart went to Bloomfield, Iowa, for high school and attended Southern Iowa Normal School in the same city. He taught in a number of rural schools and in his spare time read law. He came into contact with another Bloomfield resident, James B. Weaver, a leader of the Greenback and Populist movements. Brookhart did not support the Populists, but he later adopted many of their ideas.

    Brookhart passed the bar in 1892 and moved to Washington, Iowa, to practice law. A lifelong prohibitionist, he took up that cause when the legislature passed a series of liquor laws that left enforcement to local officials. In 1894 he successfully ran for county attorney and was reelected in 1896 and 1898.

    When the Spanish-American War began in April 1898, Brookhart joined the local Company D, Iowa National Guard, and the company was called into service in Jacksonville, Florida. During his years in the National Guard, he developed a lifelong interest in rifle shooting and in time would become an instructor. During World War I, he wrote the army's first rifle-shooting manual. He also served on the board, and during the early 1920s as president, of the National Rifle Association.

    In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the dominant economic and political force in Iowa was the railroad. Convinced that the railroads' rate structure discriminated against farmer, Brookhart began a lifelong campaign to regulate the railroads. This led him into the progressive wing of the Republican Party, joining its leader in Iowa, Governor and then U.S. Senator Albert B. Cummins.

    Brookhart supported Cummins and the various progressive causes, but he broke with Cummins in 1920 when he thought Cummins had deserted progressivism. That year he unsuccessfully challenged Cummins for the Republican senatorial nomination. His challenge of the leader of the Iowa Republican Party united many in the party against him in subsequent elections. When the agricultural depression began in late 1920, Brookhart took up the farmer' cause. In 1922 Iowa Senator William S. Kenyon was appointed to the bench, and Brookhart successfully ran for the remaining two years of Kenyon's term. His platform attacked Wall Street and the Federal Reserve Board and demanded relief for farmer

    A longtime supporter of farmer cooperatives, in 1923 he journeyed to Europe and Russia to study farm programs there. He noted that although there had been inexcusable excesses in the Russian Revolution, there was now a stable government, and he called for U.S. recognition of the Soviet Union. His apparent support of the Communist-led country gave more ammunition to his political opponents at home.

    Brookhart ran for a full Senate term in 1924. Despite opposition from his own party, he defeated Democrat Daniel Steck by 755 votes. However, Steck and a combination of Republicans and Democrats successfully challenged the electoral results. In April 1926 the U.S. Senate ruled that Brookhart had not been elected and seated Steck. Undeterred, Brookhart returned to Iowa, defeated Cummins in the June 1926 primary, and was elected to succeed Cummins in the fall general election.

    As a senator, Brookhart allied himself with the progressive bloc, whose members included Senators Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin, George W. Norris of Nebraska, and William E. Borah of Idaho. He chaired the 1924 Select Committee to Investigate Attorney General Harry Daugherty. But his principal concern was to obtain relief for farmer He advocated laws to allow farmer to take their economic destiny into their own hands and form cooperatives. Although he introduced such a plan several times, the plan never passed, and he eventually supported the McNary—Haugen Bill. He also championed small businesses. To protect independent businesses, he drafted anti-chain store legislation. He also introduced legislation to protect independent movie theater owners. Long an advocate of government ownership of the railroads, he also thought that other utilities should be run by the government. As calls increased for repeal of the 18th Amendment, Brookhart fought relaxation of liquor laws and called for stronger enforcement of the laws already in force.

    Brookhart ran for reelection to the Senate in 1932. Although he had advocated relief for farmer since 1920, he had been unable to obtain any relief legislation for farmer As a result, he was defeated in the 1932 senatorial primary by Henry Field of Shenandoah.

    Brookhart supported Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936. In return, he was appointed special adviser for Russian trade in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). His move to support a Democrat and work in the New Deal was a logical step from his earlier progressivism.

    Brookhart left the AAA after a year and spent his last years practicing law in Washington, D.C., until his health failed. He died in a veterans' hospital in Arizona on November 15, 1944.
Sources The State Historical Society of Iowa's Des Moines library holds a collection of Brookhart's papers. A full biography is George William McDaniel, Smith Wildman Brookhart: Iowa's Renegade Republican (1995). See also Jerry Alvin Neprash, The Brookhart Campaigns in Iowa, 1920–1926 (1932); and Ray S. Johnston, "Smith Wildman Brookhart: Iowa's Last Populist" (master's thesis, State College of Iowa, 1964).
Contributor: George William Mcdaniel