Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Hoke Smith (1893–1896): Secretary of the Interior

Born in Newton, North Carolina, Michael Hoke Smith grew up in Chapel Hill, where his father was a professor of classical languages at the University of North Carolina. Educated mostly by his father and mother, Smith graduated from Bowdoin College.

After his family moved to Atlanta in 1872, Smith studied law with a local firm and was admitted to the Georgia bar a year later. He built up his own practice in Atlanta and purchased the Atlanta Journal in 1887, making it a Democratic organ. In 1892, he served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention and as a strong backer of Grover Cleveland.

The new President nominated Smith to be interior secretary on March 6, 1893, and Smith served as one of three Southerners in Cleveland’s cabinet. He instituted reform of the bloated Civil War pension system, which drew considerable criticism. A strong proponent of the gold standard, Smith resigned from office in September 1896, after Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan for President in the upcoming election.

During the next ten years, Smith edited the Journal and advocated for progressive reforms such as railroad regulation and the convict lease system. He was elected governor of Georgia in 1907 and 1911 and presided over the disenfranchisement of Georgia’s African-Americans. In November 1911, Smith assumed A.S. Clay’s seat in the U.S. Senate.

At first a backer of President Woodrow Wilson, Smith fell out with the President during World War I, opposing the administration’s curtailment of civil liberties and the League of Nations. He lost his reelection bid in 1920 to Tom Watson but remained in Washington, working as a lobbyist. He returned to Atlanta in 1925 and died in 1931.