A close look at the life of John R. Neal Jr., one of the most fascinating characters to teach at the College of Law
By Luis Ruuska
Photo: Former UT Law professor John Randolph Neal Jr. (left) and his client, John Scopes, during the historic “Scopes Monkey Trial” (photo courtesy Library of Congress)
Once referred to as “the epitome of the absent-minded professor,” John Randolph Neal Jr., a member of the UT Law faculty from 1909 to 1923, garnered a notorious reputation among his peers as one of the most eccentric figures the university had ever known.
In contrast, among students he was both revered and respected, despite his highly unorthodox pedagogy. In the public eye, Neal’s reputation as a staunch defender of liberal causes made him an outsider to party politics, but his unwavering dedication to his beliefs led to the creation of numerous significant pieces of legislation, including the Tennessee Valley Authority Act (1933).
Neal was born into a family of wealthy landowners in Rhea County, Tennessee, that could trace its ancestry to Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. Neal’s father, Colonel John Randolph Neal, served in the Civil War as commander of the 16th Tennessee Cavalry and later became a state legislator. Neal’s brother, Rear Admiral George F. Neal, was also a military man and a decorated war hero who had sunk three German submarines and saved more than 10,000 American troops during World War I. Neal’s sister, Amanda Neal Wheelock, was a prominent activist in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Neal Jr. enrolled at the young age of fourteen, later graduating in 1893 with high honors. He went on to receive master’s and law degrees from Vanderbilt University and a PhD from Columbia university in 1899.
From 1906 to 1908, Neal was the representative of Rhea and Meigs counties to the Tennessee House of Representatives. Throughout his tenure, Neal pushed through a number of education bills, as well as a mine inspection law that is said to have significantly improved mine safety. In 1908, Neal became a state senator representing the ninth district and again fought for improved education throughout the state. His most notable piece of legislation was the General Education Bill of 1909, which earmarked 30 percent of the state’s gross revenue to education each year. After the bill was amended to reduce the percentage from 30 to 25, it was signed into law. UT greatly benefited from the new law, as it was entitled to receive a percentage of the state’s gross revenue each year for maintenance and improvements. Until that time, the university had only received what the state legislature saw fit to give it. Thanks to Neal’s efforts, the university became a “true” state institution, an accomplishment that many attributed to Neal throughout the rest of his life.
In 1909, Neal joined the faculty at UT Law. Few at the university ever doubted either Neal’s ability to teach or his intelligence, but his slovenly appearance and somewhat lackadaisical pedagogy drew the ire of many of his contemporaries.
Dean L. R. Hessler, one of Neal’s peers, once recalled rumors that Neal often failed to meet his classes, did not prepare lessons ahead of time, and often led “bull sessions” on contemporary events instead of actual lectures on the law. James R. Montgomery, who wrote a historical review of the university, called Neal an “entertainer” whose popularity came from his “laxity in discipline,” rather than his pedagogy.
Despite these criticisms, Neal’s eccentricities, such as rarely bathing, sleeping in his suits, and his rants on current events, as well as his staunch advocacy for liberal causes, made him a sage-like figure among the College of Law’s students and alumni. However, he eventually met his match in Dean Malcolm McDermott. Although the two had once been contemporaries as instructors at the college, McDermott was eventually appointed to the position of dean in 1920 and would come to develop a highly contentious relationship with Neal for his forgetfulness and lax grading standards.
The situation reached its boiling point in 1923 when McDermott testified at a public hearing before the UT Board of Trustees that in Neal’s classroom, “it was not unusual for an entire class to receive 95 on an exam; needless to say, the examination was never really graded.” In 1923 Neal was ousted with six other professors by the board in what came to be known as the “Slaughter of the PhDs.”
The firing of Neal set off a firestorm of criticism from students and alumni alike. Many came to Neal’s defense during and after the hearing, with one student stating that Neal was “the most beloved professor in the school and a man with a generous heart.” The student alleged that McDermott had always harbored ill will towards Neal and that “Professor Neal [taught] the students to think for themselves [but] McDermott’s methods could never make a successful law student.” Letters flooded in from Neal’s former place of employment, the law school at the University of Denver, supporting his character and teaching methods.
Taking his dismissal in stride, in 1925 Neal founded the John Randolph Neal School of Law, named in memory of his father, in Rhea County on 1,000 acres of land—then valued at $100,000—that Neal personally endowed. The school was immensely popular for its part-time and night class offerings, graduating more students in its first few years than even UT Law. However, in 1943 the school was forced to close due to declining enrollment and new state regulations requiring full-time attendance.
However, the true milestone of Neal’s career was also in 1925, when he served as chief counsel for defendant John Scopes during the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial” (State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes). Although Scopes never actually asked Neal to act as his counsel, Neal didn’t give him much choice in the matter, telling Scopes that he would act as his counsel whether he was wanted or not.
Though Neal always intended to return to politics since his time in the state senate, his defense of Scopes caused him to be nearly unelectable in the latter years of his career, though he made repeated failed attempts to re-enter the state and even national political arenas.
Despite never again acquiring political power, Neal never ceased working as an activist. Between 1922 and 1933, Neal took on the handful of formidable private power companies attempting to take control of the Tennessee River for the purposes of producing hydroelectric power. Neal was a strong proponent of public power and argued that the government ought to produce, sell, and regulate public power without concern for profit, something he believed the private companies prioritized over all else. Neal’s efforts paved the way for the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) through a congressional act in 1933, signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In the years between the creation of TVA and his death in 1959, Neal continued to staunchly advocate for liberal causes of the day, such as worker’s rights, housing loans and hospitalization for veteran’s organizations, rent controls, higher teacher’s salaries, and repealing the poll tax. After his death, a eulogy published by the Associated Press read, “Known over the state for his eccentricities, Dr. Neal was nonetheless beloved. It was conceded by all that he was endowed with a brilliant mind. [He] was a friend alike of the great and humble, a helper of the helpless.”
Special thanks to UT alumnus Bobby E. Hicks, whose 1968 master’s thesis, “The Great Objector: the Public Career of Dr. John R. Neal,” serves as the most comprehensive remaining account of Neal’s life and career.