The third of five sons of a farmer and lumber merchant from Tennessee, he obtained his Law degree in 1891. Initially, a member of the Tennessee state legislature (1893–1897), then judge (1903–1907) in Gainsboro. His nickname of “Judge” became so popular that it was used even by his wife.
He pursued a career in the Congress from 1907–1931, advocating, among others, for low tariffs. He became a recognised expert in commercial and fiscal policies. Elected senator in 1931, he was appointed Secretary of State in 1933 but had to resign in 1944 because of ill health. However, in 1945 he was still senior adviser to the American delegation to the United Nations Conference.
He laid the foundation for the good neighbourhood of 21 American nations at the Pan-American Conference in Montevideo. He negotiated agreements with numerous countries to reduce tariffs and drive trade. After 1936, he advocated armament and providing assistance to Western democracies.
During WWII, he developed principles for the establishment of an international organisation for peace. He was neither a good speaker, nor did he possess stylistic finesse or personal charm, but with his modest manners and sincere thoughts and acts, he had power that came from a deep belief in the rightness of his political and economic strategies leading to peace and justice, and he persisted in his effort to put them into practice.