George Washington Hays had spent his life in many different positions: farmer, teacher, judge, and by September 1913, governor. He was the fourth governor Arkansas had in six months. He became governor at a time when many Arkansans were calling for reform and modernization. The reputation he had developed in his native Camden as a steady and reliable public servant and jurist served him well in Little Rock where he was able to tame the political upheaval that had swept him into office.
His first few months as governor were quiet, a welcome change for Arkansas voters weary of the political chaos of the past year. He did not seek a special session of the state legislature, so legislators would not meet again until after the 1914 election. Free of scandal and controversy, Hays was unopposed in the 1914 Democratic Primary and faced only modest opposition that fall in the general election, winning with 69% of the vote against two opponents.
He echoed one of the popular reformers of the day, former President Theodore Roosevelt, when he called for a Square Deal for Arkansas workers and corporations in 1915. A number of laws protecting the rights of workers would slowly emerge. However, he made his first priority the state’s financial situation. Arkansas had a debt of nearly $500,000 that troubled Hays. Instead of raising taxes directly, he called on legislators to devise a new formula to assess the value of properties.
Legislators passed many groundbreaking laws in 1915. A new law protected investors from fraud in stock or bond sales. State elections were moved from September to November to coincide with federal elections. A system of regulating chiropractors and allowing them to practice in the state also passed. The Alexander Road Improvement Act of 1915 created road-improvement districts that could issue local bonds for road construction, allowing paved roads and bridge improvements to proceed. Supervisory boards for state hospitals were modified in an attempt to ensure more professional management though Hays faced criticisms for appointment reforms.
Hays did not always lead reform efforts; but in many cases, he did not oppose them, either. Voters initiated a child labor law in 1914, which Hays quietly supported, but was rarely enforced in his years in office. Legislators also passed a new law guaranteeing that married women had the right to own property and enter into contracts without their husbands’ permission and began inching toward allowing women to vote. While those may seem miniscule and obvious advances to a twenty-first century audience, those were great leaps at the time.
One of the most prominent questions of the time revolved around the legality of alcohol. Many believed that making the bottle illegal was the only way to solve the issues of alcohol-related health issues, drunken accidents on the job, and domestic violence. Others argued that a ban would not solve any of these issues and that adults should be trusted with their own decisions. Hays wavered on the Prohibition issue, seeing important points being made by both sides in the ongoing debate. Legislators, however, passed what was called the Going Law in 1913, mandating local-option elections for alcohol sales. As a result, most Arkansas counties had banned alcohol in some form by 1915.
He declined to run for a third term in 1916, and quietly left office in January 1917. After he left the governorship, Hays resumed his private law practice, running offices in both Camden and Little Rock. He died in 1927, just shy of his sixty-fourth birthday.