Hartsfield attended public schools but left Boys High School in his senior year to take a night secretarial course at Dixie Business College.
In 1916, Hartsfield became a clerk in the prestigious law firm of Rosser, Slaton, Phillips and Hopkins, studying law through working in the firm. Simultaneously, he embarked upon a program of self-education through reading in the humanities and the sciences, especially in the public library, and in 1917 he passed the Georgia bar examination. For the remainder of his life, he would declare that the Atlanta Public Library was his alma mater.
Hartsfield received an honorary degree in Doctor of Laws from Oglethorpe University in 1961.
Building a reputation as a successful lawyer, Hartsfield established friendships with the business leaders of Atlanta and won acceptance in the power circles of the city. His true loves were the city and aviation, in that order.
In 1923, he was elected to the city council and was immediately appointed chairman of the council's new aviation committee. In that position he negotiated the acquisition of land for a municipal airport and federal designation of Atlanta as a terminal and transfer point on the first New York-Miami and Chicago-Jacksonville air routes. Hartsfield left the city council to serve in the Georgia General Assembly (1933-1936). His heart was still in local government, however, and his brief legislative career in the ruraldominated assembly was characterized primarily by his advocacy, though with little effect, of measures to benefit cities.
In 1936, he entered the mayoral race in Atlanta. The campaign was brutal. Incumbent Mayor James L. Key accused Hartsfield of offering bribes, of engaging in dishonest business practices, and of failing to pay his debts. Nevertheless, Hartsfield won a close race after accusing Key of converting the police force into an instrument of political favoritism, of overseeing the construction of a jail so shoddy that it invited escape, and of insulting the memory of the Confederacy by vetoing a bill to make Confederate Memorial Day a city holiday.
Sworn into office on January 4, 1937, Hartsfield took the reins of a city so deep in debt it was compensating its municipal employees with certificates promising to pay at a later date. The police department was dominated by a dishonest and inefficient administration, and Atlanta was notorious for gambling and prostitution. Hartsfield's initial actions as mayor were designed to place city finances on a firm foundation by budgeting realistically based on anticipated revenues, to gain control of the police department by appointing new leadership, and to clean up the city's night spots by cracking down on gambling. Through his close friendship with Robert W. Woodruff, the head of the Coca-Cola Company, Hartsfield won the support of the city's bankers for refinancing the municipal payroll, and he successfully reformed the police department and other city agencies.
Hartsfield loved the spotlight, and he was determined to bring favorable publicity to his city as well as to himself. His greatest opportunity arrived in 1939 with the release of David O. Selznick's epic film Gone with the Wind, based on the novel by Atlantan Margaret Mitchell. Through a vigorous campaign led by the mayor, Atlanta was selected as the site of the film's premiere, which ranked among the most spectacular of all such events in Hollywood's golden era. Newspapers, magazines, radio, and newsreel cameras focused national attention on Atlanta during several days and nights of parades, balls, and appearances by Hollywood's brightest stars. Through it all Mayor Hartsfield occupied center stage.
Coming off his triumph with Gone with the Wind and the successes of his municipal policies, Hartsfield sought a second term as mayor in 1940 but neglected to campaign seriously. He lost to challenger Roy LeCraw by eighty-three votes out of more than 22, 000 cast. Analysts declared that the deciding factor had been Hartsfield's twenty-five-mile-per-hour citywide speed limit, which was too low for the city's voters, enforced by motorcycle officers hiding behind billboards. However, Hartsfield was out of office for only sixteen months.
World War II had broken out, and in the spring of 1942 LeCraw resigned to enter military service. In a special election held that May, the voters returned Hartsfield to city hall. He would hold the office of mayor for the next twenty years.
In 1962, the former mayor became president of Atlanta's Southeastern Fair. He traveled abroad frequently and freely offered commentary to the press on the state of affairs in Atlanta and the world.
After World War II, Hartsfield led Atlanta to the forefront of southern cities. His close ties with business leaders guaranteed that policies at city hall would be conducive to business interests. For example, Hartsfield initiated and administered a vast program of infrastructure improvements while ending each fiscal year with a budget surplus.
By 1959, Atlanta's metropolitan population had surpassed one million, and Hartsfield had expanded the territorial limits of the city from 35 to 118 square miles through a controversial annexation enacted by the state legislature that had been opposed by suburban homeowners who objected to paying city taxes. Hartsfield put a high priority on developing the Atlanta Municipal Airport through improvements in runways, lighting, and approaches.
During his administration, Atlanta emerged as the hub of air transportation in the Southeast, a crucial factor in the city's simultaneous emergence as the commercial and financial center of the region. As chairman of the airport committee of the American Municipal Association, Hartsfield was instrumental in winning the approval of the Eisenhower administration, which was less than enthusiastic for public-works projects, for a federal program of assistance to airports.
Hartsfield led Atlanta through changes in racial policies without the turmoil that characterized the civil rights era elsewhere in the South. Nothing in his early political career indicated a devotion to equal rights for black people; but after the U. S. Supreme Court declared in 1944 that black voters could no longer be excluded from Democratic primaries, Hartsfield began to court the black leadership of his city. Subsequently, African Americans became an important element of the coalition that kept him in office. He appointed Atlanta's first black police officers in 1948, welcomed the convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to the city in 1951, helped end segregation on buses and trolleys in 1957, and presided over the integration of city schools in 1961.
Atlanta's business leadership consistently supported Hartsfield's progressive racial policies. In a phrase that caught the spirit of the alliance between business people interested in economic progress and black leaders dedicated to the elimination of discrimination, Hartsfield declared Atlanta a city "too busy to hate. "
He died in in 1971 in Atlanta.
Hartsfield was a member of the Democratic Party.
Hartsfield married Pearl Williams, a Western Union operator, on August 2, 1913. They had two children.
Hartsfield's personal life was not as successful as his public life. He and his wife spent little time together. By 1961, he was in love with a young widow, and he recognized that in the atmosphere of the times it was unlikely that he could win another election if he divorced his wife to marry her. Reluctantly, he decided not to seek reelection, announcing the decision on June 7, 1961.
He was granted a divorce on February 20, 1962, and on July 11, 1962, he married Tollie Bedenbaugh Tolan. He subsequently adopted her young son.