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Acklen was born in Nashville, Tennessee, to Adelicia and Joseph Alexander Smith Acklen, a wealthy couple whose summer home was located in Nashville, while he also grew up on plantations in Louisiana. During the American Civil War Joseph Hayes Acklen's parents sided with the Confederacy, and the father fled to the family's Louisiana plantation, where he died in 1863. Joseph Hayes Acklen was educated by private tutors. He attended Burlington Military College, near Burlington, New Jersey, in 1864 and 1865, and graduated from two foreign institutions (École de Neuilly, Paris, and Swiss University, Vevey). Joseph Hayes Acklen returned to the United States and graduated from Cumberland School of Law, Lebanon, Tennessee, in 1871.
Acklen commenced practicing law in Nashville and later practiced in Memphis, Tennessee, but abandoned the practice of law and moved to Louisiana to superintend the family's sugar plantations near Pattersonville (now Patterson) in Saint Mary Parish. He served as colonel in the Louisiana Militia in 1876. In November of that year, claiming voting fraud, Acklen and other Democrats objected to the reelection of Republican Chester Bidwell Darrall to represent Louisiana's 3rd congressional district ; after protracted settlement of the various controversies surrounding the 1876 presidential election, on February 20, 1878, Darrall left the seat and was replaced by Acklen, for the remaining half of the Forty-fifth Congress. Acklen was reelected, to the Forty-sixth Congress, and served from 20 February 1878 to 4 March 1881. He was not a candidate for renomination in 1880, and Darrall regained the seat for one term (the Forty-seventh Congress). On leaving Congress, Acklen declined an appointment by President Rutherford B. Hayes to be a judge on the Federal district court of Louisiana and instead resumed the practice of law, in Franklin, Louisiana. He was an unsuccessful candidate for election in 1882 to the Forty-eighth Congress.
He returned to Nashville, in 1885 and continued the practice of law. He served as chairman of the Davidson County, Tennessee, Democratic executive committee from 1886 to 1894. He served as member of the Nashville City Council from 1900 to 1904. He served as president of the Tennessee State bar association in 1901 and 1902. He served as general insurance counsel of Tennessee from 1903 to 1907. He was State warden of the Tennessee department of game, fish, and forestry from 1903 to 1913. He served as general counsel of the National Association of Game and Fish Commissioners of the United States from 1905 to 1912, when he was elected president of the Association. He was Middle Tennessee counsel for the St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad from 1907 to 1911. From 1913 to 1914, he served under Democrat U.S. President Woodrow Wilson as chief game warden of the United States. Acklen was author of numerous articles on ornithology, fish culture, forestry, and field sports. He served as chairman of the State central committee on the Tennessee constitutional convention from 1923 to 1927.
Acklen died in Nashville on 1938 September 28. He is interred there in Mount Olivet Cemetery. His family's Nashville property, the Belmont Mansion and its grounds,now forms a large part of the campus of Belmont University, where the home continues as a museum. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.