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‘The Terror of Tennessee’ Parson Brownlow

From the author’s personal collection.
W. G. “Parson” Brownlow, 1871

By Ray Hill
William Gannaway Brownlow was one of the most controversial figures in Tennessee history. “Parson” Brownlow was highly controversial during his own time and few figures ever relished the political battles he waged more than the man who was a pastor, editor, governor and United States senator.

Brownlow was born in Virginia in 1805. He found himself an orphan ten years later after both of his parents died. The five Brownlow children were separated and taken in by various kinfolk. Brownlow lived on the farm of his uncle John Gannaway, while he learned carpentry from yet another uncle. Carpentry was a trade Brownlow never employed to support himself. After attending a revival, William G. Brownlow decided to become a Methodist minister.

At the age of twenty-one, Brownlow was allowed to become a circuit-riding preacher. Brownlow traveled throughout an area of North Carolina and was soon at odds with many Baptists. Already a young man of pronounced likes and dislikes, he was evidently unable or unwilling to hide his dislikes of many Baptists sucessfully, feeling many of that faith were ignorant, bigoted, and practiced religious rituals he found personally distasteful. Brownlow was reassigned to Tennessee and found himself in Maryville.

Yet again Brownlow found himself an adversary in a young Presbyterian who apparently mocked Brownlow’s beliefs. To the surprise of some, W. G. Brownlow proved to be an able debater, who not only took the hide off of other Protestant beliefs, but religious opponents as well. Brownlow never hesitated to rip into the personal character of his opponents and rivals. One such effort caused a Baptist who had been verbally mauled by Brownlow to sue for libel. Brownlow was assessed the sum of five dollars as compensation from the suit.

Once again, the Methodist Church sent Brownlow to a different area, but the minister found himself in South Carolina amongst a sea of Baptists. Frustrated with his lack of success, Brownlow displayed a talent for writing when he published a vitriolic pamphlet excoriating Baptists. The pamphlet inflamed local Baptists, many of whom decided Brownlow ought to be hanged. W. G. Brownlow hurried back to Tennessee and managed to avoid being lynched.

As facile with the pen as he was with his tongue, W. G. Brownlow would soon earn his living through writing and lecturing.

William Gannaway Brownlow settled in Elizabethton, Tennessee and found himself a wife. After marrying Miss Eliza O’Brien, Brownlow abandoned circuit riding, although he remained throughout his life as partisan a Methodist as he would later be a Whig and Republican.

Having already proven his ability as a writer, friends encouraged Brownlow to make an occupation of writing. Partnered with Mason Lyon, Brownlow rolled out the first edition of the Tennessee Whig newspaper in May of 1839. It was not long before Brownlow’s fiery editorials divided his own community. W. G. Brownlow was truly one of those figures one either loved or hated and there was an abundance of both.

Brownlow’s editorials brought him to a physical altercation with one Landon Carter Hayes. Mr. Hayes had been a Whig at one time, but evidently converted to the Democratic Party, an apostasy which Brownlow found especially hellish. Brownlow encountered Hayes on a street in Jonesborough, Tennessee and proceeded to attack him with a cane which contained a hidden sword inside it. As Brownlow thoroughly battered and beat Hayes with his sword cane, Hayes drew a pistol and shot the parson in the leg. When Hayes was employed by a rival newspaper which supported Democratic candidates, Brownlow and Hayes feuded bitterly in print for years.

Parson Brownlow actively entered politics as a candidate for office when he challenged Andrew Johnson for Congress in 1845. As was usual for him, the parson boiled Johnson in his own special brand of vitriol. Brownlow charged Johnson with all sorts of sins, not the least of which was being an atheist. Johnson won the election, but Brownlow was as vocal as ever, castigating the Democratic Party and praising the Whig Party, whose leading figure was Kentuckian Henry Clay. Brownlow did not spare the first genuine Democrat, who even then was an icon of his party and state, General Andrew Jackson. Brownlow snapped that Jackson was nothing less than a curse upon the nation.

Like many of his contemporaries, Brownlow strongly supported Henry Clay’s frequent presidential aspirations. Having lost presidential elections twice before, Clay’s best chance seemed to come in 1844 when he faced a little known former governor of Tennessee, James K. Polk. The Whigs in Tennessee were a powerful force and Polk had been defeated twice for governor when he unexpectedly won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1844. James K. Polk really was the first of the “dark horse” presidential candidates. Brownlow avidly supported Clay’s candidacy, but the wily Kentuckian hedged on the question of annexing Texas, while James K. Polk was an open expansionist for American territory. The leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination was former president Martin Van Buren. Van Buren, the “Little Magician”, had been Secretary of State and Vice President under Andrew Jackson and had enjoyed the Tennessean’s warm support. Van Buren, like Henry Clay, misread the public’s mind with regard to acquiring Texas and Jackson himself supported Polk instead. Clay recognized his mistake before the election and altered his position, but the result was that he appeared to many to have no fixed views. The election was extremely close and while Henry Clay carried Polk’s home state of Tennessee, James K. Polk won the presidency.

It was a bitter disappointment to W. G. Brownlow to see an apostle of the hated Andrew Jackson win the presidency and even worse still that his idol Henry Clay had been defeated. Brownlow was so devoted to Clay, he literally wept when he received the news some years later that Clay had died of tuberculosis.

W. G. Brownlow moved his newspaper to Knoxville in 1849 and was subsequently greeted by being literally knocked in the head by someone who did not admire the parson. No one ever discovered just who had assaulted Brownlow, but the injury was grave enough to keep the parson confined to his bed for sometime. Eventually Brownlow recovered and he began an editorial war with a rival paper, the Knoxville Register. Brownlow also began promoting temperance in his newspaper and a favorite charge against opponents was labeling them as being, to put it politely, victimized by alcohol. It was not unusual for Brownlow to dismiss opponents as mere drunks.

W. G. Brownlow’s attitude on the issue of slavery evolved over the years; he had apparently supported abolition, then backed a proposal to repatriate slaves to Liberia, and later became a supporter of slavery. Brownlow’s support for slavery seemed to become more rabid during the 1850s and he once invited prominent Northerners to debate the issue with him, a challenge which was accepted by Frederick Douglass. Brownlow indignantly refused Douglass’s offer to debate slavery due to his race. Brownlow was also violently anti-Catholic, denouncing what he referred to as “Romanism.”

Although Brownlow was a supporter of slavery, he was profoundly opposed to the Southern states seceding from the Union. Brownlow, a speaker of note, canvassed much of East Tennessee in an effort to stave off secession. Parson Brownlow finally closed his newspaper, announcing he expected to be arrested by the Confederates. Brownlow was granted permission to leave Tennessee by the Confederate Secretary of War, Judah P. Benjamin, but enemies in Knox County helped to persuade District Attorney J. C. Ramsey to have the editor arrested. Brownlow was charged with treason and jailed. Brownlow did not accept his arrest meekly, but rather immediately wrote Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin, who promptly informed Knox County authorities he would pardon the parson if he were not released. Brownlow was indeed released and made his way to Nashville, which was then occupied by the Union Army.

Well known throughout the country due to his opposition to secession, Brownlow left Tennessee to go on a speaking tour. Brownlow also wrote a book on secession, which sold quite well. Brownlow returned to Tennessee, arriving first in Nashville and then to Knoxville, where he followed in the wake of the Union Army. Brownlow had earned considerable fees from his speaking tour, as well as his book and used the money to revive his newspaper. Brownlow pursued former Confederates relentlessly in the pages of his newspaper.

Former Confederates had been effectively disenfranchised and William Gannaway Brownlow was nominated for governor in 1865. Brownlow won perhaps the most lopsided victory in state history and assumed the governorship where he continued his campaign of hatred against Confederates. Brownlow’s reign as governor would become notorious and his attitude was not sweetened by his loathing of Nashville, which he had referred to as a “dunghill.” Brownlow had helped to steer Tennessee back into the Union, making it the first state to officially leave the former Confederacy.

It was not long before Brownlow came to the conclusion the former military governor of Tennessee, his old rival Andrew Johnson, had treated former Confederates far too liberally. Brownlow assumed the same policies and attitudes held by the Radical Republicans, who dominated the Congress. The Radical Republicans saw former Confederates as absolute traitors who deserved the harshest kind of punishment. The Republicans rejected the more forgiving policies formulated by President Abraham Lincoln, which were also basically the policies advocated by Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. The Radical Republicans were far less interested in healing the wounds of the Civil War than extracting a pound of flesh from Southerners.

To the horror of many Southerners, Governor Brownlow sought to give rights to slaves who had been freed. Brownlow frequently utilized questionable methods, if not downright brutal tactics, to accomplish his goals. Brownlow bullied the state legislature and hailed the state’s adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution by sending the news to President Johnson, along with a personal message to “the dead dog in the White House.”

Brownlow employed similar methods when he was up for reelection in 1867. The governor called out the state militia under the guise of protecting voters, but it also that ensured Brownlow received a healthy majority in the election. The legislature gave Brownlow the power to simply dismiss the election returns from those Tennessee counties the governor thought might be contaminated with votes from those former Confederates who were disenfranchised. Governor Brownlow also demanded federal troops to be stationed in twenty some odd counties in Tennessee, as the Ku Klux Klan was growing in power in the state. General Nathan Bedford Forrest was a bitter opponent of Governor Brownlow and adamantly stated his belief the Brownlow regime to be both immoral and illegal. General Forrest hinted darkly that the governor and Radical Republicans in Tennessee might meet a bloody fate. The governor, hardly intimidated, announced he thought it entirely proper for Klan members to be shot on sight.

Two candidates for Congress supported by Brownlow had been defeated in the recent elections. Brownlow used his power to invalidate the votes from several Tennessee counties, allowing his favored candidates to emerge the victors.

Brownlow was not a candidate for reelection as governor, but had set his sights on a seat in the United States Senate that was held by Andrew Johnson’s son-in-law. Brownlow was easily elected by the state legislature and left for Washington, D. C. Immediately upon the departure of the controversial governor, Klan activities in Tennessee subsided considerably.

The years of stress and conflict had taken a toll on the parson and he came to Washington quite diminished. Frequently weak and ill, the once dynamic Brownlow could not apparently even make his own speeches on the floor of the Senate; Brownlow had to resort to having his orations read by a clerk.

Senator Brownlow realized he had little chance to be reelected and his health was poor and decided against running for the Senate again. The parson returned to his Knoxville home and once again entered the newspaper business. When Knoxville College first opened, it was William G. Brownlow who made the opening address.

Brownlow had little time left to live after leaving the United States Senate. He was stricken while at home and died the following day from an apparent bowel obstruction. His funeral was perhaps the most attended at that time and admittedly, there were almost as many glad to see the old parson gone as those who genuinely mourned him.

The remains of the uncompromising and controversial William Gannaway Brownlow lie in Knoxville’s Old Gray Cemetery to this day.

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