The Last Knoxville Governor?

The last Tennessee governor from Knoxville was the Parson

The other morning I couldn't sleep and rather than lie there through NPR, I caught the early bus in.

It was still dark when I got out on Main Street; at the bottom of the Medical Arts Building, Sam's Cafe glowed warmly. I hadn't made time for a plate of bacon and eggs and a cup of coffee in a long time, and it seemed tempting.

The only other customer in the place, in the lower part of the cafe reading a paper. I recognized him only after I was seated. It was Arthur Seymour, Jr.

Arthur's a personable guy, but he probably wouldn't be surprised to hear that a lot of my friends don't like to see him coming. He's a civil-litigation defense attorney, a champion of property-rights cases, and often ends up representing developers against historic buildings and homes, often all too effectively. But he's a lifelong Knoxvillian with a lively interest in history, and a sentimental streak. Arthur is one of the few guys of his generation who still wears a fedora.

He put it on as he got up to leave, and was talking about how he'd been reading a book called Lincolnites and Rebels, a very well-written assessment of Knoxville's weird place in the Civil War.

"You know, Jack, it occurred to me that if he's elected, Bill Haslam would be the first governor from Knoxville since Parson Brownlow."

"Huh," I said. I hadn't thought about it, but commenced doing so. It was hard to accept, at first. Knoxville's the third-largest city in Tennessee—and the Parson left office 140 years ago.

"Parson" W.G. Brownlow dominated Knoxville politics before, during, and after the Civil War. He has a reputation as an East Tennessee Beelzebub, the Methodist preacher turned vitriolic editor turned rebel-punishing Reconstruction governor, a lightning rod for sectional hatreds. I grew up among people who still hated him. Even 80 or 90 years after his death, his memory was likely one Tennessee's leading triggers of stroke. He's still hard to get very cosy with. At one point in his wild career as a journalist—the term used loosely and charitably in his case—he insulted and condemned most of his fellow Americans, from slaves to aristocrats to Confederates to Catholics to even Presbyterians. He can still glower at you from the history books so fiercely you want to turn the page quick.

Studying history, mainly in the course of filling this page over the last 16 years, I've developed a sneaking admiration for him. He was fiercely and unwaveringly loyal to the United States of America, and he was probably the bravest man in the nine-county region. He was near the top of the Ku Klux Klan's hit list, but found a way to sleep every night in his modest bedroom overlooking the Cumberland Avenue sidewalk.

Brownlow was not from Knoxville originally. Born in Virginia, he'd settled in Jonesborough for a while, and moved to Knoxville in his 40s. He'd lived in his famous clapboard house on East Cumberland for 16 years before, during the world-turned-upside-down days of Reconstruction, he was elected governor. The governor who shepherded Tennessee back into the U.S. fold quicker than any other Confederate state, he also helped secure black men the right to vote before most of their cousins elsewhere in the South. His motives can be questioned, but black voters were so grateful many were convinced the Parson himself was black.

I went over the governors of the intervening years. Knoxville's hardly a breeding ground for governors. That fact is fairly easy to understand, at least as it concerns the years since the Civil War. East Tennessee's always been the politically contrary part of the state, Unionist when the rest of the state was Confederate, Republican when the rest of the state was Democratic.

Lamar Alexander (whose election at age 38 makes the 50-year-old Haslam seem not so young) was from Maryville, which the census considers part of metropolitan Knoxville. I have known Maryvillians who resist that characterization. In any case, Alexander never had a Knoxville address. He was the University of Tennessee's president after he was governor, and in the university's 215-year history, Alexander's the only president who declined the advantages of living in Knoxville proper.

Ben Hooper, who was governor 1910 to 1914, is the correct answer to one particularly wicked trivia question: What illegitimate kid grew up to be governor of Tennessee? Hooper spent part of his early childhood in Knoxville, in the St. John's orphanage, but was raised mainly in Newport, his birthplace, reportedly by his birth father. He'd make somebody a good novel, I think.

A few attended UT, and apparently lived in Knoxville at least for that term, but then again very few. A cursory survey turns up only a couple of UT grads among Tennessee's governors: the elegant James Frazier, who served 1903-05, and Ray Blanton, about whom the less said the better.

At least one other governor, Robert Love Taylor, lived in Knoxville for a while after his governorship. A beloved fiddler, motivational speaker, and probably the most popular Tennessean of the late 19th century, Taylor was eventually buried here, but it didn't take; he was disinterred, after 20 years, and reburied near his birthplace in Carter County.

Tennessee governors are sometimes restless after death; some get around more than I do. John Sevier, or a few nondescript bones supposed to be his, was dug up 70 years after his death, sent on a daring 1815 expedition into the Alabama wilderness, and reburied on the front lawn of the then-new courthouse. The obelisk in his honor is nearly as big as Parson Brownlow's in Old Gray.

Speaking of Sevier, he and Archibald Roane, the state's first two governors, lived in Knox County in their later years, but apparently only because Knoxville was then the capital and they were governors.

But Arthur's right; we haven't had a real Knoxvillian in the state's throne since the Parson. And if he's elected governor, Bill Haslam would be the first real, born-and-raised Knoxvillian ever to gain that prize.