A vacant house in East Knoxville, and the complicated legacy of John Williams
by Jack Neely
For decades, the John Williams house has sat vacant, a dark brick hulk near the eastern end of Dandridge Avenue. This Saturday, it will witness a modest but rare public event: a bulb planting. Williams descendant Alex Brandau, who bought the old house back six years ago, says he now has financing and a plan to restore the landmark.
The houseâ’s namesake resists quick description. A complicated, moody politician once regarded as a national hero, John Williams is referred to in a Sam Houston biography as â“shadowy.â” Andrew Jackson once referred to him as a â“subtle fiend.â”
The North Carolina native moved to Knoxville, then the capital of Tennessee, around 1800, and established himself as an ambitious young lawyer. He married Malinda White, the teenaged daughter of city father James White.
Williamsâ’ descendants claim, plausibly, that Williams originated the icon of the Tennessee Volunteer. That peculiar adventure has few parallels in American history. In early 1813, Williams gathered 240 volunteers from East Tennesseeâ"all of them clad in blackâ"to travel more than 500 miles south, just to attack the villages of Seminoles believed to be threatening white settlers in South Georgia.
In his vigilante initiative, Williamsâ’ volunteers destroyed, by his own estimation, 336 Seminole homes. Half a century later, Southerners would profess to be shocked when Sherman burned civilian homes; in Williamsâ’ day it was standard operating procedure. What was unusual was for volunteers to travel so far to defend the citizens of another state. The gesture alarmed and embarrassed some Georgians.
With sudden credibility as a warrior, Williams was commissioned as a colonel in the 39th U.S. Infantry, ordered to lead 600 men to join Jackson, in disputed territory down South, battling the radical Red Stick faction of Creeks.
Among his men was the young Sam Houston, who learned to avoid Williams; the colonel seems to have despised Houston for reasons historians can only speculate about.
Williams and Jackson, along with some Cherokee allies, attacked the Red Stick Creeks, and in a particularly horrific battle, killed more than 800, ending the insurgency.
Jackson praised â“the intrepid and skillful commander,â” and Williams enjoyed popularity as the handsome young war hero, the â“Horse-Shoe Colonel.â” At warâ’s end the Tennessee Legislature elected him to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate, and re-elected him to a full term in 1817.
By then, Williams and Jackson were getting on each otherâ’s nerves. Williams criticized Jacksonâ’s incursion into Seminole Florida (Jackson shot back that it was hardly different from Williamsâ’ â“Tennessee Volunteersâ” adventure of a few years earlier) and refused to support a Nashville-based Jackson-for-president bandwagon. When Williams was up for re-election in 1823, Jackson ran against him, just to end Williamsâ’ national influence. Elected, Jackson served only two years before resigning.
Williamsâ’ precipitous decline was such that the former U.S. senator ran to represent Knox County in the state Senateâ"and lost.
He still had friends in high places, and potential for a national career; President John Quincy Adams favored Williams to be his secretary of war, but Williams apparently declined. Adams also offered to nominate Williams to the U.S. Supreme Court; Williams didnâ’t want that, either.
He did accept an interesting diplomatic post: that of charge dâ’affaires to the Federation of Central America in Guatemala. He spent most of 1826 in the tropics, negotiating with President Manuel Jose-Arce, helping work out a border dispute with Mexico and encouraging democratic principles in the fledgling democracy then attempting to model itself after the United States.
Reportedly homesick, he returned. During his absence, his wife, working with slaves, built him a house in what was then the countryside east of Knoxville. Williams was flabbergasted by his wifeâ’s initiative. But he lived there the rest of his life.
He ran for state Senate again, against the same guy whoâ’d beaten him a couple of years before, and won this time. Many urged him to run for Congress. But his nemesis Jackson was president, and, Williams said, he didnâ’t want to bow to the Emperor.
He remained active as a Knoxville lawyer, and pushed railroad development. He was on the board of the Louisville, Cincinnati, and Charleston Railroad, which he hoped to bring to Knoxville; it never worked out.
In middle age, the former Indian fighter became an advocate for â“the helpless and unprotected Indian,â” especially the Cherokees in Georgia. â“If our land should be visited by War, Pestilence, and Famine,â” he wrote, â“it will be nothing more than a just dispensation of Providence for our national crimes.â”
He also grew pessimistic about the future of his own country. â“I have lost confidence in the permanency of our political institutions,â” he confessed. In 1833, he predicted civil war. Bitter about his place in American history, Williams found himself opposing all things Jacksonian, including the administration of the Indian Removal project, the Trail of Tears. He spent most of the winter of 1836-37 in the Cherokee capital of New Echota, and emerged convinced that the tribe was getting a bad deal. He thought the Cherokee needed a new treaty, with better monetary compensation.
He grew ill just after that, and died the following August, at the age of 59, reportedly of â“bilious fever;â” family tradition has it that he was poisoned.
His descendants carried on his ambitions; as he died, his son Joseph Lanier Williams was entering the U.S. House of Representatives as a member of the new anti-Jacksonian Whig party. Another son, John Jr., became a state legislator and, during the Civil War, a Unionist leader.
His great-great-grandson turned out to be a playwright named Thomas Lanier Williams IIIâ"but everybody called him Tennessee.
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