If you’re offered a chance to take a magical time-machine trip back to a mid-Victorian Christmas in Knoxville 150 years ago, smile politely and get away.
Christmas, 1860, is barely detectable in the surviving newspapers. No reports and only a couple of ads made any reference to an upcoming holiday. One was for J.A. Rayl’s bookstore, which advertised “Books for the Holidays”—some surprisingly expensive, up to $12. In 1860, you could get a human being for not much more than that. On sale for just $1 was The Life of George Washington, by Edward Everett, the Massachusetts politician who the previous month had been Tennessee Constitutional Unionist John Bell’s running mate. The Bell-Everett team and their message of awkward compromise had carried Tennessee and two other states, but came in fourth nationwide.
Christmas was promoted in the biggest way by John Ricardi, one of the few Knoxvillians who grew up with big Christmas celebrations and whose Gay Street emporium sold nearly everything. “Oh Yes! Oh Yes! Old Father Christmas is Coming,” he announced, throughout the month of December and well into January. He sold lots of festive stuff, from fiddles, banjos, and accordions to imported liquors, imported candies like Jenny Lind Dragees, and imported toy soldiers—Europe had seen several wars lately.
“[For] those [in] whom military qualities preponderate, it is here they can see the application of modern science to purposes of war, and thus have a chance of ‘teaching the young the idea how to shoot,’ making him a good citizen as well as an ornament to the country.” The tin “Garibaldian Soldiers” Ricardi sold reflected his own Italian heritage, but his ad seems to hint at an imminent American war.
Tennessee had not yet seceded, and it was not obvious that it would. Two weeks before Christmas, a public meeting of citizens convened in the courthouse. The meeting was ostensibly called to plead with the governor to propose a convention of Southern states “to consider existing political troubles and, if possible, to compose our sectional strifes.” To some, that phrasing sounded too conciliatory—though if any Knoxvillian there were ready to call himself a secessionist, he didn’t that night.
Judging by those quoted in Parson Brownlow’s Whig, most of the participants were wealthy white men preoccupied with slavery and its perpetuation. There was lots of heckling and jeering, interrupted by loud arguments about national issues—including, oddly, the fate of slave Anthony Burns, whose escape from Virginia seven years earlier was a cause célèbre in both the North and the South. Some in the courthouse claimed Burns had never been returned to his master. One heard he was living as a free man in New England. However, another insisted Burns had indeed been returned to his master: the Fugitive Slave Act was working, claimed the tenuous Unionists in the room, and that was one reason not to rush to secession.
In 1860, rumor was swifter and more powerful than journalism. No one in the room seemed to have heard the news that Burns had indeed been returned to his master, five years earlier, and that abolitionists had bought Burns his freedom. By 1860, Burns was working as a Baptist preacher in the Midwest.
Judging by the comments, it’s possible that no two people in the room had precisely the same perceptions about slavery, secession, or the Southern states. Oliver Perry Temple—the former Texas Indian negotiator who had campaigned for the Bell-Everett ticket—proposed that the nation return to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, a prospect perhaps beyond the capacity of a Knox County convention. Colonel S.R. Rodgers, perhaps the purest conservative in the room, advocated “holding plumb still.”
The statement they arrived at was little more inspiring than their noisy discussion. They did finally pass a compromise resolution, with a few surprising tenets.
“The Citizens of Knox County, without distinction of party, cannot refrain from expressing their deep concern at the present political condition of the country,” declared the white men of Knox County. “They have not met to discuss with a view to criminate or recriminate, or to adjust the balance as to determine who is most at fault. It is enough for them to know that the Constitution and the Union of the United States is in danger.”
There followed a bitter acknowledgement of slave-state grievances, with an especially bitter statement about Northern slowness to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, but the document condemned secession as “political suicide.” President-elect Abraham Lincoln had gotten no votes in Tennessee—he wasn’t on the ballot—and wouldn’t have been expected to have any friends in that room. But their resolution stated that “a President elected in pursuance of the provisions of the Constitution becomes, in virtue of that election, the Chief Magistrate of the Nation, and as such is entitled to the support of all good citizens while discharging his constitutional duties in a constitutional manner.
“Tennessee is now, as she has always been, true, loyal, and devoted to the Union of the States....”
It’s not clear the manifesto had any effect on anybody. Former governor and U.S. Sen. Andrew Johnson denounced secession; during Christmas week, he was hanged in effigy in Memphis and Nashville. The same indignity seemed likely in Knoxville, where Johnson was, for better or worse, a familiar face.
Secessionists spoke of little else but the right and the necessity of owning slaves, but their opponents were hardly enlightened. One of the ringleaders of a Johnson “hanging” was a Gay Street liquor dealer named Dreyfous; Unionists condemned him as “a foreign Jew ... only a sojourner.” Dreyfous prepared the Johnson effigy in his shop, and a band of secessionists readied it for hanging on Gay Street on New Year’s Day.
Armed with pistols, Unionists blocked them in the street. Former Congressman John Crozier confronted the Unionists and demanded, “What in the hell, is it your business?”
Worse would follow. As it turned out, it was everybody’s business.