The November of the most momentous election in American history, a reporter described the East Tennessee countryside: “its towns, villas, cottages, rivers, villages, hills, and distant mountains [and] the blue charm that clothes them, and the hills and villages...their faded garniture painted by the melancholy pencil of Autumn.”
The same paper, Brownlow’s Knoxville Whig, ran a prominent advertisement: “Negro Boy Out! Anthony, 18, very black and slender, 145 lbs. Has not much to say.”
Escaped-slave advertisements were among the few constants of antebellum Knoxville journalism.
There were some counterfeit two-dollar bills loose in the saloons of Knoxville, and a freak bolt of lightning “literally demolished” a house on Temperance Hill, but most news was of the election. It was a four-way national race, but on the Tennessee ballot were three names: Stephen Douglas, John Breckinridge, and John Bell. They all claimed to be pro-slavery. The Tennesseans of 1860 could discern a hundred shades of pro-slave sentiment, and argue amongst themselves, one pro-slaver against another.
Lincoln was not on the ballot. No Tennessean had attended the Republican convention in Chicago, and Republicans were disinclined to organize in the South. In the winner-take-all electoral-college system, Republicans had no chance of winning slave states. Lincoln himself once remarked that if he were even to visit a slave state like his native Kentucky, he might be lynched.
Many Tennessee whites didn’t own slaves. But if any Knoxvillian in 1860 opposed slavery as an institution, he or she stayed right quiet. Bad-mouthing slavery was just something we didn’t do here. There had been a few abolitionists here, not too long ago, but by 1860 they seem to have left. As did quite a few secessionists, uncomfortable about the proximity of Unionists.
Knoxville existed in a sort of twilight. Tennessee wasn’t among “the Eight Cotton States” that Unionists worried most about in late 1860—but it certainly wasn’t part of the “Black Republican” North. Knoxville’s oldest weekly paper, the Knoxville Register, was sympathetic to secession, but the Whig was Unionist.
For 25 years, Knoxville had been a center of the Whig Party, and Knoxville’s Whigs, not nearly ready to call themselves Lincoln Republicans, flopped like goldfish on the floor. The Whig Party was dead, but “Parson” William Brownlow’s paper carried that noble word, coined to define opponents of Andrew Jackson’s policies, forward into another decade. Brownlow, the former Methodist pastor who’d become better known as an editor, was from Virginia, but had lived in Knoxville for more than a decade. He had once flirted with abolitionism, but became a pro-slaver—as did many former liberals who moved South. In 1860 Brownlow advertised his published debate with another cleric, Pennsylvania abolitionist Abram Pryne.
Brownlow particularly scorned Lincoln’s running mate, Hannibal Hamlin, and tried to start a rumor that the man who would preside over the U.S. Senate was part black.
But as much as Brownlow disliked Lincoln and the smell of abolition, he despised Southern secessionism. He cast his lot firmly with the Union. For him, the next few years would be a wild ideological ride.
The city set up three polling places: in newly annexed East Knoxville, in the old courthouse, and in the small brick marketplace on Market Square.
Brownlow jeered at the prospects of an independent Southern Confederacy. The South, he said, was too dependent on Northern interests. “Where will they get types and presses to print their fire-eating journals and doctrines?” Knoxville’s best-known publisher wanted to know. “Had we not better live and let live?”
Democratic Gov. Isham Harris, who would side with secession, called for a Day of Fasting and Prayer. Brownlow, a man of the cloth himself, couldn’t resist. “The Churches ought to unite with our Governor,” he wrote, and invite Breckinridge secessionists “to confess their sins, and implore God’s pardon. This class of men are numerous, and there never was a greater necessity for all this offering up prayers—long prayers, accompanied with fasting, humiliation, and self-abasement. They have done much this past summer and fall to promote infidelity, drunkenness, Sabbath-breaking, and crime. Let them fast and pray much!”
On Tuesday, November 6, Knoxville voted. “‘The irrepressible conflict’ commenced in this city at 9 o’clock on Tuesday morning,” Brownlow wrote. Knoxville voters chose Bell, the Constitutional Unionist, by a margin of more than two-to-one over Breckinridge, the candidate associated with the secessionists. Breckinridge swept the Deep South, but Bell carried Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky. Nationally, that left him a poor fourth in that strange race.
It looked as if several states would secede before Lincoln was even inaugurated, and that didn’t seem right to Brownlow. “This going out under a poor old coward and corruptionist,” wrote Brownlow, referring to President Buchanan, “does not show as much bravery as we had expected from the Eight Cotton States. It looks to a conservative man like they fear old Abe Lincoln!”
When it became clear that the election of Abraham Lincoln would prompt several of the Eight Cotton States to secede before Lincoln even took office, Brownlow, who was famous for his ability to turn any solemn subject into a mean joke, wrote, “It is too serious a matter for mirth, and we must now come to look at the horrors of Disunion in the face. The machine of government, so delicate and complex in its structure...which cost its great Architects so much labor and thought...is now broken to pieces, to gratify a set of ambitious, designing, dissipated, and corrupt demagogues....
“The fiddling and dancing of Nero while Rome was enveloped in flames was not more brutal, hellish, stupid, and wicked than the conduct of these God-defying and Hell-deserving TRAITORS to their country... Fighting is to be done, and that at no distant day, and the battle ground is to be along the border states,” including Tennessee. “The vile and wicked who precipitate a revolution will do none of the fighting...and the common people will themselves have to shoulder the knapsacks and muskets. Let those who voted for Disunion fight for their mad schemes.”