If you hear a Parson Brownlow story, even from a beloved relative who looks old enough to remember him, there’s a good chance it’s not exactly true. Brownlow is the boogie man in any number of campfire tales. Antipathy toward Brownlow seemed to glow even more brightly during the 20th century, after most who remembered the real Brownlow were dead.
There’s an old adage that history is written by the victors; the Civil War is an exception. Dozens of scholars have made careers of hailing the Southern cause. Each year sees new pro-Confederate versions of the war.
The only full-length scholarly biography of Parson Brownlow, subtitled, “Fighting Parson of the Southern Highlands,” was written in 1937 by Georgia scholar E. Merton Coulter. It’s a mostly eloquent book, and demonstrates some guarded affection for the subject, but it’s harshly critical of Brownlow’s gubernatorial administration, which Coulter calls a “grim brawl.”
Coulter, who died 30 years ago, is still the best-known Brownlow scholar, but he may be better known for his historical justifications of both the Confederacy and slavery, even into the 1960s. Even he might have been surprised to know that his Brownlow book is still be the definitive authority on the South’s leading Unionist. An Ohio scholar’s 1950s effort to rehabilitate Brownlow’s administration never got much traction.
In the Internet era, some tales have made it into ostensibly authoritative accounts. A website aimed at schoolchildren, called Tennessee History Classroom, on tennesseehistory.com, offers a more scathing assessment of Brownlow than anything Coulter wrote.
Its article, titled, “The most hated man in Tennessee history,” includes several surprising claims, one that Brownlow passed his Reconstruction legislation by ordering the militia to force state legislators to vote his way under gunpoint. According to tennesseehistory.com, “you can still see the bullet marks where Brownlow ordered the militia to fire on the Legislature.” That peculiar incident appears in no standard histories, including Merton Coulter’s harshly critical biography. Historian Paul Bergeron laughs that he’s never even heard that story.
The Tennessee History Classroom series claims that “Although he called himself a Republican, the state’s GOP has never acknowledged him as such.”
For many years, however, Brownlow was a Republican hero, and his old home at 213 East Cumberland in Knoxville was a Republican shrine. Presidents McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft visited his home and his widow. Roosevelt, in particular, made a point to say that he had always been an admirer of Parson Brownlow.
In 1987, the Democratic state Legislature, led by a Nashville Democratic senator, officially banned Brownlow’s portrait from the Capitol building in Nashville. Brownlow’s great-granddaughter in Knoxville complained of the “gutless wonders” of the Republican minoritiy for not defending Brownlow.
An unsigned editorial in the Knoxville Journal, a direct descendant of Brownlow’s Knoxville Whig, defended him, sort of, as “one son of a bitch who ate other sons of bitches for breakfast.”
At the time, state librarians revealed that the alleged tobacco-spit stain on the portrait was actually an old water stain from a leak in 1931.