People still call Parson Brownlow “Tennessee’s worst governor.” It’s recited as if it’s a true fact you can look up in Wikipedia. The story goes that, years ago, his portrait had to be removed from the gallery at the state capitol because it had been the target of generations of tobacco spit. Most white Tennesseans are descended from Confederates, and that’s what they’ve always heard.
Before he was governor, Brownlow was the famously uninhibited editor of the Knoxville Whig. A small weekly, it gained a reputation nationally, partly thanks to the sometimes bizarre novelty of the editor’s outspoken views. By 1860, its subscribers included readers who’d never been to Tennessee. The paper never had a circulation approaching, say, that of Metro Pulse today, but somehow its editor was often hanged in effigy in other states, as far away as Texas.
Brownlow was, his writings would seem to leave no doubt, a racist, a white supremacist. In a nationally publicized debate in 1858, he argued that slavery was the only way blacks and whites could live together peacefully.
But less than four years later, he was exhorting crowds in Northern cities to win the war against secession, eventually boosting the emancipation policies of President Lincoln. After the war, he became arguably the most effective white civil-rights advocate in 19th century Tennessee. When only five states in the entire nation allowed blacks to vote, Brownlow made sure that Tennessee became the sixth. By 1867, he was such a staunch advocate of black rights that some black voters believed Brownlow to be black himself. Thanks to his leadership, Tennessee came back into the Union fold in 1866, before any other Confederate state, exempting it from the lengthy federal military reconstruction inflicted on most of the South.
Most Americans prefer their heroes and villains to be simpler folk than Parson Brownlow. In 1987, the Democratic state Legislature did actually ban his portrait from the capitol building, because of its possible influence on “impressionable schoolchildren.” He seems to have few handy friends on the Internet. His profile on the “Tennessee History Classroom” website is entitled, “The Most Hated Man in Tennessee History.”
He pops up where you least expect him, for example in an annotated edition of James Joyce’s landmark novel, Ulysses. A prominent scholar suggests a stray allusion to “the fighting parson” in the book, set in Dublin, could have been either a reference to Martin Luther—or to Tennessee’s W.G. Brownlow. Brownlow’s exploits did get some publicity in Europe.
“He was a product of his times,” wrote biographer Merton Coulter, “but his times produced none other like him.”
Six feet tall and weighing around 175, Parson William Ganaway Brownlow must have seemed a Dickensian character, loping around the streets of mid-19th century Knoxville: thin, unhandsome, with a dark, plain suit and a warp to his face that might suggest poor dental hygiene or perhaps the blow to his head from an 1849 assault with a club. Some suspected he never wholly recovered from it. For the few portraits he sat for, Brownlow cultivated an unrefined glower. He took little pride in his countenance, except that he believed he looked younger than his age, with hair that never seemed to go gray. He often did look ill, and he often was. He sometimes had trouble speaking above a rasp.
He was always known as Parson Brownlow, though he never had a church in Knoxville. Preaching was something he did when he was a very young man. None of his sermons survive. After the age of 33, he was mainly a newspaperman. He used his Parson status for emphasis.
Orphaned, he spoke of a childhood of “hard labor” for a Virginia uncle, as if it were a prison sentence. An evangelical camp meeting led him to the Methodist ministry, and for about eight years, he was a circuit rider. In those combative times, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists competed for flocks throughout the hills, each battling stereotypes. Brownlow attacked Baptists and Presbyterians, deriding immersion and predestination, respectively.
He successfully defended himself from a charge of slander against a Baptist preacher in North Carolina, and put a dry joke in the title of his first book: Helps to the Study of Presbyterianism showed an almost sophisticated casual style, mixing sincere theology and understated ridicule. To publish it, he brought it to Knoxville, the forlorn former state capital with little industry but Frederick Heiskell’s curiously busy printing press. Brownlow married an Elizabethton woman and set out to start a family and support it with a job that paid better than preaching. He took a clerical position with an iron foundry. When it sputtered, Brownlow, who’d written some religious tracts and a few newspapers articles here and there, applied for a job editing a 700-subscriber paper. Renamed the Whig, the paper catered to that controversial new party organized in the 1830s to oppose Jacksonian Democrats. Brownlow declared he was motivated by “a love of country; an innate regard for freedom of thought and action; and a deep rooted opposition to and hatred of the high-handed measure of a corrupt and corrupting administration.”
Whiggery was especially popular in the eastern portions of Jackson’s home state. For Brownlow, the Elizabethton Whig became an outlet for years of pent-up vitriol. His motto, from Isaiah, was “Cry aloud and spare not.”
He could write well, but didn’t always. He was fussy about grammar, but may have put a higher premium on speed; his newspapers are pocked with typographical errors.
Almost instantly he became known for his delight in insulting prominent men. He’d been an editor for only a year when he was first hanged in effigy in the region’s “metropolis,” Knoxville. He noted that the gesture more than doubled his Knoxville subscribers. He seemed to relish reader reaction. Then and later, outrage was proof that readers were paying attention.
Brownlow moved the paper to Jonesborough, and for a small-town editor, he got around. From New Orleans to Washington to New York, he traveled to political events, and met the great American political icons of the day, including several presidents—Jackson, Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, Tyler, Polk. Of those, he liked only Harrison, the one who died a month after his inauguration. Other than his idol, Henry Clay, and his Tennessee ally, John Bell, for whom Brownlow named his son, the Parson admired few mortal statesmen. He ridiculed icons like Jackson, even in his obituary for the former president—and Sam Houston, whom he knew personally.
He drew ire, and sometimes gunfire. He was the intended victim of at least two assassination attempts. Shot at through a window as he sat by the hearth in his home, he returned fire. And there was the 1849 assault: An assailant attacked him with a club, leaving him unconscious and disabled for several weeks. Some scholars have speculated that he suffered brain damage that affected his outlook. The only evidence that he was concerned about his safety was that he always carried at least one loaded revolver.
In 1849, Brownlow moved his family, and his paper: “The undersigned goes to Knoxville,” he wrote, “because that is an eligible position, affording the necessary mail facilities, and because he believes that he can be more useful to his party, and to the country at large....”
Knoxville was full of Whigs, among them Massachusetts-born Horace Maynard; he and Brownlow and a few other Knoxville Whigs of 1849 would be among Tennessee’s first Republicans.
Brownlow established his printing press first in a spartan rental building on Gay Street, perhaps in the vicinity of Clinch. Within a year he moved it to his own property, on East Cumberland, beyond a little bridge across First Creek in what was then considered East Knoxville. He lived beside it, in an already old white wood-framed house, with his wife and children, and opined.
Repeatedly he boosted Henry Clay, the Kentucky statesman known for his reason and moderation, for president. After Clay’s death in 1852, Brownlow was less predictable. He pushed a quixotic third-party campaign to elect ex-president Millard Fillmore in 1856. Brownlow rarely picked a winner, but even in defeat, patriotically praised the fairness of America’s electoral system.
In that era of immigration, he often ridiculed immigrants, especially Catholics, whom he considered unduly influenced by a foreign power, and the Irish, who he claimed were mainly drunks. But many of his associates noted a marked divide between his rhetoric and his actions. He was, friends claimed, quietly generous and kind in person.
When a cholera epidemic swarmed Knoxville in 1854, many succumbed, and many more fled. Brownlow stayed. There’s an old story that the overworked gravedigger at Old Gray, an Irishman known as Neddy Lavender, had no help in burying the dead except for Parson Brownlow himself. It’s another scene Dickens might have written.
As an editorialist, Brownlow was famous for his reckless sarcasm, his scorn, his negativity—but he may have been Knoxville’s most enthusiastic early booster in a troubled era, a one-man Chamber of Commerce making big claims for the future of for a grim and hobbled town of only 2,000 with little going for it.
Slavery was the day’s burning issue; Brownlow’s views about it aren’t simple. Famously a pro-slaver, he occasionally questioned the peculiar institution. “Slavery as it exists in the South and West is a curse instead of a blessing,” he wrote after a trip north in 1845. East Tennessee’s once-budding abolitionist movement was barely a memory. By mid-century, national politics had hardened the South, consolidating attitudes toward slavery.
Brownlow hardened, too, and defended slavery loudly, as almost all Southern editors did in the 1850s. You don’t have to read many old newspapers to realize that white Southerners were terrified of the prospect of abolition, not only because the Southern economy depended on slavery, but for their own safety. They feared large-scale vengeance.
Brownlow went farther than he really needed to keep his job; he became a national leader in the slavery debate. He advocated slavery in racist terms, insisting that blacks were unable to fare for themselves in America, and that slavery was the only safe way for blacks and whites to live together. Brownlow seems to have owned two or three household slaves, himself. With fellow minister Abram Pryne, a New York abolitionist, as his opponent, Brownlow took the pro-slave side in a much-publicized Philadelphia debate in 1858. Brownlow must have been proud of his pro-slavery arguments, because he was advertising the published transcript of the debate in the Knoxville Whig, as late as 1861.
But his view of slavery wasn’t dogmatically Southern. He did not share the secessionists’ demand that slavery be extended into the new territories; expansion, secessionists declared, was the only guarantee of slave states maintaining a balance in Congress. Brownlow argued that what happened in Western states was none of the South’s business. And that the Constitution was adequate to protect slaveholders’ rights.
In that regard, despite his rhetoric, Brownlow’s position was hardly different from Lincoln’s stated position, in the 1860 presidential campaign. And it was the issue that inflamed the politicians of the Cotton States to secede.
Though Brownlow loved to skewer abolitionists as a lot, he probably startled some subscribers in late 1859 when he expressed some sneaking admiration for leading abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, whom Brownlow heard speak in Brooklyn—as well as abolitionist terrorist John Brown: “his intellect and courage,” Brownlow wrote, are “the superior of four-fifths of the men in Congress.”
By then, secession was in the winds. Still insisting he was pro-slave—as if there were still many who wouldn’t believe it—Brownlow beat the Union drum.
The Whig party had withered, but its most obvious replacement in the North, the new Republican Party, had no organizers, no campaigners, no candidates in Tennessee. Brownlow’s friend John Bell ran for president, calling himself a Constitutional Unionist. Bell’s candidacy shows that the nation was divided into more sections than just the two. In 1860, Bell was extremely popular in Knoxville, and won three mid-South states, including Tennessee. Nationwide, Bell came in fourth.
Repeatedly Brownlow baited Secessionists. He relished pairing off his enemies; he coupled Abolitionism with Secessionism, as if they were two sides of the same immoderate coin. Secession, he declared repeatedly and long before Fort Sumter, would force an end to slavery sooner than the Constitution ever could. On that subject, he was prescient.
Perhaps worse, by the racist standards of the day, was his habit of coupling secessionist with slave, as if in a romantic or religious relationship. Obsessive secessionist politicians, Brownlow thought, made slavery sound like a reason for being. In early 1861, the Parson published a tongue-in-cheek “prayer” in which he pretended to plead mercy for “traitors, political gamblers, and selfish demagogues who are seeking to build up a miserable Southern Confederacy, and under it to inaugurate a new reading of the Ten Commandments, so as to teach that the chief end of Man is Nigger!”
He was casual and often extravagant with the N-word in ways that were offensive then and more so today, a major reason modern progressives have trouble warming up to Brownlow. But it’s interesting how often he used it in a way that it could have been replaced with the word slavery. He denigrated blacks, but often boasted of his racism defensively, in answer to chronic and persistent Southern assumptions that he was an abolitionist.
No one denied that Brownlow was fearless. When Knoxville was occupied by Confederate forces in the spring of 1861, and Confederate recruits shot and killed a Unionist civilian on Gay Street, many Unionists left town. Brownlow did not. He stayed, as if enduring another cholera epidemic. He raised the stars and stripes above his house on East Cumberland, and for several months kept publishing the Knoxville Whig, mocking Confederate authorities.
That November, on advice of friends, he did leave, and sojourned in the almost purely Unionist foothills of the Smokies—some claimed Sevier County was the only county, north or south, with zero Confederate sympathizers.
He was found, and, by a ruse, captured and imprisoned for treason in the weirdly castle-like Knoxville jail. For most of December 1861, the 56-year-old ailing editor tolerated a cell almost standing-room only with 150 Unionist inmates. Some “Lincolnite” fellow prisoners, accused bridge burners, were sentenced to death and hanged; Brownlow insisted he was ready for his turn.
Then, through the surprising intercession of Confederate authorities in Richmond, Brownlow was freed, two days after Christmas, with the understanding he would vacate the South. The Southern press protested. “He deserves death and we vote to kill him,” remarked the Columbus (Ga.) Times.
He toured the North, Indianapolis, Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York, Boston, and spoke to cheering crowds, bigger than any Lincoln had ever seen, denouncing the Confederacy and advocating total war on secessionists. He slapped together a book about his experiences. In Philadelphia he inspired a dance, “the Parson Brownlow Quick Step.” Lincoln invited him to the White House, but he couldn’t make it. But along the way, he seemed to adopt Lincoln’s policy as his own.
An ironic and unexplainable epilogue to Brownlow’s pro-slavery career transpired toward the end of his northern tour, when his rival from the Philadephia debate four years earlier, abolitionist Abram Pryne, committed suicide with a razor.
Brownlow returned to Knoxville in the fall of 1863, and reopened his old paper with new name and a gruesome joke: The Knoxville Whig and Rebel Ventilator. In one of his first issues, he wrote of Lincoln—months after the Emancipation Proclamation—“we endorse all that he has done, and we find fault with him for not having done more of the same sort!”
On advice, he left town during the Confederate siege, but returned soon after. Unionist groups—it’s not obvious when they started acknowledging themselves as Republicans—gathered to discuss the future of Tennessee. Brownlow, pushing 60, had never held public office, but was the most famous symbol of Unionist resistance. When his cronies nominated him for governor of Tennessee, to replace the military governorship of Andrew Johnson, who was rising to the vice presidency, Brownlow may have been the only one around who wouldn’t have flinched.
He became governor of Tennessee about a month before Appomattox, by a very limited statewide vote of white male Unionists, heavily influenced by East Tennesseans. Immediately he submitted the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, for ratification by a Legislature packed with Unionists. He disenfranchised Confederates, forbidding them to vote for a period of “five or 10 years.”
“In my judgment,” Brownlow said that October, “a loyal Negro is more eminently entitled to suffrage than a disloyal white man.”
Historian Merton Coulter has claimed that the Ku Klux Klan was formed in response to Brownlow’s forceful—too forceful, in Coulter’s view—administration. The Klan was implicated in the assassination of one Brownlow agent, and frequently threatened Brownlow himself.
He pushed through the 14th amendment, using some questionable tactics, but assuring blacks the right to vote, and bringing Tennessee back into the Union long before the other Confederate states. Then he organized a State Guard to protect blacks as they voted.
Tennessee enjoyed—some Tennesseans more than others—an ironic status as a former slave state where black citizens had rights never known to most blacks in the free North. Under Brownlow’s administration, Tennessee became one of only six states in the entire union where blacks could vote. According to UT history professor Paul Bergeron, whose biography of Brownlow rival Andrew Johnson has just been published, Tennessee was America’s first state with a sizeable black population to extend suffrage to the minority.
The standard explanation is that Brownlow was still racist, but trolling for voters in a state where he knew that, among whites, he was in the minority party. He was re-elected in 1867 with heavy black support. For Brownlow, black enfranchisement may well have been a matter of political expediency, as most scholars allege; less often suggested is that political expediency might account for some of his pre-war pro-slavery rhetoric, as well.
Was Brownlow Tennessee’s worst governor, as the old saw goes? Bergeron doubts anyone could answer that question without months of comparative study. He acknowledges that Brownlow was “ruthless,” and cut some corners with process, but that it was a historically extreme time to be governor, charged, more or less, with re-creating a state. “You’d have to say he got some things done,” he says. “I can think of a few governors who didn’t. Some not so long ago.”
In a 2010 book called Reconstructing Appalachia, University of Georgia scholar Kyle Osborne goes a little farther. “While political expediency clearly informed his actions as governor, this hardly negates the importance of his conversion,” he writes. Osborn calls Brownlow’s initiatives “revolutionary for a state so removed from slavery.” It may have been the quickest accession to political participation by slaves of any race in world history.
Among white former Confederates, Brownlow probably was indeed the most hated man in the South. But as Isham Harris, the former Confederate governor of Tennessee, acknowledged, things would likely have been harder on Confederates if Brownlow had not been so forceful. In Tennessee, Reconstruction ended in 1869, when Brownlow left office, succeeded by a surprisingly conciliatory Dewitt Senter, who soon restored voting rights to Confederates. In most of the South, Reconstruction prevailed, often assisted by military occupation, for eight more years.
Brownlow resigned in 1869, at age 64, when the Legislature elected him to a mostly undistinguished career in the U.S. Senate. He returned to Knoxville and newspaper publishing, but never quite as prominently as before. His old deputy, Union veteran William Rule, ran the operation, which became the Daily Chronicle, and later the Knoxville Journal, remaining Republican throughout most of its long career. Adolph Ochs, the patriarch of the modern New York Times, began his career in Knoxville working for a Brownlow paper.
Brownlow died in 1877, at age 71, in Knoxville: a natural death that would have surprised many of his friends and enemies.
Brownlow embodied the Republican Party that came to dominate East Tennessee politics for a century and a half to come. It’s obvious that today’s Tennessee Republican Party is not exactly the same party that Brownlow, Congressman Horace Maynard, and others launched. Brownlow was, by modern standards, both very liberal, favoring a strong central government and, eventually, enforced minority rights—and very conservative, emphasizing patriotism at all costs, family values, and even gun rights. A sort of evolutionary duck-billed platypus, he might perplex modern politicians of both parties. But every two years since the Brownlow administration, the Parson’s home congressional district has elected only Republicans.
Brownlow’s widow, Eliza, survived her husband by 37 years, entertaining a seemingly endless parade of Republican dignitaries, including several presidents. The Brownlow Home at 213 East Cumberland Ave. often appeared in city promotional publications. She died in 1914 at age 94, and was buried beside the Parson under one of the largest obelisks at Old Gray Cemetery.
By the early 20th century, the Brownlows’ never-posh “Hardscrabble” neighborhood had become a slum of shacks and whorehouses. Developers tore down the Brownlow house in 1923, reportedly to build new bungalow housing; whatever they replaced the landmark with is long since forgotten. The spot where an unusual man and his newspaper enraged and amused and provoked a nation is now in the vicinity of an off ramp for James White Parkway.