The last Knoxvillian to become governor of Tennessee may not be a role model for Bill Haslam.
“Among all the characters, political or military, who rose to prominence in the South during Reconstruction, it would be hard to find one who achieved wider notoriety, spoke and wrote with greater invective, and inspired more bitter hatred than William Gannaway Brownlow,” wrote University of North Carolina history professor James W. Patton in the introduction to the 1999 reprint of a Brownlow biography.
Brownlow was chosen as governor at age 60 in 1865 when the state’s military governor, Andrew Johnson, resigned to become vice president of the United States. He was reelected to another two-year term in 1867, thus presiding over the state during the harshest period of Reconstruction.
By then he was already somewhat famous as a preacher, newspaper editor and author who crusaded against secession while supporting slavery, which he declared was “especially commanded by God through Moses and approved through the apostles of Christ,” according to the biography, “William G. Brownlow: Fighting Parson of the Southern Highlands.”
For 10 years, “Parson” Brownlow was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee who, in the pulpit and in books, was “a spirited attacker upon the institutions and beliefs of other denominations, especially the Baptists and Presbyterians,” says the book, written by E. Merton Coulter and originally published in 1937. Haslam is a Presbyterian.
The newspaper carried two mottos on its masthead: “Cry loud and spare not” and “Independent in all things, neutral in nothing.”
Subsequently, Brownlow was editor and publisher of three newspapers in succession – the last and most famous being The Knoxville Whig and Independent, which had a circulation greater than the Knoxville population at the time. His writings were known for their “vicious satire and sarcasm,” the book says.
“He was a colorful figure,” said Tennessee Historian Walter Durham. “He had a real sense that what he was doing was in the name of the Lord… In his time, newspapers were used more for personal reasons – by someone who wanted to say something or have some direct influence.”
He was once shot in the leg by a rival editor and had his skull cracked by an assailant using a hickory club, the book says.
During the Civil War, Brownlow was imprisoned for a time by the Confederate government, then went on a tour of the North making speeches about Southern atrocities.
As governor, the Whig turned “radical” Republican served at a time when former Confederates had lost the right to vote and freed slaves were newly enfranchised. He set up a 1,600-member militia under his command, the Tennessee State Guard to combat the Ku Klux Klan and, the book says, on occasion simply voided votes cast that did not go as he wished.
There were charges of corruption and bribery in his administration – including an allegation that he took five $1,000 bills though regarding it as “nothing more than a financial act of friendship,” the book says.
When he left office as governor to become a U.S. senator, the state was $16.5 million in debt, mostly from the issue of bonds to finance railroads while leaving schools, prisons and other state programs underfunded.
He died on April 28, 1877. The book says that his official portrait, which hung for a period in the state capitol, has been stained – according to oral tradition — by “labial effusions of tobacco-chewing legislators.”