Greeneville is notable as the town where President Andrew Johnson (1808-1875) began his political career when elected from his trade as a tailor. He and his family lived there most of his adult years (except for his residency in political service in capitals). It was an area of strong abolitionist and Unionist views and yeomen farmers, an environment which influenced Johnson's outlook.
Several federal and state highways now intersect in Greeneville, as they were built to follow old roads and trails. U.S. Route 321 follows Main Street through the center of the town and connects Greeneville to Newport to the southwest. U.S. Route 11 (Andrew Johnson Highway), which connects Greeneville with Morristown to the west, intersects US-321 in Greeneville and the merged highway proceeds northeast to Johnson City. Tennessee State Route 107, which also follows Main Street, connects Greeneville to Erwin to the east and to the Del Rio area to the south. Tennessee State Route 70 (Rogersville Road) connects Greeneville with Interstate 81, which passes several miles to the northwest.
Permanent European settlement of Greene County began in 1772. Jacob Brown, a North Carolina merchant, leased a large stretch of land from the Cherokee, located between the upper Lick Creek watershed and the Nolichucky River, in what is now the northeastern corner of the county. The "Nolichucky Settlement" initially aligned itself with the Watauga Association as part of Washington County, North Carolina. After voting irregularities in a local election, however, an early Nolichucky settler named Daniel Kennedy (1750-1802) led a movement to form a separate county, which was granted in 1783.
The county was named for Nathanael Greene, reflecting the loyalties of the numerous Revolutionary War veterans who settled in the Nolichucky Valley, especially from Pennsylvania and Virginia. The first county court sessions were held at the home of Robert Kerr, who lived at "Big Spring" (near the center of modern Greeneville). Kerr donated for the establishment of the county seat, most of which was located in the area currently bounded by Irish, College, Church, and Summer streets. "Greeneville" was officially recognized as a town in 1786.
In 1784, North Carolina attempted to resolve its debts by giving the U.S. Congress its lands west of the Appalachian Mountains, including Greene County. In response, delegates from Greene County and neighboring counties convened at Jonesborough and resolved to break away from North Carolina and establish an independent state. The delegates agreed to meet at Greeneville later that year to form a constitution.
The constitutional convention for what would become known as the State of Franklin (after Benjamin Franklin) was held in a crude log courthouse in Greeneville. Reverend Samuel Houston (not to be confused with the later governor of Tennessee and Texas) presented a draft that restricted the election of lawyers and other professionals. Houston's draft met staunch opposition, especially from Reverend Hezekiah Balch (1741-1810), who was later instrumental in the creation of Tusculum College. The delegates instead chose a constitution similar to North Carolina's. John Sevier was elected governor, and Greeneville was named the permanent capital. The delegates submitted a petition for statehood the following year, which failed to gain the requisite votes needed for admission to the Union. The Franklin movement began to collapse shortly thereafter.
In 1897, at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in Nashville, a log house that had been moved from Greeneville was displayed as the capitol where the State of Franklin's delegates met in the 1780s. There is, however, nothing to verify that this building was the actual capitol. In the 1960s, the capitol was reconstructed, based largely on the dimensions given in historian J.G.M. Ramsey's Annals of Tennessee.
Greene County, like much of East Tennessee, was home to a strong abolitionist movement in the early 1800s. This movement was likely influenced by the relatively large numbers of Quakers who migrated to the region from Pennsylvania in the 1790s. The Quakers considered slavery to be in violation of Biblical Scripture, and were active in the region's abolitionist movement throughout the antebellum period. One such Quaker was Elihu Embree (1782-1820), who published the nation's first abolitionlist newspaper, The Emancipator, at nearby Jonesborough.
When Embree's untimely death in 1820 effectively ended publication of The Emancipator, several of Embree's supporters turned to Ohio abolitionist Benjamin Lundy (1789-1839), who had started publication of his own antislavery newspaper, The Genius of Universal Emancipation, in 1821. Anticipating that a southern-based abolitionist movement would be more effective, Lundy purchased Embree's printing press and moved to Greeneville in 1822. Lundy remained in Greeneville for two years before moving to Baltimore. He would later prove influential in the career of William Lloyd Garrison, whom he hired as an associate editor in 1829.
Greenevillians involved in the abolitionist movement included Hezekiah Balch, who freed his slaves at the Greene County Courthouse in 1807. Samuel Doak, the founder of Tusculum College, followed in 1818. Valentine Sevier (1780-1854), a nephew of John Sevier who served as Greene County Court Clerk, freed his slaves in the 1830s and offered to pay for their passage to Liberia, which had been formed as a colony for freed slaves. Francis McCorkle, the pastor of Greeneville's Presbyterian Church, was a leading member of the Manumission Society of Tennessee.
Andrew Johnson (1808-1875), the 17th President of the United States, spent much of his active life in Greeneville. In 1826, Johnson arrived in Greeneville after fleeing an apprenticeship in Raleigh, North Carolina. Johnson chose to remain in Greeneville after learning that the town's tailor was planning to retire. Johnson purchased the tailor shop, which he moved from Main Street to its present location at the corner of Depot and College streets. Johnson married a local girl, Eliza McCardle, in 1827. The two were married by Mordecai Lincoln (1778-1851), who was Greene County's Justice of the Peace. He was a cousin of Abraham Lincoln, whom Johnson would serve as Vice President.
In the late 1820s, a local artisan named Blackstone McDannel often stopped by Johnson's tailor shop to debate issues of the day, especially the Indian Removal, which Johnson opposed. Johnson and McDannel decided to debate the issue publicly. The interest sparked by this debate led Johnson, McDannel, and several others to form a local debate society. The experience and influence Johnson gained in debating local issues helped him get elected to the Greeneville City Council in 1829. He was elected mayor of Greeneville in 1834, although he resigned after just a few months in office to pursue a position in the Tennessee state legislature, which he attained the following year. As Johnson rose through the ranks of political office in state and national government, he used his influence to help Greeneville constituents obtain government positions, among them his long-time supporter, Sam Milligan, who was appointed to the Court of Claims in Washington, D.C.
The Andrew Johnson National Historic Site, located in Greeneville, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1963. Contributing properties include Johnson's tailor shop at the corner of Depot Street and College Street. The site also maintains Johnson's house on Main Street and the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery (atop Monument Hill to the south). A replica of Johnson's birth home and a life-size statue of Johnson have been placed across the street from the visitor center and tailor shop.
There were 6,641 households out of which 25.5% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 44.6% were married couples living together, 13.9% had a female householder with no husband present, and 38.3% were non-families. 34.5% of all households were made up of individuals and 16.1% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.18 and the average family size was 2.78.
In the town the population was spread out with 21.3% under the age of 18, 7.7% from 18 to 24, 26.3% from 25 to 44, 24.3% from 45 to 64, and 20.4% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 41 years. For every 100 females there were 84.4 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 79.5 males.
The median income for a household in the town was $25,999, and the median income for a family was $36,129. Males had a median income of $30,629 versus $21,425 for females. The per capita income for the town was $17,126. About 16.5% of families and 20.7% of the population were below the poverty line, including 28.5% of those under age 18 and 18.0% of those age 65 or over.
There has been a fair in some form in Greene County since 1870 when the Farmers and Mechanics Association held its first exposition. The present Greene County Fair Association was incorporated in 1949. The Fair exists on the support of countless volunteers, board members and officers since 1949.