William Gannaway Brownlow
, 1805 April 29
) was Governor
from 1865 to 1869 and a Senator
from Tennessee from 1869 to 1875. Serving during Reconstruction
following the American Civil War
, Brownlow was strongly pro-Union
. He was admired by many Tennesseans and despised by still more. He was most highly respected in the North for his devotion to the Union.
Brownlow was born in Wythe County, Virginia
, was orphaned at the age of ten, and had endured an adolescence of abusive backbreaking labor. At age 21, he began his career in 1826 as a circuit-riding Methodist minister
and moved to Elizabethton, Tennessee
Brownlow traveled from town to town, giving fire and brimstone speeches to often great crowds in South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee, while helping to establish the Methodist presence in that part of the United States. Brownlow ran unsuccessfully for United States House of Representatives in 1842. In 1850, Brownlow was appointed by U.S. President Millard Fillmore as a member of the Tennessee River Commission for the Improvement of Navigation.
Early Tennessee newspaper publisher
In 1839, Brownlow started a newspaper, the Tennessee Whig
, in Elizabethton, Tennessee
. He became known as "The Fighting Parson" due to the "...caustic and trenchant editorials" that he published within his newspaper. He moved his newspaper to Jonesborough, Tennessee
in 1840 and then later to Knoxville, Tennessee
in 1849, renaming it the Knoxville Whig
. The newspaper became known for its strong pro-Whig
and an anti-secession
stances, all expressed in Brownlow's vituperative but effective style of editorial attack.
Brownlow was more closely attuned to, and representative of, East Tennesseans than his contemporary or later critics were willing to admit. In East Tennessee, 69% of voters opposed secession in the statewide referendum of June 1861 even as 86% of voters elsewhere supported secession. Hardly the traitor to his community that his opponents made him out to be, he was more accurately a spokesman and leader for the strongly pro-Union inhabitants of East Tennessee. Brownlow and many of his supporters were pro-slavery (he himself owned slaves used as servants at various times), but were willing to consider scrapping slavery if necessary to save the Union.
Brownlow's passionately articulate stances and dramatic (if sometimes mean-spirited) writing also attracted thousands of subscribers from beyond Knoxville. At one point, the Knoxville Whig had over three times as many subscribers across the country as there were residents in Knoxville. The newspaper's two masthead slogans, "Cry Aloud and Spare Not," and "Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing," captured the spirit of the publication and its publisher. As the Civil War approached, Brownlow worked tirelessly to dissuade any of his readers from supporting secession.
U.S. Civil War
Once Tennessee seceded, Brownlow shifted to attacking the Confederate government
. In October 1861 he was forced to cease publishing and flee Knoxville, hiding in Cades Cove
in the Great Smoky Mountains
. Offered a safe conduct pass to Union lines, Brownlow returned to Knoxville that winter only to be arrested and imprisoned. Union prisoners in Knoxville endured starvation and other physical abuse for several months as part of an extortion ring involving a corrupt magistrate and jailor, and while Brownlow and many other prisoners were freed after Confederate authorities learned of the abuse, his health never fully recovered.
After being escorted to Union lines in March 1862, Brownlow toured the North, stirring up support for East Tennessee Unionists and publishing books and articles. In November 1863, Brownlow returned to Knoxville after its occupation by Union General Ambrose Burnside and resumed publishing his newspaper under the new name of the "Knoxville Whig and Rebel Ventilator".
Reconstruction and politics
Brownlow's election after the Civil War as governor survived his opponents' attempts to rig the vote. The Confederacy had just surrendered, and much of the state had required Union military occupation. Certain ex-Confederate officers were barred from voting, and a strong showing came from the eastern part of the state, a center of Union loyalty where slavery
had never been as much a part of the culture and economy, and secession
was generally opposed.
Tennessee was not officially readmitted to the union until July 2, 1866; even then it was the first ex-Confederate state to be officially readmitted. Brownlow was re-elected by a greatly expanded electorate (with the inclusion of freed slaves) in 1867; he resigned in February 1869 to accept election to the United States Senate by the state legislature, the method used prior to the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Brownlow is considered to be responsible for the current Seal of Tennessee, which meets the requirements outlined in the legal description for the original state seal but is considerably more modern and streamlined-looking than its predecessor.
After returning to Knoxville, Brownlow purchased an interest in the Weekly Whig and Chronicle
, renewing his career as a newspaperman. He pursued this vocation with his typical devotion until his death in 1877.
Brownlow is buried in Old Gray Cemetery in Knoxville.
- Ash, Stephen (1999), Secessionists and Scoundrels, Louisiana State University Press, ISBN 0-8071-2354-4
- Downing, David C. (2007), A South Divided: Portraits of Dissent in the Confederacy. Nashville: Cumberland House, ISBN 978-1-58182-587-9
- G. G. Bonnyman (1969), "Some Themes in the Early Life of William G. Brownlow", thesis, Princeton University