The most hated man in Tennessee
He was a man with an opinion that earned him an everlasting
reputation in Tennessees colorful past. History has called
him many things opportunist, preacher, governor, activist
but whatever label they choose, he is a man whose name
still evokes strong emotion in many Tennesseans as his story
wound its way through the states oral tradition.
He was an avid supporter of the Union in the Civil War, but
that didnt earn him his reputation as there were many
Union sympathizers in the War Between the States in Tennessee.
In fact, officials estimate the state gave up more men per capita
to both the Union and Confederate armies than any two states
In order to understand the man and the emotions, you have to
know his life and the circumstances that brought him to power
and the position where a brief opportunity existed to heal a
William Gannaway Brownlow was born in Wythe County, Va. on Aug.
29, 1805. His family was only a generation away from Ireland.
His grandparents James and Catherine Brownlow had emigrated
from the island nation and established themselves as schoolteachers
in the Virginia backwoods. When young William was 11 years old,
his father passed away. With barely enough time to recover from
it, his mother died three months later. An uncle took in the
young orphan and William spent his youth working on his farm.
His education was sketchy, but his family saw that he could
read and write. The hard life of a pioneer farmer did not appeal
to William and, at age 18, he moved in with another uncle in
Abingdon where he apprenticed himself as a house contractor.
While apprenticed to his uncle, William attended a nearby religious
revival or "camp meeting", as they were called. It
had a dramatic affect on the young man. He returned to Abingdon
and abandoned his apprenticeship. William went back to school
for a year and, when the Holston Conference of the Methodist
Church held their next annual meeting, William Brownlow joined
the ranks of the Methodist Circuit riders.
Americas founding Methodist Bishop, Francis Asbury, had
started the circuit riding tradition in the Southern Appalachia.
In the early pioneering days of the region, small communities
and towns often didnt have a church or organized worship
services. With a horse and a Bible, the circuit rider would
travel from settlement to settlement preaching whenever opportunity
presented itself. The circuit rider became a backwoods tradition
in the region. In fact, Bishop Asbury, who founded the religion
in Knoxville, was so loved that the Asbury community in the
city was named after him.
Brownlow, however, never enjoyed that kind of popularity and
couldnt seem to separate his message from his personal
prejudices. His reception at many settlements was often less
than he expected because the overwhelming majority of the region
was Baptist. Brownlow wasted no time in making enemies of them
when he remarked:
"...Baptist habits are bad and their custom of taking a
little whiskey for the stomachs sake is a cloak for bold
Brownlows comments and his attitude were despised in many
corners of the region even among those of his own religion,
but "Parson", as he was now known, continued to ride
the circuits for ten years. In fact, his antics often involved
him in fist fights with settlers and earned him the dubious
nickname "the fighting Parson."
In 1836, he quit the circuits to become a "local preacher"
at a small church in Elizabethton, Tenn. While settled, he began
courting 17-year-old Elisa OBrian and married her. At
the request of his new father-in-law, Brownlow gave up the church
and moved in with the family where he began working in the family
iron business, but he still kept his name on the roll of ministers.
During one of Americas first economic downturns, the OBrians
iron business failed and, now faced with finding a new way to
make a living, Parson Brownlow turned to publishing a small
newspaper. It was called the Tennessee Whig and published its
first edition on May 16, 1839. In a town of only 300 people,
Brownlow published 700 and hoped it would sell well in the outlying
During the "Age of Jackson", Tennessee was a strong
Democratic state and the Whigs were just beginning to take root.
When Brownlow attended a Whig Conference in Knoxville in 1840,
he learned the local postmaster delivered his papers with a
pair of tongs so he wouldnt have to touch it with
his own hands. Brownlow, who was a prolific promoter, saw an
opportunity to use the story as a way to sell papers.
When he returned to Elizabethton, Brownlow discovered the Jonesborough
Democratic newspaper had attacked a Whig candidate in its paper.
Not to be outdone, Brownlow responded in kind to the Democratic
candidate with his paper and angered many readers to the point
While working on an editorial later that week at his home, a
bullet smashed through a nearby window barely missing him. Brownlow
reported it in his paper as a response to his editorial comments
and used the attack as a way to sell papers, which it did. In
later years, the publisher would allege that numerous other
assassination attempts took place against him because of his
stand on the issues.
The first attempt, however, was enough to force him to move
to Jonesborough, where he started the Jonesborough Whig. Brownlow
remained in the town and began a series of traveling editorials.
He wrote about the growing stock exchange in New York, life
on the road in the Northeast, and he traveled across the South
to the regions largest plantations detailing the life
and culture there. The stories were phenomenally successful
for the publisher. His subscription base grew and the new attention
the paper and its editorial stance continued to earn him enemies.
When a brother-in-law wrote him from the Mexican War that a
deserter from Jonesborough had returned home, Brownlow reported
the fact in his paper and called the deserter by name without
checking his facts or the claim.
After the war, it came back to haunt him. Brownlow was returning
home one evening and was allegedly attacked from behind. He
refused to file charges on the individual, but Brownlow reported
everything, including his alleged attackers name in his
paper. While the incidents were great at selling papers, it
wasnt long afterwards that the libel suits began catching
up with him and the Jonesborough Whig was forced to cease publication
and moved its operations to Knoxville.
Knoxville wasnt the best place to start a new Whig newspaper.
There was one established already and, within weeks, a publishing
battle broke out between the two publishers. On May 19, 1849,
Brownlows Knoxville Whig debuted in the city. It began
an all-out battle for subscribers and Brownlows paper
soon increased its subscription base to the point it was quickly
regarded as the largest circulating Whig paper in the ante-bellum
Brownlow spent the next several years espousing the causes he
felt were in the interest of the public. As his power increased
as a publisher, so did his attitude to those who disagreed with
him. He regarded his critics as enemies and took every opportunity
he could to denounce them. As far as religion went, Brownlow
remained a staunch Methodist to the point that he editorialized
against Presbyterians, Baptists, and Catholics and any other
religion that wasnt Methodist. His special targets were
the Irish, who were settling in the territory as work on the
railroad lines started coming to an end. Brownlow often wrote
about them as "low-down scoundrels who could sin all week
and get their sins forgiven by a morally bankrupt priest."
Although a pro-Union supporter, Brownlow also owned slaves and
was an avid supporter of the practice in his paper citing
scriptures and apparently forgetting that the doctrine of the
Methodist church in America forbid any church official from
owning or participating in the slave trade. He was such a supporter
of the practice that Brownlow once wrote:
"If Lincoln was elected and the government insisted on
abolishing slavery, I would take the ground that the time for
Revolution has come, that all Southern states should go and
I would go with them."
When seven Southern Senators, however, voted to secede from
the Union on states rights grounds unrelated to the slavery
issue, Brownlow quickly reversed his decision, called the Senators
traitors, and turned his paper into one of the most vocal opponents
of the Confederacy.
After Tennessee seceded from the Union, Brownlow remained in
publication and did little to ease the tension surrounding him
and his neighbors. A war of words fueled by Parson Brownlows
paper began taking its toll on the region. Brownlow alleged
that there were numerous assassination attempts against his
life and he printed letters weekly from secessionists who took
him to task on his opinions regarding the decision of Tennessee
legislators. The threats were not always bluffs. He received
many questionable packages through the mail containing what
Brownlow claimed were "pox-infected" cloths. Mobs,
as he called them, would often assemble in his yard to berate
and yell at him. He often used those incidents as an excuse
to publish pro-Union editorials that he claimed he spoke from
his front porch to the crowds.
Being what he claimed was the last pro-Union publication in
the South, Brownlow expected the reigning Confederate government
would close his paper. Instead they paid him the ultimate insult
for a man of his pride and ignored him. When a rumor started
circulating that he would be tried in Nashville, Brownlow seized
the opportunity to cease publication of his paper, which was
suffering bad financially. He claimed he learned that the Confederate
District Attorney in Knoxville was looking to arrest him and
"escaped" to a nearby county. Whether or not the story
was true is still a mystery, but Brownlow remained close enough
to Knoxville to continue collecting debts owed to the newspaper.
Rumors did start linking Parson Brownlow to several bridge burnings,
which he denied through letters to the Editor mailed to the
Knoxville newspapers, but the stories supposedly put him on
the run again to the Smoky Mountains. Life on the run did not
appeal to the aging editor or to his health and he soon returned
to within six miles of Knoxville, where he remained paranoid
about being captured by the Confederates.
Unknown to him, Brownlows friends and relatives became
worried about the publisher and started writing to Confederate
President Jefferson Davis and Secretary of War Judah Benjamin
asking that Brownlow receive safe passage to the North. Davis
and Benjamin took pity on the aging editor and offered Brownlow
safe passage to Kentucky, if he would present himself to local
authorities. Brownlow did so, but started procrastinating his
departure until the local District Attorney had no other option
but to have him thrown in jail.
Brownlow lingered for a short time in a cell and convinced himself
that he would be hanged. He even wrote what he thought would
be a good martyrs speech for the gallows. Brownlow felt
rather insulted, however, when the Confederacy didnt take
him to trial and released him to his own home to recuperate
from an illness before beginning his exile him to the North.
Once in the North, a collection of Brownlows sketches
became a best-seller and he was a much sought after man on the
Union lecture circuit. He soon became a huge celebrity in the
North and exploited it for all it was worth making the
Tennessee apologist highly regarded among Union officials, who
were looking for "people they could trust" once order
was restored to Tennessee.
When Knoxville was reclaimed by the Union in 1863, Brownlow
immediately returned to the city and restarted publication of
his paper now named Brownlows Knoxville Whig and
Rebel Ventilator. He did not return to East Tennessee to make
peace or help heal old wounds. Brownlow came for vengeance.
His paper published the names of former Confederate soldiers
and supporters and called for their outright murder by all "good
Union citizens." He had no regard for anyone who had supported
the South. He constantly labeled them and their families as
"sons and daughters of the Devil" and evoked his religious
credentials to justify his orders for their deaths. He even
went so far as to proclaimed his sentiments on the banner of
his newspaper with the motto:
"...no armistice on land or sea until all the rebels, both
front and rear, in arms, and in ambush are subjugated and exterminated!"
His celebrity status in the North continued and it eventually
earned him an appointment to Provisional Governor of Tennessee
in 1865 by the conquering Union Army. It was a tense time in
the state and Brownlow had an opportunity to try and heal the
state, but he quickly proved he would give no quarters to Tennesseans.
At one point and against Union orders he had sworn to uphold,
he used his dictatorial authority to hang a captured uniformed
soldier of Terrys Texas Rangers. Although the Confederate
soldier was regarded as a Prisoner of War by the Union Army
and in their legal custody, Brownlow proclaimed the man a criminal
and hanged him as an example to other Confederates, who thought
they had the protection of military law.
With a belly now full of unrestrained power, Brownlow defiantly
started befriending the carpet-baggers that came to Tennessee,
giving them anything they wanted, and ruling the state with
unbridled animosity. He dispatched agents throughout Tennessee
to start confiscating property from former Confederates and
those who might have been southern sympathizers, but turned
on the Union when they refused to reimburse him for the loss
of property taxes he incurred for confiscating the properties.
While President Johnson fought bitterly with Congress to kill
the Reconstruction Acts, Brownlow actively lobbied for them
and, when the Congress went against Johnson and passed them,
it handed Tennessees appointed Governor the ultimate tool
for his revenge.
Although the state was under military rule, Brownlows
hand-picked Tennessee Legislature still had to give the appearance
of approving the Reconstruction Acts in order to avoid Union
The representatives, however, outright refused to do so. Seizing
property without due process was unconstitutional and the representatives
refused to give Brownlow such a tool to use indiscriminately.
Brownlow was furious with them and sent the State militia out
at midnight to round them up and bring the representatives at
gun point to the Capitol building.
Brownlow ordered them to call themselves to order and pass the
Reconstruction bill. Angered and upset at being herded like
a bunch of prisoners into the Capitol they defiantly
refused to pass any illegal statutes that seized property without
due process. Brownlow turned furious and openly ordered the
militia to fire on the representatives. After the soldiers fired
a few rounds at the group, the legislature, in fear for its
collective lives, passed the Reconstruction Act and began one
of the darkest eras of Tennessee history.
In addition, Brownlow and his administration dug deep into state
coffers and spent money from the treasury like it was a bottomless
pit. The continuing atrocities committed against former Confederate
families and supporters began an underground war in Tennessee.
In the election of 1867, Brownlow issued an order that forbade
the wives and children of former Confederate soldiers to vote
in the election. That tactic allowed Brownlow to reduce voter
turnout by as much as 95 percent ensuring his political
machines would carry the election. It had the desired results
and returned Brownlow to the Governors office where the
pattern of corruption continued unchecked.
In 1869, Brownlow left office when he was elected to the United
States Senate from Tennessee. An investigation of his administration
followed his departure and found the states debt had been
illegally increased in 1866 by $4.9 million and by $5 million
in 1867 in defiance of the legislature. The total debt from
his 4-year administration was eventually tallied at more than
It didnt affect Brownlows standing in the Senatorial
selection process. Tennesseans overwhelmingly wanted him out
of office in order to take back state government and try to
repair the damage he had done.
Brownlow didnt make much of a Senator. His health was
failing and he had to take his oath of office from a chair.
After six years in the seat, Brownlow, who had become known
as the "silent Senator" because of his ill health
retired to his Knoxville home. William Gannaway "Parson"
Brownlow quietly passed away on April 29, 1877. He was laid
to rest in the Citys Old Gray Cemetery.
On the marble banister in the Capitol, you can still see the
bullet marks where Brownlow ordered the militia to fire on the
legislature. They have never been repaired and remain as a reminder
of the event. When news of the incident became public, it was
an act deemed unforgivable across the nation. Because of this
turmoil, thousands of Tennesseans fled the State to the newly
opened western lands.
It wouldnt be until the administration of President and
former Union General U.S. Grant that the wounds of the War Between
the States would start healing in the South as he pardoned the
men who had served the Confederate States of America and helped
end the policies of Reconstruction.
The Knoxville Whig, which Brownlow founded, stayed in operation
and evolved into the Knoxville Journal and remained in publication
in the city until the 1980s. Among one of its most notable employees
would be Adolph Ochs, who would go on to prominence in Chattanooga
as a newspaperman and eventually found the New York Times.
In 1866, Brownlow commissioned an eight foot by six foot portrait
of himself to be hung in the Capitol. It was painted by prominent
portrait artist George Drury. The painting showed Brownlow clutching
his collar and defiantly pointing at an American flag. It, like
the man himself, would become a center of controversy.
In succeeding administrations, many representatives, who still
held a bitter hatred for him, would allegedly spit on the portrait.
The sentiment of the representatives and the tobacco stains
on the portrait forced its removal from the building. Many historians
will tell you Brownlow was one of the reasons the legislature
stayed in the hands of the Democrats for following generations
and, although he called himself a Republican, the states
GOP has never acknowledged him as such.
A movement started in the late 1980s to return the portrait
to the Capitol, but surprising to many was the fact that the
old emotions were still prevalent in Tennessee. As the issue
began making the rounds of radio talk shows, Tennesseans proved
to be overwhelmingly against putting the portrait in the capitol,
which made it somewhat of a national story. One of the most
quoted statements that made the rounds in the national press
came from Conservative activist Lloyd Daugherty and echoed many
"...Im all for hanging Parson Brownlow in the Capitol,"
said Daugherty, "but I think were about 135 years
late in doing so..."
In 1987, the state legislature passed the bill that officially
ordered the portrait be removed permanently from the facility
and was retired to the Tennessee State Museum where it still
hangs to this day. Associated Press wrote of the bill:
"Nashville Democrats decided tourists and school
children visiting the Capitol should not see the portrait of
the states Reconstruction governor, Republican William
"Parson" Brownlow... Among all the characters, political
or military, carpetbagger or scalawag, white or black, who rose
to prominence in the South during Reconstruction, it would be
hard to find one who achieved wider notoriety, spoke, or wrote
with greater invective, and inspired more bitter hatred than
William Gannaway Brownlow..."
Special thanks for this story has to go to the Tennessee Historical
Commission, and Tennessee Wars Commissioner Jerry Lessenberry,
who has studied Brownlows life extensively and his terms
as Tennessees Reconstruction Governor.
Even to this day, Brownlow still raises the ire of many Tennesseans.
In recent years, officials at Old Gray cemetery have reported
incidents of people desecrating his grave site for some past
injustice suffered by an ancestor at his hands. While he did
have and does now some supporters in the state who admire him,
William Gannaway Brownlow holds one of the most dubious distinctions
in Tennessee. He is officially regarded as "the most hated
man in Tennessee history."