TENNESSEE HISTORY Classroom
FULL HISTORY STORIES

The most hated man in Tennessee history


He was a man with an opinion that earned him an everlasting reputation in Tennessee’s 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 state’s oral tradition.
He was an avid supporter of the Union in the Civil War, but that didn’t 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 combined.
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 divided state.



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.
America’s 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 didn’t 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 couldn’t 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 stomach’s sake is a cloak for bold drunkenness."
Brownlow’s 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 O’Brian 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 America’s first economic downturns, the O’Brian’s 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 regions.
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 wouldn’t 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 of violence.
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 region’s 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 attacker’s name in his paper. While the incidents were great at selling papers, it wasn’t 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 wasn’t 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, Brownlow’s Knoxville Whig debuted in the city. It began an all-out battle for subscribers and Brownlow’s paper soon increased its subscription base to the point it was quickly regarded as the largest circulating Whig paper in the ante-bellum South.
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 wasn’t 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 Brownlow’s 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, Brownlow’s 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 martyr’s speech for the gallows. Brownlow felt rather insulted, however, when the Confederacy didn’t 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 Brownlow’s 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 Brownlow’s 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 Terry’s 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 Tennessee’s appointed Governor the ultimate tool for his revenge.
Although the state was under military rule, Brownlow’s hand-picked Tennessee Legislature still had to give the appearance of approving the Reconstruction Acts in order to avoid Union enforcement.
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 Governor’s 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 state’s 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 $16 million.
It didn’t affect Brownlow’s 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 didn’t 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 City’s 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 wouldn’t 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 state’s 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 Tennessean’s sentiments.
"...I’m all for hanging Parson Brownlow in the Capitol," said Daugherty, "but I think we’re 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 state’s 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 Brownlow’s life extensively and his terms as Tennessee’s 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."