William Gannaway Brownlow: Wikis


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William Gannaway Brownlow

In office
March 4, 1869 – March 3, 1875
Preceded by David T. Patterson
Succeeded by Andrew Johnson

In office
April 5, 1865 – February 25, 1869
Preceded by Andrew Johnson
Succeeded by DeWitt Clinton Senter

Born August 29, 1805
Wythe County, Virginia
Died April 29, 1877 (aged 71)
Knoxville, Tennessee
Political party Republican
Religion Methodist

William Gannaway "Parson" Brownlow (August 29, 1805 – April 29, 1877) was an American newspaper editor, minister, and politician who served as Governor of the state of Tennessee from 1865 to 1869 and as a United States Senator from Tennessee from 1869 to 1875. Brownlow's uncompromising and radical viewpoints and his relentless vindectives against his opponents made him one of the most divisive figures in Tennessee political history and one of the most controversial politicians of the Reconstruction-era South. His gubernatorial policies, which have been described as both autocratic and progressive, helped Tennessee become the first former Confederate state to be readmitted to the Union after the U.S. Civil War, and at the same time his policies of disenfranchisement of former Confederates drove his opponents to create organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.[1]

Brownlow often boasted that he was "never neutral" on any issue. Beginning his career as a Methodist circuit rider in the 1820s, Brownlow was both censured and praised by his superiors for his vicious verbal attacks against missionaries from other religions (primarily Baptist and Presbyterian) as they competed for converts across Southern Appalachia. As a newspaper editor, he became notorious for his relentless personal attacks against his religious and political opponents, sometimes to the point of being physically assaulted, while at the same time building a large base of fiercely loyal subscribers. At the onset of the Civil War, he blasted both abolitionists and secessionists alike, going so far as to claim that both groups were on the same side. As governor he adopted the stance of the Radical Republicans and spent much of his term opposing the policies of his longtime political foe Andrew Johnson.[1]


Early life

Brownlow was born in Wythe County, Virginia in 1805, the eldest son of Joseph Brownlow and Catherine Gannaway. Joseph Brownlow, an itinerant farmer, died in 1816, and Catherine Gannaway followed three months later, leaving William orphaned at the age of 10. Brownlow and his four siblings were split up among relatives, with Brownlow spending the remainder of his childhood on his uncle John Gannaway's farm. At age 18, Brownlow went to Abingdon where he learned the trade of carpentry from another uncle, George Winniford.[2]

In 1825, Brownlow attended a camp meeting near Sulphur Springs, Virginia, where he experienced a dramatic spiritual rebirth. He later recalled that, suddenly, "all my anxieties were at an end, all my hopes were realized, my happiness was complete." He immediately abandoned the carpentry trade and began studying to become a Methodist minister. In Fall 1826, he attended the annual meeting of the Holston Conference of the Methodist Church in Abingdon. He applied to join the travelling ministry (commonly called "circuit riders"), and was admitted that year by Bishop Joshua Soule.[2]

Circuit rider, 1826–1838

Engraving from Brownlow's book The Great Iron Wheel Examined, showing a Baptist minister changing clothes in front of horrified women after an Immersion. Attacks like this were typical of Brownlow's work.

In 1826, Soule gave Brownlow his first assignment— the Black Mountain circuit in North Carolina. It was here that Brownlow first ran afoul of the Baptists— who were spreading quickly throughout the Southern Appalachian region— and developed an immediate dislike of them, considering them narrow-minded bigots who engaged in "dirty" rituals such as foot washing. The following year, Brownlow was assigned to the circuit in Maryville, Tennessee, where there was a strong Presbyterian presence, and Brownlow later recalled being constantly followed around by a young Presbyterian missionary who taunted him with Calvinistic criticisms of Methodism. Brownlow later rode circuits in Virginia and South Carolina before being assigned to the Elizabethton, Tennessee circuit in the mid-1830s.[3]

The competition in Southern Appalachia between the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians was fierce, and diatribes against rival religions were commonplace among missionaries. Brownlow, however, took such debates to a whole new level, attacking not only Baptist and Presbyterian theology, but also the character and morals of his rival missionaries. In 1828 he was sued for slander (but got the suit dismissed), and in 1831 he was sued for libel, and ordered to pay his accuser $5. In 1832, Brownlow was assigned to the Pickens District in South Carolina, which he claimed was "overrun with Baptists" and "nullifiers." Unable to make headway in the district, he circulated a particularly venomous pamphlet blasting the district's Baptists, and galloped safely back into the mountains as the district's engraged residents demanded he be hanged. Brownlow's run-in with the nullifiers would later influence his views on secession.[3]

In 1836, Brownlow married Eliza O'Brien, and the two settled down in Elizabethton. Although Brownlow left the circuit shortly thereafter, he continued his staunch defense of Methodism in later newspaper columns and books, and for the remainder of his life he was known to friend and foe alike as "Parson Brownlow."[3]

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, pro-Methodist, nativist, pro-Temperance, pro-Union, pro-slavery 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. He was a key figure at the East Tennessee Convention of 1861, which denounced secession and attempted to create a separate state in East Tennessee.[4]

U.S. Civil War

William Gannaway Brownlow - Brady-Handy.jpg

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

The Original and Current Great Seals of Tennessee in Comparison.

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.

Late career

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.

See also

Further reading

  • 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


  1. ^ a b Forrest Conklin, William Gannaway "Parson" Brownlow. Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, 2002. Retrieved: 17 June 2009.
  2. ^ a b E. Merton Coulter, William G. Brownlow: Fighting Parson of the Southern Highlands (Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1999), pp. 1-6.
  3. ^ a b c Coulter, pp. 17-34.
  4. ^ Eric Lacy, Vanquished Volunteers: East Tennessee Sectionalism from Statehood to Secession (Johnson City, Tenn.: East Tennessee State University Press, 1965), pp. 217-233.
  • G. G. Bonnyman (1969), "Some Themes in the Early Life of William G. Brownlow", thesis, Princeton University
Political offices
Preceded by
Edward H. East (Acting Governor)
Governor of Tennessee
1865 – 1869
Succeeded by
DeWitt Clinton Senter
United States Senate
Preceded by
David T. Patterson
United States Senator (Class 1) from Tennessee
1869 – 1875
Served alongside: Joseph S. Fowler, Henry Cooper
Succeeded by
Andrew Johnson


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