Folks in the Volunteer State disagree about many things. Are you a Vanderbilt fan, or do you root for the University of Tennessee? Do you vote for the Democrats, or the Republicans? (The state swings both ways.) Appalachian bluegrass, or Memphis blues?
But people there unanimously agree on one thing: Parson Brownlow is the most hated man in Tennessee history. Nearly 150 years after his death, just mentioning his name can trigger a firestorm of epic proportions.
He passionately despised (in no particular order) Baptists, the Devil, Democrats, Confederates, Andrew Johnson, and basically anyone who disagreed with him. And he fought them all with every ounce of energy he possessed.
How did a 19th Century Methodist minister, newspaper editor, politician and all-around rabble-rouser get to be a divisive figure in the 21st Century, you ask?
William Gannaway Brownlow was born in Virginia in 1805. Orphaned at age 10, he was passed from one relative to another until he became a carpenter at 18. A couple of years later, he attended a camp meeting. To borrow from Hank Williams, young Brownlow “Saw the Light” and had a spiritual conversion. He put down his hammer and saw, put on the cloth and offered his divine services to the Methodist Church, acquiring the nickname he would carry for the rest of his life: “Parson.”
Before we go on, you must understand something: Parson Brownlow lived in a world without shades of gray. Things (and more specifically people) were either deepest black or virtuous white. There was no in between, no middle ground. And so he charged into his ministry with a take-no-prisoners approach.
He was sent to churches in North Carolina, where he spent most of his time fighting with fellow Protestant ministers. When that didn’t work out, he was ordered to South Carolina, where he published a 70-page pamphlet that attacked Baptists so viciously, the locals demanded he be hanged (making him beat a fast path back to Virginia).
With his fiery style, a friend suggested he start a newspaper in Tennessee supporting the Whig political party. Parson Brownlow jumped into his new career like a flamethrower going full blast. He was as divisive as ever: folks either loved or hated him, and he was perfectly happy to be treated either way. In 1840, he ran into a former Whig who had switched to the Democrats on a public street. They argued; Parson Brownlow beat the guy with a cane, who in turn shot the editor in his thigh.
In 1845, he ran for a seat in Congress against former tailor and future U.S. president Andrew Johnson. It was every bit as nasty as you would expect with Democrat Johnson winning. That sparked an intensely personal, burning hatred for Johnson which Parson Brownlow nurtured till the day he died.
Eventually settling in Knoxville, it was more of the same: a relentless round of savage attacks on his political and sectarian opponents of all stripes. He caused a controversy in 1856 when he published a book firing back at a Baptist minister whose own book had attacked Methodists. Eyebrows were raised because Parson Brownlow’s book contained an illustration showing a Baptist man putting on his clothes in front of women following a rural creek baptism. (Gentlemen dressing in front of ladies was a huge no-no in mid-Victorian America.)
When the Civil War rolled around, Tennessee joined the Confederacy but Parson Brownlow did not. He was such an outspoken Federalist that local Confederate leaders drove him out of Knoxville. In exile, he was paraded around the North as an example of a “good Southerner” who had stayed loyal to the Union. And he loved the limelight, too. A best-selling dime novel was published in 1863 called, Parson Brownlow and the Unionists of East Tennessee, inspiring a Philadelphia songwriter to compose, “The Parson Brownlow Quickstep.” (The sheet music sold well, too.)
In January 1865, a Unionist convention nominated him for governor. He was easily elected (largely due to the fact that a huge chunk of Tennessee’s voting population was kept from casting ballots because they had been Confederates.) He arrived at the state capital of Nashville (a city he called a “dunghill”) in April and started his new job.
Governor Parson Brownlow ran his state with an iron fist. He made sure Tennessee was the first Southern state readmitted to the Union during Reconstruction, and that ex-Confederates were kept out of public life as much as possible. In fact, he seemed to enjoy going out of his way to make life difficult for everyone who had worn the gray. He was the opposite of Lincoln’s spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation – he gleefully supported the Radical Republicans, whose top priority was making the presidency sheer hell for Andrew Johnson. Later, he was elected to a term in the U.S. Senate, and died soon after completing it in 1877.
Parson Barlow left a huge legacy. He was -and remains to this day- admired by some while loathed and despised by others who saw him as the personification of all that was wrong in their state.
And his massive portrait played a big role that lingering legacy.
Shortly before leaving the governor’s office, Parson Brownlow commissioned a gigantic, eight foot by six foot painting of himself in all his glory, and had it hung inside Tennessee’s capitol building. His opponents were outraged. For many years, they spat on the portrait every time they passed it, drenching it in dark brown chewing tobacco stains. It eventually became such an eyesore, it was quietly removed from public display.
In the 1980s, someone decided it was time to restore Parson Brownlow’s picture to the state house walls. Brother, you should have heard the volcano of public outrage that erupted! The proposal to display the painting once again dominated talk radio airwaves, and editorials and letters to the editor filled Tennessee newspapers.
Finally, the state legislature voted in 1987 to permanently ban the portrait from the very capitol building where Parson Brownlow had served 120 years before. It was sent to the Tennessee State Museum, where it’s still on display.
Even Parson Brownlow’s final resting place isn’t safe. Police get reports from time to time of attempts to desecrate his grave in Knoxville’s Old Gray Cemetery, efforts to avenge injustices suffered by the various vandals’ ancestors.
This much is certain: Parson Brownlow’s spot as the most hated man in Tennessee history should be secure for many, many years to come.
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