William Gannaway “Parson” Brownlow

Granted, Tennessee’s 17th governor was no Elvis. No objective evaluator would have called Parson Brownlow the least bit handsome, and, adding insult to genetic misfortune, legend has it that his portrait, which once hung in the state capitol, got so splattered with tobacco juice spat his way by scornful Democrats that the hollow cheeked, beady-eyed likeness of the unpopular Republican was exiled to the state museum to spare visitors the sight of the most hated man in Tennessee.

At least that’s what I always heard.

Meanwhile, a copper bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest sits high and handsome in those same halls from which Reconstruction Gov. William Gannaway Brownlow was banished.

This bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest is on display in the Tennessee Capitol.

Nicknamed “the Wizard of the Saddle” for his battlefield exploits, a group of Forrest’s post-war admirers adapted that title to Grand Wizard – of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, organized after the Civil War to restore the antebellum social order. The bust was installed in 1978 through the efforts of the late Doug Henry, a courtly Nashville Democrat who would become the longest tenured senator in state history. Henry was known for his fine manners, family wealth, foghorn leghorn accent and the seersucker suits he favored when the weather turned warm. He always professed shock that anyone would be offended by the bust.

Henry would have been happy that the Capitol Commission, appointed by the Legislature to protect and place such artifacts, voted to ignore Gov. Bill Haslam’s recommendation (along with those of Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker) that Forrest’s bust be removed from the Capitol.

The renewed controversy prompted historian Aaron Astor to post a suggestion on Facebook that Forrest’s bust should be joined by Brownlow’s portrait, which set me wondering why Brownlow’s likeness was banished while Forrest’s is revered. Granted the Parson was a notoriously ill-tempered curmudgeon, but he was never a slave trader or accused of mass murder.

I found a June 28, 1987, New York Times story that answered my question:

“A group of state officials, all Democrats, banished the portrait of William Gannaway Brownlow from the Capitol’s Legislative Library because they felt Brownlow was not worthy of emulation by the thousands of school-children who visit the room each year.

“State Sen. Douglas Henry, the Nashville Democrat who first suggested that the portrait be removed, insists that he is not trying to deny history. He says that although he does not object to exhibiting the portrait elsewhere in the Capitol, he does not want it in a place of prominence beside the portraits of Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson and James K. Polk, the three Presidents from Tennessee.”

So, the guy responsible for honoring the brilliant but brutal Civil War general who made a pre-war fortune buying and selling slaves and presided over the massacre of Union troops (with an emphasis on captured black soldiers) and escaped slave families at Ft. Pillow led the effort to banish Parson Brownlow from the building for denying former Confederates the right to vote, and spelled out his reasons for doing so:

“To avoid having impressionable school children come to the conclusion that we rank among our highest principles of government, worthy of emulation, the manipulation of elections, however sincere the manipulator, and the denial of civil liberties to Tennesseans, either in general or by means of armed force in particular.”

Meet the Parson

Brownlow was a contradictory and self-made man who started public life as a circuit-riding Methodist preacher and an advocate of slavery. He was vindictive, prone to violence and hated secessionists, Baptists, whiskey drinkers, Andrew Johnson (some of these categories overlap), Catholics and Democrats. Like Forrest, he never missed an opportunity to punish his enemies.

He opened a newspaper, then moved to Knoxville from Jonesborough to publish Brownlow’s Knoxville Whig, whose motto was “Cry aloud and spare not.” He elevated invective to an art form, irritating the city’s Confederate occupiers so much that they jailed him and then banished him to the North, which gave him the opportunity to travel the Northeast advocating for East Tennessee’s Union loyalists and vowing to fight the Confederates “…till hell freezes over, then fight them on the ice.” He returned to Knoxville after the occupation eased in 1863 and renamed his paper The Knoxville Whig and Rebel Ventilator.

As Tennessee’s Reconstruction governor, he took the Radical Republican position of denying former Confederates the right to vote while advocating it for former slaves. He compounded this offense by condemning KKK violence and calling for a special session of the Legislature to declare martial law and encourage citizen arrest, fines and the imprisonment of members of secret societies under the Ku Klux Klan Act after the Cincinnati private detective he hired to infiltrate the Klan turned up in dead the Duck River, a rope around his neck and a bullet hole in his head.

Brownlow vacated the governor’s office for the U.S. Senate soon thereafter, and Forrest disbanded the Klan. Those who revere the general say it was because he was repelled by its violence. His detractors say he was repelled by the group’s lack of discipline and decided the KKK had done its job. Forrest is given great credit by those who are nostalgic for the Old South for advocating better relationships between the races and for making some eloquent speeches declaring his belief in racial harmony and forgiveness. Others, including descendants of those whom he bought, sold and slaughtered, weigh his post-war gestures in the balance and find them wanting.

Professor Astor’s suggestion would provide a perfect solution for the Republican-dominated commission charged with deciding the fate of controversial works of art and history, which thus far has remained unshakably devoted to preserving Forrest’s place in the People’s House, no matter who complains.

And if they won’t remove Forrest’s bust to accommodate those whom it offends, the least they can do is bring back the Brownlow portrait, hang it on the opposite wall and let the two mortal enemies glare at each other for the next hundred years.

Want to read some of Brownlow’s finely-honed invective? Here is a prime example: http://www.nytimes.com/1860/08/20/news/political-micawber-parson-brownlow-s-last-pronunciamiento-he-will-never-never.html?mcubz=3

And here http://www.gutenberg.org/files/41787/41787-h/41787-h.htm is the full transcript of the post-war investigation into the atrocities at Ft. Pillow by troops under the command of Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, CSA. The federal government declined to prosecute Forrest.

 

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Written by Betty Bean