William "Parson" Brownlow, Governor, U.S. Senator

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William Gannaway Brownlow

Also Known As: ""Parson";"
Birthdate: (71)
Birthplace: Wytheville, Virginia, United States
Death: April 29, 1877 (71)
Knoxville, Knox, Tennessee, United States (paralysis of the bowels)
Immediate Family:

Son of Joseph A Brownlow and Catherine Brownlow
Husband of Elizabath Ann Brownlow
Father of Col. John Bell Brownlow (USA); Brevet Brig. Gen. James P. Brownlow (USA); Mary M. Aiken; Frances Brownlow; Caledonia Brownlow and 2 others
Brother of Elizabeth Wright Brownlow; Nancy Hamilton Brownlow; Alexander Brownlow and Joseph A Brownlow

Occupation: first reconstruction governor of Tennessee
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About William "Parson" Brownlow, Governor, U.S. Senator


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 invectives 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. His policy of enfranchising former slaves brought him into conflict with the newly formed Ku Klux Klan and its leader, Nathan Bedford Forrest, which arose from disenfanchised ex-Confederate elements.

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.

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.

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.

Circuit rider, 1826–1838

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.

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 enraged residents demanded he be hanged. Brownlow's run-in with the nullifiers would later influence his views on secession.

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."

The Brownlows' older son, John Bell Brownlow, was an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War. He became colonel of the 9th Regiment of Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry (Union). The Brownlows' younger son, James Patton Brownlow, born December 17, 1842 at Jonesborough, Tennessee, also was an officer in the Union Army. He became colonel of the 1st Regiment of Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry (Union). The Brownlows had five daughters, Susan, Mary, Annie, Fannie and Caledonia Temple.

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.

U.S. Civil War

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, including Sketches of the Rise, Progress, and Decline of Secession; with a Narrative of Personal Adventures Among the Rebels (Philadelphia: George W. Childs, 1862). 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

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.

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William "Parson" Brownlow, Governor, U.S. Senator's Timeline

August 29, 1805
Wytheville, Virginia, United States
Age 32
October 19, 1839
Age 34
Carter Co, TN
December 14, 1842
Age 37
Age 43
Knoxville, TN
Age 46
Knox Co, TN
Age 49
Knox Co, TN
Age 49
Knox Co, TN
April 29, 1877
Age 71
Knoxville, Knox, Tennessee, United States