William Brownlow

William Brownlow
PHOTO: TN State Library and Archives

William “Parson” Brownlow is probably the most controversial person to ever hold the office of Tennessee governor.

He started as a Methodist preacher, and in the 1850s became the editor of a newspaper called Brownlow’s Whig. It, and its editor, could be harsh when it came to people Brownlow didn’t like. In fact, many people subscribed to Brownlow’s Whig just because they got a kick out of reading how creatively William Brownlow could insult his enemies.

“I pronounce Landon Haynes of the county of Carter and state of Tennessee a liar, a puppy and a SCOUNDREL and if he does not call me to an account for it, the first time he comes to this village, I insist he does not possess the courage of a spaniel dog,” Brownlow’s Whig said on March 26, 1840.

An ad for one of Brownlow’s books

In the 1850s, Brownlow became more prominent when he moved to Knoxville and edited a newspaper there.

Brownlow was not necessarily against slavery; he was once a slaveholder. But when Civil War broke out, he became one of Tennessee’s most vocal unionists. Brownlow was sent to prison by the Confederate government for his public statements and eventually sent north, where he became nationally famous as a southern-born critic of the Confederacy.

“I know the origin of the rebellion, and I know the originators,” he once said in a speech. “Nothing short of an old fashioned orthodox hell that burns with fire and brimstone will reward them adequately for their services.”

When the war ended, Brownlow replaced Andrew Johnson as governor of Tennessee. He was re-elected to that position in 1867 — an election in which all men who had fought for the Confederacy were not allowed to vote. Largely because of this, Brownlow was hated in many parts of the state. And it was while Brownlow was governor that a rebellious organization called the Ku Klux Klan was first formed in Tennessee.