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Five most colorful Tennessee historical figures

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With the Tennessee General Assembly out of session until January, I thought it might be appropriate to look through the lens of history a few times. Tennessee has had many unique political figures in its history (we'll be looking at more of them), but here is my list of the five most colorful Tennessee historical figures.

John Sevier
John Sevier Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827)

John Sevier

Tennessee's first and third Governor and hero of the Battle of King's Mountain, Sevier was known for both his political acumen and hot temper. He served as the one and only Governor of the State of Franklin, and his arrest for assaulting a Jonesborough tavern owner who refused to sell him liquor after he was already drunk guaranteed the collapse of the de facto Franklinite regime.

 

He and his political rival Andrew Jackson famously challenged one another to a duel in 1803 after getting into a public spat on what is now Gay Street in downtown Knoxville.

Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson Wikimedia

Andrew Jackson

The 7th President of the United States and the de facto founder of the Democratic Party, Jackson was one of three Tennesseans to be elevated to the nation's highest office, the other two being James Knox Polk and Andrew Johnson.

 

Jackson's contributions to Tennessee history were numerous. He was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1796 that met in Knoxville near the home of William Blount. He briefly served as the first Member of Congress from Tennessee and twice (1797-98 and 1823-25) in interrupted terms in the United States Senate.

 

His political rivalry with Tennessee Governor John Sevier was one of the nastiest personal hatreds between two men in American political history. It is said that when the two of them happened to be walking down the same street, they would deliberately move to opposite sides to avoid contact with each other.

 

Jackson challenged Sevier to a duel in 1803 after a public altercation in Knoxville in which Sevier, responding to a charge by Jackson, said "at least I did not run off to Natchez with another man's wife (referring to the questionable marital status of Jackson's wife, Rachel)."

 

Though the two did show for the "affair of honor," it was apparently never fully carried out.

Davy Crockett
Davy Crockett Wikimedia

Davy Crockett

Born at Limestone, married at the Jefferson County Courthouse, he became the America's most famous frontiersman and storyteller, not to mention one of the State's most popular politicians.

 

He famously lived in all three parts of the State, eventually elected to Congress in West Tennessee twice, first for the 9th District, elected in 1826, serving from 1827 to 1831. At first, he was a strong supporter of Andrew Jackson, but he would eventually become Jackson's biggest in-State political rival during his presidency. Crockett violently opposed Jackson's policy on the removal of Native Americans, and was a champion of the rights of "squatters" who built settlements on unsettled and unclaimed land, most of whom were poor.

 

His opposition to Jackson led to his defeat in the General Election of 1830. He was later elected to serve the 12th Congressional District in 1832, and served from 1833-35. He was defeated for re-election to Congress in 1834, and famously told his constituents at a public meeting "y'all can go to Hell, I'm going to Texas."

 

He did. He died as one of the republican defenders of the Alamo (Mission San Antonio de Valero) on March 6th, 1836. Until the end of his life, he is reported to have been troubled by the idea that he never could live up to the legend that surrounded him.

 

He remains forever associated with Tennessee, thanks in part to the song in his honor, in which he is called "King of the Wild Frontier."

Sam Houston
Sam Houston Wikimedia

Sam Houston

A former Davidson County Attorney, he was a popular member of Congress representing the-then 7th district, elected in 1822 and re-elected two years later, he declined to run for a third term in the House in order to run for Governor instead. He won, and took office in 1827.

 

In those days Governors served for two-year terms, and Houston left office in controversy after allegations of wrongdoing in regard to his conduct in office and the end of his first marriage. The former was disproved, but the latter stuck with Houston, largely because his first wife Eliza had said that he had been "emasculated" by an injury in the War of 1812. He always maintained that his former wife had never been unfaithful to him, and even went to great pains to safeguard her integrity, threatening to hold libellous anyone who questioned it.

 

After he left office, he went to live among the Cherokee in Arkansas and later exposed publicly some of the poor treatment of Native American people by the U.S. Government, a sour point between he and his political mentor, Andrew Jackson. 

 

He would have seven children in Texas by his later wife, Margaret Lea Houston, rendering false the idea that he was impotent.

 

He is the only man to serve as the popularly-elected Governor of two States (Tennessee and Texas) and twice President of another nation (the Republic of Texas).

William Gannaway "Parson" Brownlow
William Gannaway "Parson" Brownlow Mathew Brady

William Gannaway "Parson" Brownlow

A former Methodist circuit-riding preacher, Brownlow's politics were some of the most bizarre in Tennessee history. He was strongly pro-slavery and detested the very idea that a black man was equal to a white man, yet he was by far the loudest and and most bellowing voice for Unionism in Tennessee before and during the War Between the States. He was founder and publisher of the Knoxville Whig, which would eventually become the Knoxville Journal. During the war, he called it the Knoxville Whig and Rebel Ventilator.

 

Brownlow hated Andrew Jackson, who he is reported to have said was "the greatest curse to yet befall the nation."

Parson Brownlow was an early proponent of prohibition, and he regularly accused his political opponents of being drunkards.

Brownlow's violent anti-Catholicism was also a feature of his politics. He once wrote a book called Americanism Contrasted with Foreignism, Romanism and Bogus Democracy.

 

Despite his former pro-slavery views, as Tennessee's Reconstruction Governor, he readily extended the franchise to freed slaves.

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