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Rev. William Gannaway Brownlow


REV. WILLIAM GANNAWAY BROWNLOW, the patriotic and heroic journalist, Governor, and Senator of Eastern Tennessee, was born in Wythe County, Virginia, on the 29th of August, 1805. He was the eldest son of Joseph A. Brownlow, a native of Rockbridge County, Virginia, who was characterized by his old associates and friends (among them General Sam. Houston), as possessing good sense, great independence, and sterling integrity. He was also a private in a Tennessee company during the " War of 1812," and two of his brothers were engaged in the battle at Horseshoe, under General Jackson, while two other brothers were officers in the American Navy, and died in the service. Joseph Brownlow died in Sullivan County, East Tennessee, in 1816, leaving his widow, Catharine Gannaway-a Virginian likewise—burdened with the care of five children, three sons and two daughters, all of whom are now dead, except the subject of our sketch. In less than three months from the time of her husband's demise, she also died, and the children were left to the charity of relatives and friends. Young William, now in his eleventh year, was taken by his mother's family, by whom he was brought up to hard labor, until he was eighteen years old, when he removed to Abingdon, Virginia, where he commenced an apprenticeship as a house carpenter.

Of course, his education, under the unfavorable circumstances of his earlier years, was imperfect and irregular, "even," as he says, "in those branches taught in the common schools of the country."  As soon, therefore, as he had acquired his trade, he diligently set to work to obtain the means whereby to improve his mind, by going to school.  Entering the Methodist ministry in 1826, he was for ten years a faithful and hard-worked itinerant preacher, availing himself, meanwhile, of every opportunity of study and improving his defective education, especially in the English branches.  In 1832, he was chosen by the Holston Annual Conference as a delegate to the General Conference of the Methodist Church held in Philadelphia; and, during the same year, travelled a circuit in South Carolina, having appointments in the districts of Pickens and Anderson, and also in Franklin County, Georgia.  Nullification was then raging in South Carolina, and men of all professions took sides, either in favor of the General government, or of the South Carolina Ordinance of Disunion.  Anderson District, which was one of Mr. Brownlow's appointments, was the residence of the archnullifier, John C. Calhoun, and the itinerant parson, living in such an atmosphere of excitement, and ever prone to give fearless expression to his own political convictions, soon found himself drawn conspicuously into the controversy.  His stout defence of the Federal Government brought down upon him a storm of opposition so fierce that he felt obliged, in vindication of his position, to publish a pamphlet, in which he fully defined his principles on that particular question. 

About the same time, also, he became engaged in a controversy with a clergyman of another denomination relative to the position of the Methodists with regard to slavery, and published in a pamphlet the following prophetic extract, expressing the sentiments he has ever since maintained:   "I have paid some attention to this subject (slavery), young as I am, because it is, one day or other, to shake this Government to its very foundation.

I expect to live to see that day, and not to be an old man at that. The tariff question now threatens the overthrow of the Government; but the slavery question is one to be dreaded. While I shall advocate the owning of 'men, women, and children,' as you say our `Discipline' styles slaves, I shall, if I am living when the battle comes, stand by my Government and the Union formed by our fathers, as Mr. Wesley stood by the British Government, of which he was a loyal subject." Nobly has Mr. Brownlow's subsequent career performed this promise of his earlier years.

Mr. Brownlow began his political career in Tennessee, iii 1828, by espousing, as he says, " the cause of John Quincy Adams as against Andrew Jackson. The latter I regard as having been a true patriot and a sincere lover of his country. The former I admired because he was a learned statesman, of pure moral and private character, and because I regarded him as a Federalist, representing my political opinions. I have all my life long been a Federal Whig of the Washington and Alexander Hamilton school. I am the advocate of a concentrated Federal Government, or of a strong central Government, able to maintain its dignity, to assert its authority, and to crush out any rebellion that may be inaugurated. I have never been a sectional, but at all times a national man, supporting men for the presidency and vice-presidency without any regard on which side of Mason and Dixon's Line they were born, or resided at the time of their nomination. In a word, I am, as I have ever been, an ardent Whig, and Clay and Webster have ever been my standards of political orthodoxy. With the breaking rent up of old parties, I have merged every thing into the great question of the 'Union, the Constitution, and the enforcement of the laws.' Hence, I am an unconditional Union man, and advocate the preservation of the Union at the expense of all other considerations."

About 1837, he became the editor of the "Knoxville (Tenn.) Whig," a political newspaper which obtained a larger circulation than any other similar paper in the State, and even larger than all the papers in East Tennessee together. From the vigorous and defiant style of his articles in this sheet, as well as of his public speeches, he obtained a national reputation under the sobriquet of the "Fighting Parson." He was also actively engaged in all the religious and political controversies of the day, and, amid these varied labors, found time to write several books, the principal of which is entitled "The Iron Wheel Examined, and the False Spokes Extracted," being a vindication of the Methodist Church against the attacks of Rev. J. R. Graves, of Nashville. It was published by the Southern Methodist Book Concern, at the earnest solicitation of leading members of the denomination, and " is," to use his own words, "a work of great severity, but was written in reply to one of still greater severity."

In-September, 1858, Parson Brownlow held a public debate at Philadelphia, with Rev. Abram Payne, of New York, in which he defended the institution of Slavery as it existed in the South. This discussion was afterward published in Philadelphia under the title of "Ought American Slavery to be Perpetuated?"

From the beginning of the Secession movement in 1860, Brownlow, as was to be expected from his life-long sentiments, boldly advocated, in his paper, unconditional adherence to the Union, for the reason, among others, that it was the best safe-guard to southern institutions. This course subjected him to much obloquy and persecution after the secession of Tennessee, and on the 24th of October, 1861, he published the last number of the Whiq issued under the Slaveocratic Government. In this closing number, he announced his intention not to re-issue his journal until after the State had been cleared of rebels; and he also expressed his expectation of a hurried removal and lengthy imprisonment at their hands. Avowing his determination never to take the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy, he asserted that he would " submit to imprisonment for life, or die at the end of a rope," before he would make any humiliating concession to any power on earth. " I shall go to jail," said he, "as John Rogers went to the stake—for my principles. I shall go, because I have failed to recognize the hand of God in the breaking up of the American Government, and the inauguration of the most wicked, cruel, unnatural, and uncalled-for war ever recorded in history. ** I am proud of my position and of my principles, and shall leave them to my children as a legacy far more valuable than a princely fortune, had I the latter to bestow."

Remaining, for awhile, unmolested at Knoxville, he was finally taken away by his friends, and remained in concealment for some time in the mountains of Tennessee, until he was induced, by the offer of a safe escort out of the State to the North, to appear at the rebel military headquarters at Knoxville. Upon his arrival there, December 6th, 1861, he was arrested, on a civil process, for treason, and thrown into jail. After a month's confinement, he was released, only to be immediately re-arrested by military authority, and was kept under guard in his own house, expecting death, and suffering from severe illness, till March 3d, 1862. He was then sent, under escort, toward the Union lines at Nashville, which he finally entered on the 15th, having been detained ten days by the guerrilla force c e Colonel Morgan. Subsequently he made an extensive and successful tour of the Northern States, addressing large audiences in all the principal cities, and wrote an auto-biographical work, entitled, " Sketches of the Rise, Progress, and Decline of Secession, with a Narrative of Personal Adventure among the Rebels," which was published in Philadelphia. This work, popularly known as " Parson Brownlow's Houk," had an extensive sale. During the month of November, 1862, Mr. Brownlow, having been joined by his family, who had also been expelled from Knoxville, took up his residence at Cincinnati, Ohio, for a time. After the battle of Murfreesboro, he removed, with his family, to Nashville, Tennessee, there to await the earliest opportunity of returning to Knoxville, and re-establishing The Whig, for which purpose he had received considerable "material aid" during his tour in the Northern States. In September, 1863, the capture of that city afforded him the long-desired chance to return to his old home, and before leaving Nashville, he, on the 7th of September, 1863, issued his prospectus for the Knoxville Whig, under the new and euphonious title of "Brownlow's Knoxville Whig and Rebel Ventilator." Its first number was announced to be issued on the anniversary of the day when his "paper was crushed out by the God-forsaken mob at Knoxville, called the Confederate authorities," and his purpose was, as he said, " to commence with the rebellion where the traitors had forced him to leave off." He promised, in the editorial conduct of the paper, to "forget Whigs, Democrats, Know Nothings, and Republicans, and remember only the Government and the preservation of the Federal Union—as richly worth all the sacrifices of blood and treasure their preservation may cost—even to the extermination of the present race of men, and the consumption of all the means of the present age."

He has conducted his paper, from that time to the present, with a fearlessness and power of denunciation, which has made it a terror to the rebels of Tennessee; and their hatred of him has manifested itself by constant acts of malignity. He, has, driven in part by his more fully developed convictions, and in part by the irresistible logic of events, come more and more fully upon the Republican platform, till to-day he is as thorough a Radical as any man in the West. He has advocated both in his paper and in his place in the Senate, every great measure which is regarded as cardinal by the Republican party, and though his health is very feeble, he never abates one jot of the intensity of his invective against the Rebels.

In 1865, when Tennessee returned to the Union, Mr. Brown. low was elected, by an overwhelming majority, Governor of the State, and in 1867, re-elected to the same high office. He has brought to his duties his unimpeachable honesty, his fear-less and unflinching integrity, and his remarkable executive ability, and has been one of the best governors the State has ever had. The legislature of 1867 elected him to the United States Senate, for the six years commencing March 4th, 1869.

Of himself, Parson Brownlow says (in 1862) : "I have been a laboring man all my life long, and have acted upon the Scriptural maxim of eating my bread in the sweat of my brow. Though a Southern man in feeling and principle, I do not think it degrading to a man to labor, as do most Southern disunionists. Whether East or West, North or South, I recognize the dignity of labor, and look forward to a day, not very far distant, when educated labor will be the salvation of this vast country ! * I am known throughout the length and breadth of the land as the `Fighting Parson,' while I may say, without incurring the charge of egotism, that no man is more peaceable, as my neighbors will testify. 

Always poor, and always oppressed with security debts, few men in my section and of my limited means have given away more in the course of each year to charitable objects. I have never been arraigned in the church for immorality. I never played a card. I never was a profane swearer. I never drank a dram of liquor, until within a few years, when it was taken as a medicine. I never had a cigar or a chew of tobacco in my mouth. I never was in attendance at a theatre. I never attended a horse-race, and never witnessed their running save on the fair grounds of my own county. I never courted but one woman ; and her I married.

"I am about six feet high, and have weighed as high as one hundred and seventy-five pounds,—have had as fine a constitution as any man need desire. I have very few grey hairs in my head, and although rather hard favored than otherwise, I will pass for a man of forty years.* I have had as strong a voice as any man in East Tennessee, where I have resided for the last thirty years, and have a family of seven children."
We may add that Mr. Brownlow's earnestness of convictions, and fearlessness in their avowal, is equalled only by the intensity of the language which he employs to express his sentiments. 'there is nothing " mealy-mouthed " about him—men and things are called by their right names—and wards are applied with a "squareness" and force which is peculiarly the "Parson's own."  He has seemed, for the last three or four years, to live by sheer force of his imperious will. His enemies, political and other, have often congratulated themselves that he was about to die; but the old man declares that he "will outlive them, and rejoice that a righteous God has sent them to perdition."

*The ten years which have passed since Parson Brownlow wrote this, and his impaired health, have greatly changed his appearance. He is no more hard favored than he was then, but he looks full as old as he is, viz., sixty-seven.

Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872

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