“In the old days,” you may hear people say, “folks were more civil to each other.”
With the rise of Facebook and social media, I have often heard this opinion expressed. In conversations, social media posts and even sermons, I have heard and read the notion that there was a time in America where people could “agree to disagree” and talk about their differences without resorting to insults.
This would be interesting if it were true. But in early Tennessee history, men insulted and attacked each other with words that are at least as bitter and insulting as today. And I’m not just talking about obscure people.
In 1803, the hatred between former Tennessee Governor John Sevier and former Congressman Andrew Jackson became a public spectacle. On Oct. 26 of that year, a letter from Jackson to Sevier made its way into the Tennessee Gazette.
“Know ye, that I, Andrew Jackson, am authorized, and do pronounce, publish and declare to the world that his excellency, John Sevier, Esquire, Governor, Captain General & Commander in Chief of the Land and Naval Forces of the State of Tennessee, is a base coward and a poltroon,” Jackson wrote. “He will basely insult, but has not courage to repair the wound.”
I was not familiar with the word “poltroon,” so I looked it up and learned that it means “a wretched coward.”
I soon realized that in, 19th-century Tennessee, men often called each other by that sobriquet. On April 25, 1807, for instance, Nashville resident Edmond Saunders announced that Samuel Lundy was a “liar, coward and poltroon” in the [Nashville] Impartial Review and Cumberland Repository.
Another prominent insulter from early Tennessee history was Thomas Arnold, a Congressman from Greeneville who counted among his enemies Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston and James K. Polk.
In January 1830, after Polk criticized him on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, Arnold sent the following message to be published in newspapers throughout the state: “I pronounce James K. Polk of Tennessee to be a coward, a puppy, a liar and a scoundrel generally. I feel pity for his stupidity and contempt for his servility.”
However, neither Jackson nor Arnold could lay a claim to having been the greatest insulter in Tennessee history. That title would go to William Gannaway Brownlow, a Methodist minister and newspaper editor who would somehow become governor of Tennessee from 1865 to 1869. Over the course of his many years of writing editorials, Brownlow called President John Tyler a “long-eared Virginia ass,” Tennessee Governor James Jones a “liar,” Tennessee Congressman John Crozier “a dirty, mean deceitful and hateful little scoundrel,” and author Harriet Beecher Stowe “as ugly as original sin, ... a tall, coarse, vulgar-looking woman.”
Here is a sample of Brownlow’s greatest hits, published in newspapers such as Brownlow’s Whig, the Jonesboro Whig and the Knoxville Whig:
“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.” (March 26, 1840)
“Point us to a female on the pavements of our streets, arm in arm with Lawson Gifford, and we will show you a female of suspicious character — or one whose family is under the weather, because of some thefts or frauds committed by the heads thereof.” (May 14, 1840)
“[Congressman Tom Anderson is] that perjured, drunken, lying, forging, defrauding, adulterous, degraded beast, puppy and scoundrel.” (Oct. 21, 1840)
“What could the people have been thinking when they elected this huge mass of corruption (Andrew Johnson) to Congress — this beast in human form?” (Dec. 13, 1843)
Brownlow would also insult groups and categories of people. In the spring of 1841, he made a trip to New York City and said that the people there suffer from “all sorts of diseases, mental and corporeal. Among those maladies which I have noticed the most prevalent, and the most injurious in their effects, are dizziness, restlessness at night, obstinate coughs, pains in the joints, bleeding at the nose, sore eyes, inclination to steal, headache, disposition to lie, ... griping of the bowels, swelling of the stomach, nausea, squeamishness, leanness, meanness, dejection of films and mums — and in short, a total want of all that is required to constitute the man.”
One final postscript to Brownlow and his nasty insults:
To this day, the Tennessee Constitution, written in 1870, specifically forbids “ministers of the gospel” from being governor. This clause violates the U.S. Constitution, so it is unenforceable. However, I have always believed that it was put in the state constitution because of William Gannaway Brownlow.
Carey is the founder and executive director of Tennessee History for Kids, online at www.tnhistoryforkids.org.