William G. Brownlow: the Radical Republican who rammed through the Fourteenth Amendment

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William G. Brownlow: The people’s hero now vilified as “Tennessee’s worst governor.

In my previous post, I noted that the post-Civil War constitutional amendments were “force bills” imposed on ex-Confederate states as a condition of their readmission to the Union and that in one case, i.e. Tennessee, passage was rammed through “literally at a gunpoint.”

Here’s a more complete account of this fascinating incident.  According to E. Merton Coulter’s William G. Brownlow: Fighting Parson of the Southern Highlands (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1937), Brownlow, Tennessee’s Radical Republican governor from 1865-69, wanted the state legislature to ratify the proposed new Fourteenth Amendment on July 4, 1866.   But he had a problem: a rebellion by die-hard pro-rebel forces in the lower house.  Determined to prevent a quorum, dissidents resigned on the spot or fled the capitol and went into hiding.  Brownlow first appealed for federal troops.  But when President Andrew Johnson, the crypto-Confederate who opposed ratification, turned him down, he looked to his fellow radicals in the lower house.

They rose to the occasion.  Under intense pressure, Speaker of the House William Heiskell issued arrest warrants for the absentees and sent Sergeant-at-arms William Heydt out into the countryside to serve them.  Heydt caught up with one member in the state’s eastern hill country and rounded another as well.  Returning to the state capitol in Nashville, he imprisoned both men in a committee room.  But when Heiskell, by now beginning to waver, declared that a quorum had still not been obtained, members overrode his decision, declared the two arrested members to be present, and then voted to ratify.  When a local judge ordered the prisoners to be released, they ignored him. When the judge then slapped Heydt with a ten-dollar fine, the legislature impeached him and removed him from office.

All of which made a mockery of the convoluted amending process set forth in Article V.  But the process is so asinine, so out of date, and so undemocratic that it deserves to be mocked, and Brownlow was a hero for doing it.  For his efforts, he has earned the undying contempt of racists who took control of the state in 1870 and have not relinquished it since.  They vilified him as “Tennessee’s worst governor” and “the most hated man in Tennessee history,” while, in 1981, a poll of fifty-two so-called state historians rated him the worst governor in Tennessee history.  In April 1987, someone hung a portrait of him in the legislative library, but it was quickly taken down.

No good deed goes unpunished, as they say.  But considering that the Posse Comitatus, the Christian Identity movement, and other ultra-rightists have long condemned the Fourteenth Amendment for granting civil rights revolution to non-white “mud people,” what would happen if such groups were to file suit against it on the grounds that it’s unconstitutional?  What would the ACLU do – condemn Brownlow for trampling on Article V, defend him, or argue that it’s all irrelevant because the amendment is by now settled law?

 

 

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