Friday, August 31, 2018

Just Finished Reading - Secessionists and Other Scoundrels: Selections from Parson Brownlow's Book

Polarizing historical personalities usually make for some interesting reading. And few were as polarizing as Knoxville newspaper editor and Methodist minister, William G. Brownlow. With Secessionists and Other Scoundrels: Selections from Parson Brownlow's Book, edited by Stephen V. Ash, we see him in all his polarizing glory.

Born in Wythe County, Virginia in 1805 and orphaned by age 11, Brownlow eventually settled in East Tennessee, as circuit riding Methodist preacher and starting newspapers in Elizabethton, Jonesboro, and finally Knoxville. A strict Whig, who viewed Henry Clay as the ideal statesman, and who possessed an unconditional Unionist sentiment, Brownlow would find himself in deep trouble when Tennessee seceded by majority referendum on June 9, 1861. Yet he would not yield his commitment for the Union. While votes in West and Middle Tennesse combined in favor of leaving the Union, East Tennessee voted to remain by a wide majority. 

Brownlow's variety of federal nationalism was initially a pro-slavery version of Unionism, which was not uncommon in East Tennessee, and among the Border States. When Confederate forces stationed in Knoxville attempted to suppress Brownlow he continued venting his hatred for secession in his scathing editorials. His specialty was ad hominem attacks. He loved to denounce his enemies and spotlight their shortcomings as much as he touted his dedication to the United States. 

This small book shares some of the arch-Unionist's writings that he had eventually published in the form of the 1862 book Sketches of the Rise, Progress, and Decline of Secession; with a Narrative of Personal Adventures Among the Rebels. The lengthy-titled work was more popularly known as "Parson Brownlow's Book." Hastily pulled together in New Jersey after being arrested, jailed, and sent through the lines to Union held Nashville, he took both published editorials and personal journal entries to give the reader a unique perspective of unabashed East Tennessee Unionism. 

Editor Ash does a wonderful job of providing a helpful and contextual introduction and giving footnotes to a number of the perhaps more obscure references that Brownlow made in his original book. I've not read the original version, but as I understand it, it is somewhat repetitive, and Ash appears to have selected the choicest elements as presented in his edited offerings. 

Despite one's personal thoughts about Brownlow and his sometimes questionable actions, particularly after the war, I recommend this book to better understand those individuals and their communities, who rejected secession and maintained their allegiance to the United States in such a fiery trial.

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