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Tennessee’s War of the Roses

ISSUE:  Summer 1940

Now that democracy is being abandoned everywhere else, we have in our curious way again made it the passionate hope and ideal of every American. In our rediscovered glory in democracy as a way of life, the question arises as to what we are going to do with the demagogues? If we accept our politics, warts and all, there’s no denying that they are still with us. “Democracy,” Herr Hitler has somewhere said, “is a henyard in which every chicken cackles.”

Obviously in our present temper we are going to keep the democracy; and if we retain freedom of speech and party primaries, obviously we are going to retain the cacklers. For their own peace of mind, then, it is fitting that American intellectuals come to some ordered point of view about that peculiar product of American politics, the spellbinder.

It should be realized that no department of our communal life ranks higher than aesthetics; that no contemporary social science commands higher respect than anthropology; and that no group is more often discovered and rediscovered by our best thinkers than the folk. Why then should we not accept the spellbinder for what he is—a product of folk art as genuine as a cigar store Indian, the protagonist in a social ritual as authentic to the American scene as the snake dance was among the Hopi Indians.

Once we came close to arriving at such a view. In the interim between periods of making the world safe for democracy and making democracy safe from the world, a musical comedy on the folklore of democracy romped its way to the Pulitzer Prize. For the folk idyl of American politics, however, examine the history of the Brothers Taylor of Tennessee. To admit that they were not great men and yet to retell their story in all its realism is sufficient to show that politics is often practiced as a folk art, and also to suggest that political democracy may sometimes function very well without being as dignified as its apologists indicate. For when the Brothers Taylor could not resolve social conflict, they mitigated it. That, in the post-Civil War welter of Tennessee, was no mean contribution.

The brothers’ war in the Taylor family originated in fratricidal strife in the nation. The Taylor family came from east Tennessee, dark and bloody ground of the War for Southern Independence. Haters of slavocrats and lovers of the Union, the men of east Tennessee were led by their fighting Methodist parson, W. G. Brownlow, and their plebeian Andrew Johnson in a secession from secession. Nevertheless, the Unionists possessed enough neighbors of Confederate leanings to turn the whole region into a gory battle ground of guerrilla warfare. The war made Nathaniel G. Taylor, lawyer, politician, Methodist parson, and Whig Congressman from the old first district, a staunch Unionist and a Republican. It left his wife, the sister of Langdon C. Haynes, Confederate Senator from Tennessee, with her native sympathies. Thus was laid the foundation for those family differences which little brother Bob was later to explain on the stump, much to the discomfiture of brother Alf: “Take Alf and me, for instance . . . born of the same mother and nursed at the same breast—but Alf’s milk soured on him and he became a Republican.”

Thrice Congressman and once Governor, it was the fate of Republican Alfred A. Taylor to serve as the foil for his light-hearted younger brother, Democratic Robert Love Taylor, once Congressman, thrice Governor, and once United States Senator. Together Alf and Bob belong among the state’s immortals, museum pieces of Southern politics and folk culture. Bob won the governorship, but in 1920, eight years after Bob’s death, Tennessee elected Brother Alf, Republican politics and all, to the governor’s chair. With Alf’s death in 1931, the Brothers Taylor have assumed the proportions of a folk epic. Their sayings and their doings now belong with the state’s cherished traditions, with split rail fences, spelling bees, old fiddlers’ conventions, and good eating tobacco.


By the middle ‘eighties in Tennessee conditions were ripe for the advent of a new type of leadership. Memories of civil strife had embittered the conflict between Republicans and Democrats, but the Bloody Shirt was receding into the background and the “damned Brigadiers” were losing their appeal as vote-getters. The common people, having followed Andy Jackson and then Andy Johnson until they could no longer stomach his out and out Unionism, now felt themselves without a leader. They remained within the folds of the Democratic party, but evinced no enthusiasm for its factional fights. The war had left Tennessee’s great Whig party without a home. In east Tennessee, where there were few Negroes to raise the question of white supremacy, old Whigs felt no qualms in lining up with the new Republican party. In middle and west Tennessee, however, Reconstruction and the Bloody Shirt drove enough former Whigs into the Democratic party to give it a nominal majority, provided it could keep the peace. But the party was an amalgam of two factions. The Bourbons, led by Senator Isham Harris, whose coup d’etat had thrown Tennessee into the Confederacy in 1860, stood for traditional Democracy of the Calhoun school, states’ rights and low tariff. The newly acquired Whigs were industrialists and “New South” men, ready to admire Henry W. Grady, ready to develop Tennessee’s resources and accept a high tariff. At times only the race issue kept this group from joining the Republicans. The basic warp and woof of the political fabric, the common folk of Tennessee, listened to the formulas of the Bourbons because they sounded less like Yankee doctrine, but showed their disdain for the factional fights that sporadically divided the party by “going fishing” on election day. And when they did, the Republicans invariably won.

Here is where Bob Taylor entered the picture. When his clear tenor arose in the hills of Tennessee, the common people recognized an authentic voice and began a stampede which the party leaders were never able to stem. Unwittingly enough, Brother Alf gave Bob his first push up the ladder of politics. In 1878 Alf was all set for the Republican nomination for Congress in the rock-ribbed first district when by some political tree shaking the plum was deflected into the open mouth of his rival, Major A. H. Pettibone. Enough of the inner party circle were disgruntled to let it be noised abroad that they were willing to vote for a good Democrat, if such an article were to be had. What was nearer poetic justice than for the Democrats to put up Brother Bob? In this stronghold of Republicanism, Bob told enough jokes, fiddled enough, and found enough Taylor sympathizers to edge in by the skin of his teeth. Thus, at the ripe age of twenty-eight, Bob gained admission to the bar, married a wife, and was elected to Congress. Two years later Major Pettibone repaired his fences and the Republican factions celebrated their reconciliation by retiring Bob to private life with great unanimity. In 1884, campaigning as presidential elector for Cleveland, Bob laid the foundations of a lasting popularity in the hinterlands of Tennessee.

By 1886 it was evident that the sovereign people were tired of factional fights and had already picked a candidate for the governorship. From the political rallies of the back counties reports came trickling in that delegation after delegation had been instructed for Our Bob. Not only were Democrats upset, but the Republicans grew perturbed. Meeting in convention three weeks before their rivals, they performed the surprising feat of nominating Brother Alf.

One delegate let the cat out of the bag when he admonished the convention that this would mean the retirement of the strongest Democratic candidate. Democratic party organs agreed that to nominate Bob would perpetuate a “brothers’ war,” would be “unnatural and disgusting,” “a contemptible farce,” “a repulsive tableau.” In more caustic vein one editor suggested that Father Nat be given the Prohibition nomination, a younger brother, the Greenback nomination, and that the Taylor family hold a caucus to determine the next Governor. Nevertheless, after fourteen ballots, the convention nominated Bob and Tennessee’s War of the Roses was on.

Nat Taylor said it was “a shame for them to nominate my boys to run against each other” and refused to cast a vote. His wife feared her sons would learn to hate each other, but the party moguls were troubled by no such considerations. They met and laid out a schedule of forty-one joint debates, beginning at Madisonville in east Tennessee. Both candidates were young and ambitious, anxious to justify their party’s faith, and neither pulled his oratorical punches. The first debate calmed the fears of those who dreaded a fraternal wrangle or trembled to see the Taylor family wash exposed for political purposes. Bob set the tone: “I have a very high regard for the Republican candidate—he is a perfect gentleman, because he is my brother. I have already told him to come with me, and I would furnish him with crowds and introduce him in society. We are two roses from the same garden.” With this phrase to set the final stamp of chivalry on the contest, Bob’s supporters wore the white rose and Alf’s the red throughout the campaign.

The joint campaign in those days partook of the nature of a social ritual. Its pattern and style had taken shape during a long period of development. From much participation in the ceremony the common folk came to regard its details as jealously and caressingly as any connoisseur views an object of art. With Bob and Alf it was in the hands of supreme artists in political ritualism, and their joint campaign established a new high for the delectation of all Tennessee.

At its best the pattern was as elaborate and highly involved as the ritual of the duel. At each town the candidates were met at the train; in his flower-bedecked carriage drawn by plumed horses, each led rival processions of banners and brass bands to the town’s leading hostelry. At the disbanding of the processional each candidate made speech number one. After this he betook himself to one of the hotel’s two entrances and shook hands with the sovereign people for some three hours. In the afternoon came a formal joint discussion with set speech and counter speech delivered, rain or shine, at the county fairground or on the courthouse square. At the banquet hall the campaigner, now going strong, unburdened himself of speech number three. For the final touch came a speech, lush and full of poetic sentiments, delivered from the hotel balcony in acknowledgment of the evening serenade. This was followed by the presentation of floral tributes by the ladies, bouquets of horseshoes, ships, fiddles, et cetera. But the end was not yet. The avid citizenry next crowded in the lobby to hear their champions fiddle. Here Bob, the poorer musician, was the center of attraction. With a grin on his face and a fiddle under it, his whole person fiddled from the top of his head to his toes. Not until the wee hours were the Brothers Taylor allowed to seek the rest necessary for an early start to the next scene of performance. Under a man-killing schedule, worked out jointly by the Democratic and Republican committees, this political circus continued for three months.

Bob and Alf plugged away seriously enough at their exposition of Hamilton versus Jefferson, but for the rest they romped through the joint campaign like a musical comedy team. After a verbal set-to of homicidal intensity, the two brothers would jolt off together in an old buckboard across a rugged mountain road, to sleep in the same hotel bed and to laugh over the ludicrous events of the campaign. Neither, be it said to their credit, violated the rule of Tennessee politics which reads, according to tradition: “Don’t take yourself too damned seriously.” Bob, taller with easy manner and bland face full of drollery, spoke with fluency and told anecdotes like a professional with a poker face. Alf, credited with greater abilities, hammered away on Hamiltonian doctrines and, when he told a joke, laughed with the audience. When their Memphis speaking date conflicted with Barnum and Bailey they changed the hour so that, according to one editor, the circus might draw a crowd.

So different from the usual political dialectics and appeals to Civil War prejudices did the swing around the circle appear that editors were torn between despair at its shallowness and admiration of its good nature. Bob, said one acrid editor, harking back to Dryden, In one revolving moon
Was fiddler, statesman, and buffoon.
Alf, no doubt, had to exercise the more tolerance, for Bob’s sense of the ridiculous was irrepressible. At Chattanooga each had exerted himself to write a suitable response to the inevitable serenade. Bob’s turn came first. While Alf held reception for his henchmen within an earshot of the hotel balcony, he heard Bob’s sonorous voice booming forth to the crowd below his—Alf’s—speech. While Alf searched frantically for his manuscript, Bob’s voice ceased, and Bob and his camp followers, bursting with pent-up laughter, pushed into the room and rolled on the floor before the astounded Alf. The crowd yelled for Alf, and in a daze the luckless aspirant floundered through an impromptu speech.

Alf had his revenge a few weeks later at Fayetteville. A crowd of dusty horsemen rode twenty-two miles from their rural fastness on Possum Creek to pay their respects to Bob. Ushered by mistake into Alf’s room, they pledged their undying vows to Bob and hinted that their throats were dry from the ride. Alf sensed their error and his opportunity. Mounting a chair, he delivered a temperance lecture:

0 God! That men should put an enemy into their mouths to steal away their brains. Men, I would be frank with you. Before I would be instrumental in polluting your lips with one single drop of the hellish stuff . . . I would give up the race entirely and allow Alf Taylor to be elected Governor of the Volunteer State.

Bob’s partisans clumped down the stairs in disgust, leaving to Alf the gleeful task of informing his younger brother of their sudden conversion to the cause of temperance.

The campaign ended in approved eclat at Blountsville in northeast Tennessee. For hundreds of demonstrations before almost a million people, the two brothers had riddled, handshaken, and orated the length and breadth of the state. For the last time they measured each other on the political platform. To the cheers of the crowd Alf declared, “I say to you now that after all these eventful struggles I still love my brother as of old, with an undying affection—but politically, my friends, I despise him.” A few minutes later Bob concluded; and the War of the Roses was over. The electorate cheered and gave Bob a majority of 13,000.


Throughout his life Bob Taylor retained his power over the young voters and the agrarian masses. Popular with the people, unpopular with party leaders, Bob found he could use his influence to advance his interests and those of his “wool hats” only if he became a political boss himself. Unlike Tillman and Long, he lacked any passionate desire to wade to leadership through conflict. He was not a demagogue, he was not a self-seeking politician, he was not a reformer, and hence perhaps not a statesman, since he lacked the drive to leadership.

The rest of Bob’s career serves to show the dualism in political leadership as between command of the party organization and command of the admiration of the sovereign voters. The factional leaders, Mugwumps and Bourbons, assembled in convention and prevented the endorsement of Bob’s first term. They blocked his renomination for six long days, until the rustling of the grass roots forced them to give in on the fortieth ballot. Bob served out his term and retired.

But one honor to which Bob aspired his blessed red necks could not give him. Because Senators were elected by the state legislature, Bob’s unparalleled popularity could not dislodge “King” Isham Harris or break the legislative caucus controlled by the two factions. Then followed a strange spectacle. The white-haired boy of state politics took to the lyceum platform while the party leaders, minus their greatest vote-getter, continued to peddle peanuts at the old stand.

The eve of 1896 found the party reverting to its accustomed factional chaos. Between fighting off the Populist revolt and actually counting out the Republicans in the election of 1894, the stalwarts had again run the ship on the shoals. Again the “sovereign people” came to the rescue. The grass roots began to rustle and county conventions were meeting early and instructing for Our Bob. Certainly the movement was not of Bob’s making. He and brother Alf were off on a national lyceum tour, packing the opera houses with their replica of the War of the Roses, a lecture duet on “Dixie” and “Yankee Doodle.” For the first time Bob was tasting financial independence and salting away for a rainy day. Indifferent to the nomination Bob refused to state his position on the issues of the day and was ignored by the leaders. Only the agrarians knew their minds and by acclamation the convention nominated a man not in the race. Again Bob served faithfully as Governor, and again he retired to the lyceum platform.

At last the time came when the State Executive Committee could no longer resist the demand for the man whose claims to represent the state had been so often and so mercilessly shelved by the politicians. It ordered a preferential primary binding upon the Democratic legislative caucus, and in 1905 Bob defeated the brilliant incumbent, Senator Edward W. Carmack. At last it seemed that the man who put harmony above ambition had retired to an arena where he might confine his unpruned rhetoric to sly digs at the concern of the high tariff bloc for the wages of the working man.

His last fight, the only battle he ever lost, was fought to rescue a party organization that deserved to lose. The Tennessee Democracy soon massed for a bitter fight over prohibition, and in 1908 Carmack, representing the statewide prohibition wing, was defeated by M. R, Patterson. Carmack assumed the editorship of The Nashville Tennessean, and when the Patterson organization, after unseating 150 delegates committed to prohibition, brought forth an anti-prohibition platform, Carmack repudiated the party platform, pointed the withering finger of scorn at Patterson’s chief advisor, Colonel Duncan B. Cooper, and called for the election of a prohibition legislature. Colonel Cooper sent the editor a threat that if the Cooper name appeared again in the paper his life would be forfeit. The Tennessean the next morning carried Cooper’s name in a short and bitter editorial. That afternoon ex-Senator Carmack was shot and killed on the streets of Nashville by Cooper and his son Robin. Held without bail, the Coopers were sentenced to twenty years imprisonment after a trial lasting three months. The day the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the original verdict, Governor Patterson, without reading the decision and before Colonel Cooper left the capital, issued an unconditional pardon. From the shocked populace arose a great wave of indignation. Three judges charged that Patterson had sought to influence their decision. As candidates for reelection the judges refused to enter the primary dominated by the Patterson organization. Running as independent Democrats with Republican support, they defeated the regulars by forty thousand votes. When the Republicans named Captain Ben W. Hooper on a straight prohibition ticket, independent Democrats pledged their support and Union and Confederate veterans paraded side by side in token of harmony.

None too soon the machine halted in its rough-shod career. Three days before the independent Democrats were to meet, Governor Patterson, facing certain defeat, withdrew from the race; the regular Democratic committee resigned; and the new committee made the chairman of the Independents their own. For once the party bosses rather than the rank and file cast abroad for the Great Conciliator to mend the chaos they had made. Bob Taylor was drafted from Washington to run again for the governorship of Tennessee. No longer young, and in strange hands, Bob waited outside of the convention hall for the psychological moment to appear upon the platform and with the fiddle and the bow still the tumult. The moment never came, and fearing that the red necks might hiss him from the floor, Bob refused to enter the hall. The rural democracy, outraged by violence as much as by the urban liquor trade, had determined to destroy the machine control, root, branch, and spore. For the first time in his life Bob Taylor found between himself and his folk a great .gulf. He did his duty in a hopeless contest. He stumped the state for the regulars on a platform that contained no mention of prohibition, he saw his agrarians roll up more than a 12,000 majority for Hooper, and he returned to the Senate to die before his term expired.

A mellow bassoon of a man was Bob, a great overgrown boy, generous with his time and money and furthest removed from our ideal type—the go-getter. It became the creed of those who watched this artist in folk-appeal at his work that Bob could win an audience without saying a word —just by the expression on his face. The story is often told of how Governor Taylor, with the audacity of a master of crowd-behavior, once turned a joint debate with the disaffected Populists into a revival meeting. After the party dialecticians had gotten in their soporific work, Bob rose to close the meeting. Working up to a great oratorical pitch, he suddenly raised his arms aloft and commanded: “Let everybody sing.” Leading off with “We will seat Governor Cleveland in the presidential chair,” he began to plead, “Come on back, boys, come on back.” The power of that religious ritual asserted itself and the party deserters crowded up to grasp Bob’s hand. Finally the old Populist chairman on the speaker’s platform was observed to grow uneasy. He chewed on his tobacco and pulled at his whiskers. At last, unable to resist, he clambered to his feet, grasped Bob by the hand and declared, “By gosh, I’m coming back.”

All in all, Bob takes his rank among the highest products of politics as a folk art before the blight of unbalanced budgets descended upon our fair land and the science of public administration put the expert of the desk ahead of the artist of the platform. All Tennessee was near enough to the frontier for the Brothers Taylor to represent an indigenous culture as true participants in a folk ritual and the cleavages in society were not so great that Bob or Alf had to play a part. Once, when an opponent spoke of Bob’s supporters as “one-gallus fellows from the forks of the creek,” the Governor took opportunity to slip out and discard one-half of his suspenders. Warming up in his reply, he asked permission to remove his coat and was rewarded by plaudits: “Bob’s a one-gallus man!” Admitting that he was a political tactician of no mean order, I wish to suggest that Bob also felt the inarticulate embarrassment of honest yeomanry thus stigmatized by a tactless orator. “My blessed red necks,” he called them to their faces, and they loved him for it. Steeped in the arts of folk appeal, Bob was the type of hero that politics once produced before class and economic conflict hardened all our attitudes. His like may never come again.


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