Friday, July 15, 2005

Brownlow's Whig

"Brownlow's Whig"
By Nancy Sparks Morrison

Nancy Sparks Morrison PART I: SETTING THE SCENE
"Brownlow's Whig (Jonesboro, TN) -- Oct. 7, 1840: pg.3"

In October of 1840, an election for President of the United States was gaining steam. In Jonesborough, TN, one "Parson" Brownlow who owned and edited the Jonesborough Whig, a newspaper, wrote an article about the electioneering. In this article he used the term 'Malungeon.' This mention of the word 'malungeon' is one of a very few early historical uses of the word that can be found in print.

First let us take a look at that piece of Brownlow's writings on the supposed historical Melungeons that we are given. The original was recovered from Brownlow's Whig reel 2, McClung Collection, Knoxville, TN. Here it is in it entirety:

"NEGRO SPEAKING! Oct. 7, 1840: pg.3 Jonesborough Whig

We have just learned, upon undoubted authority, that Gen. Combs, in his attempt to address the citizens of Sullivan County, on yesterday, was insulted, contradicted repeatedly, limited to one hour and a half, and most shamefully treated, and withall an effort was made, to get an impudent Malungeon from Washington Cty, a scoundrel who is half Negro and half Indian, and who has actually been speaking in Sullivan, in reply to Combs!

Gen. Combs, however, declined the honor of contending with Negroes and Indians _ said he had fought against the latter, but never met them in debate!

This is the party, reader, who are opposed to the gag-law, and to abolition! Bigotry and democracy in Sullivan county, well knowing that their days on earth are numbered, are rolling together their clouds of blackness and darkness, in the person of a free negroe, with the forlorn hope of obscuring the light that is beaming in glory, and a gladness, upon this country, through the able and eloquent speeches of Whig orators.

David Shaver replied to Gen. Combs, we are informed. This is the same Davy, Mr. Netherland gave an account of, some time since, and who, Col. James gave us the history of, in an address, at our late convention.

When Davy had finished, the big Democratic Negro came forward, and entertained the brethren. These two last speakers were an entertaining pair!

In this piece Brownlow notes something that happened during this election. A General Combs was speaking for the Whig Party and two men were speaking for the Democrats. One of these Democrats was David Shaver. It was this second man, unnamed, about whom Brownlow was aghast and whom he called a Malungeon.

Why do we use this one mention of the word 'malungeon' in our Melungeon research? Do we use this article to prove WHAT the term Melungeon means or do we use it to show that it was in common use in one particular area? I personally think that people today are using it in both ways. It means this and/or it was used there!

But, what did Brownlow mean when he used this term in writing about a 'Negro' who was speaking politically? Was this word one that was common in the time period and the place where it was used? Was it known outside of the area where Brownlow used it? Did its meaning change or the word change when it was used elsewhere? How can we know if the word was common and known outside of the area where Brownlow used it and what it meant?

Michael Korloff in his Fugitive Nation: The Secret History says that "In the post-civil war period anybody in the Melungeon area who was dark-skinned yet not obviously African American was called a Melungeon, including dark-skinned Mediterranean people and south Asians." That doesn't appear to be the meaning that Brownlow attached to the word. I think it is important that we know exactly what Brownlow's meaning was in 1840 before the Civil War.

I found Brownlow's writing hard to follow. The spelling and grammar check that my computer program uses also found it 'different' from its programmed uses of spellings and grammar. I had a difficult time getting it to accept Brownlow's particular type of rhetoric without changing it. To better understand this piece, the racial overtones of Brownlow's writings and to try to decide what he meant by using the word 'malungeon,' I needed to know more about the race question. I also needed to know more about Brownlow, the man, and editor, as well as the political times of this purported statement. By taking a look at Brownlow's life and other writings, as well as the history of the time period, we can bring the author of this NEGRO SPEAKING piece into clearer focus and understand more nearly what he intended in his writing. So I set out to do a little reading on these areas.

In her paper, Race, Face, and Place: On Becoming Color-Minded, Darlene Wilson writes that "When people ask me for a definition of 'Melungeon,' I like to say that it depends on the century in which someone chose to wear the word as a self-label. In the sixteenth-century, to say 'I'm a Melungeon' might have been a way of saying, 'Don't kill me, I'm not English!' In the seventeenth, it could easily have been a way of saying: 'Don't kill me, I'm not a Virginian or a Carolinian!' But, by the eighteenth-century, the lingo had so changed that to say, 'I'm a Melungeon,' probably meant: 'Don't kill me, I'm not White!' since it was, along Appalachia's ridge tops and river-bottoms, mostly 'Whites' who caused grief and misery for anyone who displayed anything other than a lily-white face and features."

Brownlow can certainly be counted as one of those 'whites' that caused grief. By the nineteenth century, his application of the term 'malungeon' changed the meaning of that term, yet again. We must read the term in the context of his time and place. It is this changeable feature of the word 'malungeon'/Melungeon, that is of interest here. We must ask this question; what did Brownlow mean when he used the term 'malungeon?' It is not what did the word Melungeon originally mean. It is not where did the word come from or any of the other meanings that it became over time.

N. Brent Kennedy author of The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People, wrote that Wilson's work at the University of Kentucky will, in his opinion, revolutionize the way that we look at race in the Appalachian mountains. "Wilson's premise -- well researched -- is that as Melungeons and other mixed race groups migrated into sparsely settled areas, they successfully "reinvented" themselves as "whites" thus making their way into the political process and, occasionally, even re-defining both the political process and even the definition of "white."

Michael Korloff appears to agree in the following statement "that before the French and Indian War people of different races were banding together in the face of repression… That's the true positive result from looking at this secret history: the example set by the fugitives in surviving the demand to assimilate." The Melungeons did band together but they also eventually assimilated. Some merged into the white community. Some assimilated into either the Native American or Black communities. Is it any wonder that some Melungeon researchers do not find their ancestors listed as 'M' or FPC (Free Person of Color) if this is indeed so? And I do believe it is.

Wilson was also fascinated by the other names and labels that, along with Melungeon, signified similar patterns of class and race-based persecution. She believes that "personal histories and local conflicts spawn micro-labels at the level of community so that a person called Melungeon in one community might, if he or she moved, be renamed a Brass Ankle or a Guinea or a Lumbee." I certainly agree. But I question Wilson's further statement that she is beginning to "suspect that even short geographic distances between us can mean 'a thousand vernacular miles' when localized by a ridge or two that serve as social and political barriers." I believe that this might indeed have been true in earlier time periods. I would estimate, however, that by 1840 if not earlier, the vernacular was peculiar to a region and not just to a single community within that region. I believe that by the 1800s in particular, ridges did not serve to divide as they had previously and that terms understood in one community would be understood in other nearby communities. The time of which we speak was 1840 and while communication was not as it is now, there was much communication back and forth. Washington, D.C. and Tennessee were in touch. Tennessee and the surrounding and nearby states were in touch. The political news being digested by the people of Jonesborough and surrounding areas was the same as that being read in Virginia and North Carolina. Ridges did not isolate this little corner of Tennessee, at least then.

Certainly this 'impudent Malungeon' of Brownlow's piece was trying to work his way into the political process. In order to understand why Brownlow used this term for and about him, in connection with race and politics, we need to take a look at race, face and place in Jonesborough, TN. We also need to look at these things in the state of Tennessee and in fact in the United States at that particular time period. Brownlow's use of the word indicates an intimate knowledge of the term. This use shows that he knew the people. It is not likely a word that he had learned but a few weeks prior. It is more likely a word that had been in his vocabulary for some time.

It will be useful to know the location of both Elizabethton and Jonesborough. The closeness of the ties between this area and that of North Carolina, and Virginia show clearly here. Kentucky is not far away, nearer still to Sneedville and Newman's Ridge, a known refuge of the Melungeons where the word was also known. A word that is heard in one area is likely to be heard and understood in a near or even not so nearby area.

In 1840, news of the elections was known in all these areas. It is not unreasonable to believe that other news was also known. It is likely that the Negro speaker was known outside of Tennessee as well. On the following website page, we can note the nearness of these cities to both Virginia and North Carolina and not far from Kentucky. Even in the 1840 conditions of travel they are not far from each other. This map shows both Elizabethton and Jonesborough in 1895. Scroll to the far right and top of the page:

As far as I can find, Brownlow used the term Malungeon ONLY once in all his writings. He spelled it with an 'a' and that is only one of several spellings of this word to be found in early documents. I find the use of many different spellings to be one that was fairly normal for that early time period. It would be more unusual were all the early mentions spelled the same. All the mentions of the word do indicate that the term was one that indicated the lowest of the low, a name given and meant to be derogatory. I wonder why he never used again.

From the July 1862, The Ladies' Repository, which was published by the Methodist Episcopal Church, North in Cincinnati, Ohio, we can find information on the estimable William G. "Parson" Brownlow. Brownlow was a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church - North and a circuit-riding preacher. I think this is interesting in and of itself. His northern leanings in some instances combined with his southern upbringing and belief in slavery come into play in much of what Brownlow wrote. Parson Brownlow was born in Wythe County, Virginia, August 29, 1805. How far away are Wythe and his childhood from Jonesborough and his adulthood? Not all that far!

Wythe County was formed in 1790 from Montgomery County. The original boundary lines for Wythe County included all of Carroll and Grayson Counties, part of Smyth County, most of Tazewell County, parts of Bland and Buchanan Counties, a small portion of Giles County, part of Pulaski County, McDowell County, parts of Mercer, Wyoming, Boone, Logan, and Mingo Counties. The latter six (6) counties are now in West Virginia. Wythe County today shares boundary lines with Smyth County to the west, Bland County to the north, Pulaski County to the east, and Carroll and Grayson Counties to the south.

Most consider that the Melungeon counties of Virginia, are Scott, and Lee, only a short distance away. To understand how these counties were formed, and to see how close they are to the areas of Tennessee where this 'impudent malungeon' spoke as well as how they interconnect, see the following Color Maps of Southwest Virginia County Changes on these two sites:

We are looking at a region here, not an isolated community. Brownlow was a member of these interrelated communities. He grew up in Wythe. He worked in Washington County, Virginia before going to Tennessee. As a circuit riding preacher, he traveled these areas.

Brownlow was left an orphan in early childhood when both of his parents died. His mother's relatives brought him up. As a result, he worked hard as a boy. By the age of eighteen, he was apprenticed to a house carpenter in Abingdon, Virginia where he learned the trade of carpentry. The town of Abingdon in Washington Co., VA was chartered in 1778. It is the oldest town west of the Blue Ridge Mountains and as such, it was a center of activity and quite lively. Brownlow would most likely have heard the word 'malungeon' and known its meaning in both Wythe and Abingdon nearby.

His education was sporadic and imperfect. By the 'sweat of his brow,' he earned knowledge of most of the branches of common school education. What that education consisted of would be interesting to know. In general, common (public) schools at this point in time were in bad shape. They were typically in session only four months of the year because of the agrarian society and the need to have children helping out at home. They were poorly attended, and basically taught by whomever was available.

Academic qualifications of teachers ranged from bare ability to read to a college education. Teaching meant memorizing facts; teachers used large-group instruction, choral responses, and harsh corporal punishment. Using only the most basic resources, a slate, chalk, and a few books, teaching and learning consisted mainly of the three R's, literacy, penmanship, arithmetic, and “good manners.” It seems to me that Brownlow missed the 'good manners' lessons.

It would be interesting to find what was included among those few books in the time period and area where Brownlow was schooled. But early curriculum materials were based on the Old and New Testaments for the most part. Pay of $30.00 per month was not much of a motivator for teachers to seek out an education. Few colleges provided instruction for teachers. Normal schools, teaching people to be teachers, were only beginning in the north in 1840. It was much later that these schools became common in the south. Suffice it to say that Brownlow's early education was indeed imperfect.

After learning a trade, he expanded his schooling. Brownlow said describing himself that: "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 of the Southern disunionists." Again, the dichotomy within the man shows.

We do not know how this further education was accomplished since he did labor. It may have been by tutorial or self-study. I can find no documents showing enrollment for Brownlow in any documented school of higher education. After having a religious experience at a camp meeting, he entered the traveling Methodist ministry in 1826 at 21 years of age. No schooling was required of him to do so, just the desire to serve the church. He was a delegate to the General Conference of that ministry in 1832. The years spent in the ministry were years of study and improvement as well as of labor. Again we do not know how or where this study took place.

After ten years of circuit riding he married Eliza O'Brien and settled in Elizabethton, Tennessee where he started the Elizabethton Whig. I know of one son of this union, John Bell Brownlow, who was a Lt. Colonel in the Civil War, an editor and writer, and civil servant. (Note that Bell is considered to be a common Melungeon surname.) Though he stopped the pastoral work, he remained an ordained local preacher in the Church, and performed much ministerial service. It was the time period that allowed a Methodist-Episcopal minister to have racist beliefs and to act upon them.

The Ladies Repository also notes that "Mr. Brownlow is never neutral on any subject, is not over-fastidious in the use of language, and loves to pile up epithets denunciatory and objurgatory upon his opponents, "all and singular." To objurgate is to give a harsh rebuke. A look at some of his other writings along with this 'Negro Speaks' article proves he was very capable of doing so.

The Repository also says that a: "recent writer, who has drawn a portrait of him equally graphic and true, says that he exhibits a union of high moral and intellectual qualities with an almost unaccountable deficiency of that sense of the fitness of things which we call good taste. Thus in his personal habits he is singularly pure; he never tastes liquor, never has used tobacco, never has seen a play at a theater, and never has dealt a pack of cards -- a remarkable record for a Southerner." Racism was not then thought of as unchristian. It is obvious that Brownlow lacked 'good manners' and it is certainly easy to understand that he showed poor taste.

That writer continued saying that "but when he opens his lips his language, although without positive profanity -- except when quoting other men's -- is often so grating to polite ears that it saves sensitive listeners from blushes only because it irresistibly provokes to laughter." So even in 1862 we learn that much of Brownlow's speech or writing was not overly fastidious according to his own readers. We find that he was thought to cause merriment because of this. This is an unusual insight for this period of time when neither politics nor religion was thought of as 'funny'!

The writer continues in this vein saying, "He confesses that his chief natural gift is in piling epithets upon the heads of scoundrels. He knows no pleasure equal to discovering some new rascal or some new rascality of an old offender and printing the name and facts in capital letters in the next Knoxville Whig." But according to the writer, he is a man whom a thorough Northern training, moral and intellectual, would have built up into a dignified, impressive, and splendid character.

Now why then was this 'impudent Malungeon' not named since we are told that Brownlow loved to name names? Perhaps because in reality he was not a Melungeon at all? Without knowing his name, we have no way to answer this question. We need to know what Brownlow meant by the term that he used to describe this speaker. We can know that 'Malungeon' was not a 'nice' term in 1840, to say the least. It was used in a derogatory manner. We are building toward a definition of 'Malungeon,' in 1840.

During the pending canvass for secession in Tennessee, a report was circulated that Brownlow was soon coming out in favor of the movement. When a rabid secessionist in Arkansas wrote wanting to know how long before Brownlow's announcement might be expected, Brownlow replied with a pretty fair sample of his more intense writing:

"I have your letter of August 30, 1860, and hasten to let you know the precise time when I expect to come out and formally announce that I have joined the Democratic party. When the sun shines at midnight and the moon at midday; when man forgets to be selfish, or Democrats lose their inclination to steal; when Nature stops her onward march to rest, or all the water-courses in America flow up stream; when flowers lose their odor, and trees shed no leaves; when birds talk, and beasts of burden laugh; when damned spirits swap hell for heaven with the angels of light, and pay them the boot in mean whisky; when impossibilities are in fashion, and no proposition is too absurd to be believed, you may credit the report that I have joined the Democrats," he wrote. Would we expect any less oratory against an 'impudent' black/Indian?

William G. Brownlow was a Virginia farm boy with little formal education who became one of America's most picturesque editors. He was a tall, robust, intense man, a carpenter. He was an itinerant Methodist preacher before getting into politics by opposing nullification by South Carolina prior to secession of the South from the Union. He became an editor in 1839, when he established a Whig newspaper in Elizabethton, TN, known as the "Elizabethton (Tenn.) Whig." The Jonesboro move came soon after and copies of this Jonesborough paper are available in the Library of Congress from May 6, 1840 through April 19, 1849. This term, Jonesborough Whig, is clearer in comparison to Brownlow's Whig. He did not change the name of the paper until he was in Knoxville. The piece in question was then published in the Jonesborough Whig on Oct. 7, 1840.

As an example of personal journalism, The Knoxville Whig, edited by William Gannoway Brownlow, Tennessee's first Reconstruction governor, the Whig is superb. (A portrait of Governor Brownlow can be found here:

Brownlow's Whig followed the example he set in the Jonesborough Whig. Brownlow used his newspaper as a tool for the Whig party. He also wished to further his own religious beliefs, and the interests of himself and his friends. While he was a moral man, at least for the times, he was quite capable of letting his passions reign supreme. He was of such belief that letting these interests get in the way of absolute truth would not have been a problem. He did not hesitate to espouse his beliefs in the rights of slavery and to denounce anyone with any 'NEGRO' ancestry. And his racism in the time and place was the norm.

"Parson" Brownlow's writing, like his preaching, was brilliant. But he was often coarse and abusive. His newspapers were like no other. He practiced his mottoes "Cry Aloud and Spare Not" with great relish. The 'Negro Speaking' is but one example. His Whig, with 12,000 circulation in the 1850s, was the largest weekly in the South. It is quite likely that it was read and handed down, and that it reached beyond Tennessee, certainly into North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky, making its readership greater than the number given.

Brownlow was a formidable man who violently opposed secession. And yet he believed in slavery. He used his Whig to lead the east Tennessee "Rebellion" against the Confederacy in 1861. He stirred up so much trouble that he was arrested and sent to jail. Brownlow had simply continued his rhetoric from Jonesborough into Knoxville. If we want to understand why this was possible, we need to understand the history leading up to this 1840 piece. We need to find a deeper meaning in Brownlow's rhetoric, which called a Negro a 'Malungeon,' or a Melungeon a Negro and Indian. Brownlow was not alone in his beliefs. Let us start with the politics of the time.

Part V continues below:

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