Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer A Trendsetting State

Once a "ruffian," Tennessee is a political bellwether.

By Phillip Langsdon

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999:  When Tennessee was first settled, it was considered a "Western" territory, an outsider region of a new nation whose politics were rooted in the East Coast. The West was looked upon by the Eastern establishment as a society of anti-Federalist and non-aristocratic ruffians.

Though the territory's people, as a whole, sided with the likes of Thomas Jefferson and the Democrats-Republicans (as the Jeffersonians' party was then known) prior to statehood, political factional infighting was a fact of life within Tennessee from its beginnings. The factional divisions continued, even to the present day, while the state evolved in its national political character.

As the Western territories became populated, a new political party developed to retaliate against the continued domination of the elite group of politicians from the East. Andrew Jackson led political campaigns that resulted in the development of the Democratic Party and a new system of nominating, as well as electing presidential candidates.

The post-Civil War Reconstructionist government solidified Democratic politics in Tennessee as well as in the rest of the South. Democrats dominated Tennessee politics from the immediate post-Civil War era until modern times.

However, from the time of the Civil War, East Tennessee remained Republican, along with small pockets in West Tennessee made up of a few black Republican voters. In the 1960s the Democratic Party embraced civil rights, and black Tennessee voters swung to the Democratic Party. Simultaneously, the Democratic Party's monopoly of white voters began to weaken.

Republicans began to win some of the white, previously Democratic, vote in Tennessee, which became the first Southern state to move Republican in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Just as Republicans took control in Tennessee, however, the Watergate break-in orchestrated by President Nixon's re-election committee was exposed. The scandal resulted in damage to the character of the Republican Party.

It took the party a quarter of a century to fully recover from the setback. By 1994, Republicans were back in power in Tennessee. Other Southern states experienced a similar trend.

Whatever political drama occurs or has occurred, Tennessee has played a central role in American politics.

One of Tennessee's presidents, Andrew Johnson, held the post-Civil War Radical Republican senators and representatives in check, playing a vital role in restoring the South and preventing total domination and destruction.

Another president, James K. Polk, oversaw the greatest landmass expansion in American history. One governor, Sam Houston, led efforts to win independence for Texas and then saw it become a part of the United States, serving as commander and chief of the Texas army, the president of the territory, and later governor and senator of that state. Tennessee also played a central role, casting the final and crucial vote, in allowing women the right to vote.

Whatever happens in the future of the Volunteer State, its past did make an indelible mark on the history of this great nation. With three Tennesseans, Al Gore, Fred Thompson, and Lamar Alexander, all having been considered viable presidential candidates for the year 2000, there is little indication that the state is losing its political fervor.


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