October 28, 2018
Greeneville, Tenn. So—why did we decide, just Friday, to drive eight hours to Greeneville, Tennessee, for the weekend? For sure, the nightmarish news from Pittsburgh and South Florida made it seem like a good time to head for the lush, gorgeous mountains of East Tennessee. And with surgery looming in ten days, it would be our last change of scenery for a while.
But also—there’s an also. Sandy and I needed a break from the intense perversity of Republican campaign muck. Unfortunately, we were reminded that the poisonous stew that is today’s political culture has roots extending deep in history.
While 15 states have cities named Greenville, only Tennessee has “Greeneville.” The city is named for Nathaniel Greene, a general in Washington’s army who never lived in Tennessee. In 1784 North Carolina, which included much of what is now Tennessee, attempted to cede its western counties to the federal government. Delegates from the region petitioned Congress to admit several counties to the union as the State of Franklin. The movement failed and North Carolina reasserted control until Tennessee became a state in 1796.
Greeneville folks touched us with hospitality and warmth. The pastor’s homily at Mass at Notre Dame parish was eloquent and thoughtful. Parishioners met us with heartfelt openness.
Yet like most places, Greeneville preens its history, even the dark side, entangling local boosterism with a glib tapdance around the political culture of the Old South. We stayed at the General Morgan Inn, an elegant place in the heart of downtown, such as that is. The inn is named for Confederate General John Hunt Morgan, who between 1862 and 1864 led a small command that fought ferocious engagements with Union forces in East Tennessee. On September 4,1864 Morgan was discovered by Union troops at a stately home in Greeneville, now called the Dickson-Williams Mansion, which stands next door to the Inn. The story told is that while shaving he noticed the soldiers approaching through a window. He was shot as he ran for his horse.
In the telling, Morgan becomes a dashing, colorful hero. We took the hour-long tour of the mansion, which included the bedroom where he spent his last night. Mounted on the bedroom wall is the razor he is said to have used shaving.
Even more prominent in the city’s self-advertising is President Andrew Johnson, the 17th, who lived in Greeneville before and after his political career. He rose from running a tailor shop to become a U.S. senator, Tennessee’s governor, and Lincoln’s governor-general of the state from 1860 to 1864. When Lincoln was renominated in 1864 by the National Union Party, the Party, not Lincoln, chose Johnson, a Democrat, as his vice president.
Johnson initially supported Lincoln’s policy of magnanimity towards the South. As President, he sounded the dog whistle of “state’s rights” that enabled Southern state governments to evade federal protections of the newly freed slaves. Arguing that he was defending the Constitution, he vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which granted citizenship to new freemen. Johnson claimed the Act unjustly favored blacks over whites, ignoring rampant violence against blacks throughout the South by paramilitary groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Thousands were tortured, lynched, shot. In 1868 Johnson was the first president to face impeachment, avoiding it by one vote.
Greeneville, which calls itself “A Presidential Town,” boasts a ten-foot-tall statue of Johnson, an Andrew Johnson Visitor’s Center, his restored home, and a replica of the cabin in which he was born. The area includes the Andrew Johnson School, Andrew Johnson Bank, Andrew Johnson Inn, and Andrew Johnson Insurance Company. The 13-minute video of his life shown at the Visitor’s Center includes commentary by local scholars and academics who heap praise on Johnson as a defender of the Constitution and states’ rights.
Married to a Southerner for 40 years, I get it. These unsettled feelings, created in the tragedy of our history, are complicated. Recognizing that ethnic, racial, and economic resentments still simmer is a noble mission. Exploiting them for political gain is the way of the coward. Overcoming them is a calling of the human spirit.