Top 10: When the Boro was state capital

The Murfreesboro Post, October 19, 2008

From 1819 to 1826 Murfreesboro was state capitol of Tennessee. During that time span, few other towns exceeded its importance.

Murfreesboro, Tennessee was the State Capital from 1819 till 1825.

While some of those important moments are nearly forgotten, some of them still remain significant from a historic point of view. It is important to remember that Tennessee was the Western frontier in those days and just barely removed from the Creek Indian War and the War of 1812. It was an era of intense land speculation. You should also remember that the Tennessee General Assembly only met biennially in those days and was not supported by a huge bureaucracy. The state was only 25 years old.

1. Midway during his term of office, Gov. Joseph McMinn (1815-1821) made the transition from the state capitol of Knoxville to the new, centrally located location of Murfreesborough. A three-term governor, McMinn was born in Pennsylvania and fought in the Revolutionary War despite being a Quaker.

The most important event in his administration was the peaceful settlement of West Tennessee following the Chickasaw Purchase Treaty of what was called the Jackson Purchase of the land between the Tennessee and Mississippi River. Fourteen counties were carved out of the block of land and the town of Memphis was founded in 1819. This helped fuel a huge growth in population. Slavery enabled West Tennessee landowners to start the cotton boom.

2. Tennessee’s first reform governor, William Carroll, served during the remainder of Murfreesboro’s stint as state capitol. Carroll presided over Tennessee’s growth from a series of small pioneer settlements to an area where towns and cities were developing quickly, and schools, churches, and courthouses were being built.

Carroll is remembered for internal improvements, penal law reform and the establishment of Tennessee’s Chancery Court system. Very popular and with a charismatic personality, Carroll was able to expand the powers of the government, which had been restricted by Tennessee’s 1796 Constitution.

Carroll, at the time, was only exceeded in popularity by Andrew Jackson. Carroll was seriously wounded during the Creek War at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Recovering he was elected to succeed Jackson as commander of the Tennessee Militia and won acclaim at the battle of New Orleans. Sam Houston was to succeed him as governor.

3. Murfreesboro became state capital during America’s first major economic crisis, the Panic of 1819.

There were three key causes of the Panic of 1819, inflation, public debt from the War of 1812 and the Louisiana Purchase. Land values crashed, banks failed and many people were bankrupted. Bank notes, the currency of the times, depreciated by as much as 12 percent in Tennessee. All of the state’s banks suspended redemption of paper notes in exchange for gold or silver specie, while creditors often refused payment in paper. The state’s banks were under control of John Overton of Nashville and his supporters, which included Andrew Jackson and other land speculators.

The Panic financially ruined William Carroll, but it launched his career as a politician. Portraying himself as a man of the people and “no friend of banks,” he defeated Overton’s candidate, Edward Ward, for governor. Once elected, Carroll convinced the legislature to pass a law compelling the banks to resume specie payments and made other conservative adjustments to state banking laws that helped end the Panic in Tennessee.

Murfreesboro also witnessed the rise to power of several political leaders … Andrew Jackson, Felix Grundy, James K. Polk, Hugh Lawson White, Pleasant M. Miller and the legendary David “Davy” Crockett. They ushered in the Age of Jackson and the development of the once dominant Whig Party.

4. Felix Grundy, a former U.S. Congressman, was acknowledged as top criminal attorney in the West. Five years after his resignation from the House, Grundy was elected to the first of three terms in the Tennessee General Assembly as a champion of public relief for those suffering from the financial Panic of 1819. As a legislator, Grundy introduced the bills that stayed the execution of debts and created the state-owned Bank of Tennessee. After serving on a commission to settle Tennessee’s boundary with Kentucky, Grundy returned to the legislature to play an influential role in modifying Governor William Carroll’s plan to compel Tennessee’s banks to resume specie payments. He went on to emerge with James K. Polk as an important national leader of the Democratic Party.

5. David Crockett was relatively unknown outside of Lawrence County before his 1821 election to the Tennessee legislature, representing Lawrence and Hickman Counties. He was reelected in 1823, but lost in 1825. Crockett relocated to West Tennessee where he was elected to Congress.

Reelected to a second term in 1829, he split with President Andrew Jackson and the Tennessee delegation headed by James K. Polk on several important issues including land reform and the Indian removal bill. Crockett was defeated in 1831, but reelected in 1833.

Once in Congress, his backwoods image began to take over and with his split from Jackson complete, he became the darling of the Whig Party. He was even being mentioned as a presidential candidate. Jackson, aided by Gov. Carroll, squashed him in a re-election bid. He was defeated by attorney Adam Huntsman, who had a peg-leg.

That defeat prompted him to say: “Since you have chosen to elect a man with a timber toe to succeed me, you may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.”

He hoped to reinvent himself in Texas, but fate and the Alamo interfered. With his death, he became mythical.

6. Pleasant M. Miller was an important leader of the East Tennessee delegation in the Tennessee General Assembly while Murfreesboro was capital. He was married to the daughter of William Blount, Tennessee’s first governor. Elected to U.S. Congress in 1808, he became an ally of President James Madison and helped fan the fires of expansion into Western Florida. Following the first Seminole War and Creek Indian War, Miller returned to the Tennessee House, serving from 1817 to 1823.

In 1822, Miller introduced a resolution nominating Andrew Jackson for president.

7. James K. Polk, a native of North Carolina, studied with Samuel P. Black, headmaster of Bradley Academy in Murfreesboro before entering the University of North Carolina in 1815. The year 1818 found him reading the law in the office of attorney Felix Grundy. In 1819, Grundy sponsored his election to the post of chief clerk of the Tennessee Senate, which met in Murfreesboro. Completing his legal study, Polk returned to Maury County where he opened a legal practice with Aaron V. Brown.

Election to the state House took Polk back to Murfreesboro in the fall of 1823 where he met and wed Sarah Childress, daughter of Joel and Elizabeth Childress.

Polk’s success in Murfreesboro took him to Washington where he won election to Congress seven times and served as Speaker of the House for 14 years. He served one term as governor of Tennessee and was the first former Speaker of the House to be elected President of the United States.

8. Sarah Childress Polk grew up in the well-to-do home of Joel Childress, a successful merchant, tavern keeper and land speculator. The state’s leading politicians, including Andrew Jackson and Felix Grundy, visited and stayed at the Childress home when the legislature was in session and the well-educated Sarah learned about politics from the masters of the day.

Sarah and her sister attended the Daniel Elam School and were tutored by Samuel P. Black of Bradley Academy. They attended the Abercrombie School in Nashville. They finished their education at the Moravian Female Academy in Salem, N.C.

Following her marriage to James K. Polk, Sarah was not content to stay on the sidelines. She was among his closest political advisors. During his years in Congress, she accompanied him to Washington except for his first trip there and during the uproar known as the Peggy Eaton Affair during the Jackson presidency.

She became a fixture of the Washington social scene where she was praised as a gracious hostess and served effectively as her husband’s eyes and ears. Her role in his day-to-day activities was kept completely hidden.

9. Hugh Lawson White was the son of General James White, the founder of Knoxville. White served as a judge on the Tennessee Supreme Court of Law and Equity, United States district attorney, judge on the State Supreme Court of Errors and Appeals, state senator representing Knox County, and president of the Bank of Tennessee in Knoxville. As a friend of Andrew Jackson, he was unanimously elected to succeed Jackson in the U.S. Senate in 1825. The assembly unanimously reelected White to the Senate in 1829 and 1835.

Following Jackson election as president in 1828, White was one of his most loyal defenders, but by the start of Jackson’s second term his opinions were changing. It appears that White wanted to succeed Jackson in the White House just has he had done in the Senate. When it became obvious Jackson wanted Vice President Martin Van Buren to follow him in the presidency, the split was complete.

White was to place third in the 1836 presidential election, but his popularity in the South divided the unity of the Democratic Party. Most of White’s supporters were to join with the northern Whigs to make a national political force that was to capture the White House in 1840 with William H. Harrison.

10. Andrew Jackson was a frequent visitor to Murfreesboro during its days as capital. He was honored with banquets and a gold sword was presented to him in honor of his victory at the Battle of New Orleans.

Most significant was the role the Tennessee General Assembly played in his first run for the presidency in 1824, one of the most controversial elections in the nation’s history.

Here’s the short version of events: The General Assembly, meeting in Murfreesboro, nominated Jackson for president. Also nominated were John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, William Crawford of Georgia and Henry Clay of Kentucky.

Jackson received 99 electoral college votes out of the 131 required, Adams 84, Crawford, 41 and Clay, 37. Clay, a Western rival of Jackson, persuaded most of his electors to vote for Adams, giving him the presidency. Adams, once in office, made Clay his secretary of state, a post which was regarded only second in importance to the president.

Jackson, and his supporters, called it a “corrupt bargain” with Clay getting the post in turn for his support.

This election split Thomas Jefferson’s Democrat Republican Party into two new groups, the National Republicans of Adams and Clay and the Democrats of Jackson. The National Republicans eventually became known as the Whigs.

11. In the 1840s, Murfreesboro had the opportunity to become permanent capital of Tennessee.

A provision of the new 1834 Tennessee Constitution ordered the legislature of 1843 choose a permanent state capital. Democratic members generally favored Murfreesboro, but the Whigs backed Nashville. A compromise was reached. Murfreesboro officials just had to pay $100 to transfer Tennessee’s official records from Nashville.

It would have been so beautiful. An impressive state capitol was to be built on a low hill overlooking Murfreesboro.

But there was the inexplicable local factor. Local officials refused to pay the $100 and the rest is history. Murfreesboro’s Capitol Hill is topped by a huge blue and white water tower instead of William Strickland’s beautiful limestone building.

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