Thomas A. R. Nelson

Thomas A. R. Nelson, Whig Congressman and Unionist, attempted to steer a moderate course during the sectional crisis of the 1850s. Born in Roane County, March 19, 1812, and a lawyer by training, he became a founder of the state's Whig Party and supported the presidential candidacy of Hugh Lawson White in 1836. As a party leader, he served as presidential elector in 1844 and 1848 and twice ran for the U.S. Senate. In 1859 he was elected to Congress, where he took a strong Unionist stance and attacked secession as radical and unconstitutional. He supported John Bell and the Constitutional Union Party in the 1860 election and continued to counsel caution after Abraham Lincoln's election and the secession of the Deep South states.

When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Nelson was stunned by President Abraham Lincoln's call for troops but campaigned vigorously against secession in his own state. He was elected president of both the Knoxville and Greeneville Unionist conventions to oppose secession and agitate for a separate East Tennessee state. After Tennessee joined the Confederacy, Nelson's constituents elected him to the U.S. Congress in August 1861. On the way to Washington, he was arrested in Kentucky and taken to Richmond. He was paroled and eventually permitted to return home and resume his law practice.

When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Nelson concluded that the Republican Party was becoming dangerously radical. At the request of Confederate authorities, he issued a statement to the people of East Tennessee denouncing Lincoln's acts, which he considered despotic and unconstitutional. Nelson, however, became increasingly troubled by the Confederate policies of conscription and confiscation of private property and reversed his course once Federal forces occupied East Tennessee. Even so, he rejected Republicanism and supported the 1864 presidential candidacy of Democrat George B. McClellan and a compromise peace.

True to his conservatism, Nelson decried the postwar campaign of terror and retribution launched against former Confederates by Radicals such as William G. “Parson” Brownlow. He defended ex-Confederates accused of treason and other crimes and assisted them in recovering confiscated property. As justice on the State Supreme Court, he handed down a decision in the case of Smith v. Brazelton (1870), which held that the Confederacy was a de facto government, a position vehemently denounced by Radicals. He also opposed congressional Radicalism by serving as counsel for President Andrew Johnson during his impeachment trial. Refusing to follow Brownlow and his supporters into the Republican Party, Nelson worked with other Tennessee conservatives to create a third party based on old Whig principles, but he died in 1873 without realizing his goal.

Suggested Reading

Thomas B. Alexander, Thomas A. R. Nelson of East Tennessee (1956)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Thomas A. R. Nelson
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 24, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018