War of the Roses

One of the most famous political events in Tennessee history was Tennessee’s gubernatorial campaign of 1886, which pitted brothers Robert L. Taylor (Democrat) and Alfred A. Taylor (Republican) against one another. Alf had not been notably successful as a vote-getter, and his nomination was probably designed to drive Bob from the race. When Bob declined to withdraw, a Memphis Appeal editorial referred to the prospective race as “grotesque and unnatural.” Alluding to England’s War of the Roses, it asserted: “If we are to have the house of Taylor, like that of York with its white rose, and Lancaster with blood red rose; let the brothers of our house lovingly exhale the fragrance of the same flower.” (1) Bob, after winning the Democratic nomination, opened the joint campaign with Alf in Madisonville on September 9. In his remarks, he turned roses into metaphors of harmony: “The red rose and the white rose bloom together and shed their odors upon the same atmosphere, and gently struggling for supremacy, glorify the twilight hours.” (2) Two days later, in Cleveland, supporters began wearing red and white roses.

Myths surround the campaign. The brothers were humorous storytellers and fiddlers, but the notion that the brothers fiddled from the platform probably came from an illustration in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. That the brothers played practical jokes–like speech-stealing–on one another came from Alf’s imaginative account in a biography of his brother. Bob won the election with 53 percent of the vote–Alf would win the governorship in 1920–and succeeded in transforming roses into enduring symbols of good will. Over a century later, following a dispute, Democratic Vice-President Albert Gore Jr., speaking at Tennessee’s Bicentennial celebration, referred to the 1886 election, presented Republican Governor Don Sundquist–his “Tennessee brother”–with a red rose, and kept a white one for himself.

Suggested Reading

Robert L. Taylor Jr., “Tennessees War of the Roses as Symbol and Myth,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 41 (1982): 337-59

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title War of the Roses
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 20, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018