Weekend Extra

Tennessee Governors: An Inauguration Retrospective

Before Bill Lee is sworn in and becomes the Volunteer State's 50th governor we take a look back at Tennessee's first 10 governors and the most recent 10 chief executives. We look at their triumphs, their shortcomings, and how much the state has changed in the last 220 years.

Tennessee's first 10 governors :

John Sevier (1796-1801) The first Governor of Tennessee and one of the state's founding fathers. He nearly dueled with Andrew Jackson in the early 1800s, but Sevier's wagon stalled and never made it to the predetermined location. There was a standoff after that, but they ultimately resolved their disputes. He was also elected to serve as Tennessee's third Governor from 1803-1809. There is a bust of Sevier in the State Capitol and a building named for him near the state capitol building.


Archibald Roane (1801-1803) As the state's second governor, Roane was responsible for starting the construction of the Natchez Trace and settling a land dispute with Virginia. Much of Roane's time as governor was spent dealing with disputes between white settlers and American  Indians. Roane County, Tennessee is named for him. Before he was governor, Roane was a member of Washington's Continental Army when they crossed the Delaware River to the Battle of Trenton.

Wille Blount (1809-1815) Like the two governors before him, much of Blount's time was spent settling conflicts between American Indians and white settlers. He also oversaw the completion of the Cumberland Turnpike, connecting Nashville to Knoxville. During the War of 1812, Blount called for volunteers for the fight. More than 3,500 men volunteered and the state raised $300,000 for the expedition to New Orleans. This earned Tennessee the nickname "The Volunteer State."


Joseph McMinn (1815-1821) McMinn's main focus was fostering peaceful relationships with Native Americans to make things a little easier for white settlers to build homes in West Tennessee. During his term, he added 14 new counties to the state, most of them in West Tennessee during the Western Purchase. He also established a state bank that could provide loans.



William Carroll (1821-1827) Once the War of 1812 ended Carroll became part owner of the General Jackson Steamboat. During his run for governor, he was backed by Davy Crockett. He defeated Edward Ward, who was backed by Andrew Jackson. As Governor, Carroll established a state prison system and a Chancery Court. During his final term, the second (of three) state constitutions was ratified, giving the governor more executive power. This also required county officials to be elected instead of appointed. Carroll County is named in his honor.


Sam Houston (1827-1829) Houston was backed by Andrew Jackson and easily won the state election. Houston's biggest contribution was likely constructing canals, roads, etc. He also attempted to lower the price of land for those living on a public domain. He then helped get Andrew Jackson elected President in 1828. Despite this, Houston was known for having a major drinking problem and was spotted out in public under the influence of alcohol many times. After a very brief marriage, Eliza Allen left him and he resigned as governor. He then fled to Texas where he had a much longer political career. He served as the President of Texas. Houston, Texas is named for him.


William Hall (April 1829-Oct. 1829) Hall was governor for just six months due to Houston's abrupt resignation. Hall kept most of Governor William Carroll's policies intact including the penal code and the strengthening of the educational system. He was a big supporter of Andrew Jackson and ran for Congress after he decided to not run for re-election. He served in Jackson's Congress for one term before retiring back to Sumner County. 


Newton Cannon (1935-1939) Cannon represented Rutherford and Williamson Counties as a state senator before becoming the state's eighth governor. Once he was elected he became the first member of the Whig Party to become Tennessee's chief executive. Cannon and the Whig Party started a new state bank and expanded support for new roads, railroads, and canals. He faced criticism from people in east and west Tennessee because they felt Cannon didn't make an effort to give them the same opportunities he was giving Middle Tennessee.


James K. Polk (1839-1841) Many saw Polk's governorship as a springboard to become President. However, during his time as governor, his only big "win" was ousting the Whig Party and replacing them with Democrats. Every other thing he tried - improving educational funding, regulating banks, and improving infrastructure - all failed in the state senate. He lost reelection after serving just one term. Despite losing that race, Polk won the Democratic nomination and ultimately became President in 1845.


James C. Jones (1841-1845) Jones defeated Polk by just 3,000 votes of more than 100,000 cast in the 1841 election. Most of his time as governor, especially the first term, was very divided. For most of 1842 and 1843, the state did not have any representation in the U.S. Senate because of division between the Democrats and the Whigs. Still, though, Jones was able to establish schools for blind and deaf children and established Nashville as the permanent state capital. They laid the first cornerstone while Jones was in office.

Tennessee's most recent 10 governor's:


Buford Ellington (1959-1963 and 1967-1971) Tennessee and the United States was booming economically during Ellington's first term. He made a promise not to raise taxes and he kept that promise while also giving teachers a $100 annual raise. He also eliminated several state departments, consolidating the government. During his first campaign, Ellington described himself as "an old-fashioned segregationist." However, during his second term, he said the time was ripe to "bury the word and practice of segregation." Ellington followed that up with apologies and by appointing the state's first-ever African American cabinet member. Ellington also served as a chairman of the National Governors Conference. 


Frank Clement (1953-1959 and 1963-1967) Despite only being 32-years-old and being called a "pipsqueak" and a "demagogue" by his opponent, Clement won the Democratic primary and the governorship after serving in the FBI and as an attorney. He created the State Mental Health Department and started Tennessee's first free textbook program for public schools. The state also transformed from an agricultural economy to one of industry, bringing more jobs and opportunity to the state. He was the first southern governor to veto a segregation bill. Clement was gaining national recognition, but that all soon disappeared thanks to a 43-minute speech at the Democratic National Convention. The speech, while impressive to some, offended many since he took the offensive against Richard Nixon and President Eisenhower. Since that speech went so poorly, Clement returned to Tennessee. Once he was back in the state, Clement nearly ended capital punishment. He was a civil rights moderate, never agreeing to hardcore segregation like many of his peers. Clement died at just 49-years-old in a car accident. Many believe he was mulling over another run for governor when he passed. 


Winfield Dunn (1971-1975) Dunn's win in 1971 signaled a change for the Republican party in Tennessee. For the half-century before his win, there were no Republican governors in the Volunteer State. Dunn, as governor, developed a new statewide kindergarten program, pushed major highway construction legislation, and reorganized the government structure. Dunn, who grew up in Memphis by way of Mississippi, set a goal to lessen the tension and rivalry between Tennessee's "Three Grand Divisions." He made it a big priority to treat West and East Tennessee the same way Middle Tennessee was treated. During the early stages of his term, there was a billboard at the state line reading, "Welcome to the Three States of Tennessee." He changed that billboard to read, "Welcome to the Great State of Tennessee." It was a much warmer welcome to the state. At 91-years-old, Dunn is Tennessee's oldest living governor. He and his wife, Betty, live in Nashville.


Ray Blanton (1975-1979) Though shrouded in controversy, Ray Blanton was able to accomplish some things in his time as governor. He wanted a state income tax, which Tennessee still does not have, but the legislature refused to consider it. He instead raised the sales tax. He overhauled Tennessee's excise and franchise tax laws and did his best to help out the elderly by shifting some money their way. His administration was noted for recruiting foreign trade and industry opportunities. He even helped create the first Department of Tourism in the country. Despite that, many remember his term ending amid controversy. It started that way, too, though, when he fired Marie Ragghianti, the head of Pardons and Paroles for the state. Ragghianti refused to let several prisoners out and it was later determined those prisoners were bribing members of Blanton's team. There was a movie made about this incident starring Sissy Spacek. Later in his term, the FBI raided the offices of a top Blanton aide. Three people were arrested and Blanton had to appear in front of a federal grand jury. Blanton later pardoned 53 people, including 20 murderers, and planned on pardoning more. However, the state's Lt. Governor used a vaguely worded portion of the state constitution to swear in newly elected Lamar Alexander early.


Lamar Alexander (1979-1987) Alexander won the governor's seat by literally walking across the state, 1,022 miles, in a red-checked flannel shirt. That shirt became his trademark look. Alexander started his term three days earlier than expected due to suspicions with the previous administration, and he was able to accomplish quite a bit in his eight years. He brought thousands of new jobs to the state with the opening of a Nissan factory in Smyrna and the Saturn plant in Spring Hill. He sought to improve education and established a program to enhance research and public service at local colleges. He helped create a Tennessee Parkway system to improve highways and promote tourism. And, while it came from a federal order, Alexander oversaw a massive prison construction program. Many experts say Alexander's time as governor solidified the Republican stronghold in Tennessee.


Ned McWherter (1987-1995) Working as the Speaker of the House from 1969-1987, McWherter was very well known in the Tennessee political arena. During his time as the state's chief executive, he kept a well-balanced budget, oversaw the construction of many new roads in the state, and increased appropriations for public education. He made sure school facilities were updated and he ultimately lowered the teacher-student ratios. He also addressed the issues between rural counties and urban counties when it came to education. McWherter renovated the state Medicaid system and TennCare system which has been replicated in other states.


Don Sundquist (1995-2003) Sundquist defeated then Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen to become the forty-seventh governor. As governor, he pushed for the elimination of the Public Service Commission and started the "Family First" reform package which gained national recognition since it was saving taxpayers money. He also focused on law enforcement and how certain cases were handled. The package he proposed brought tougher sentences, capital case reform, domestic violence, and victims' rights. He said he wanted to get government out of people's business and people into the business of government. Sundquist too called for a state income tax, but that didn't fly.


Phil Bredesen (2003-2011) Bredesen pledged to fix TennCare when he became governor in 2003. TennCare was $650 million over budget at the end of Sundquist's term, and that left the state $800 million behind in bills. He did this by signing a 9-percent spending cut. He then changed TennCare, removing a large chunk of recipients and reducing some benefits. By 2006, Bredesen had cut costs by more than $500 million. He started a program that would cover people with pre-existing conditions and the uninsured. While Governor, the Tennessee Lottery started and began funding college scholarships. He raised teacher pay above the southeast average and expanded the state's Pre-K program. He also helped create the Books from Birth program with Dolly Parton. He used some money he saved from restructuring TennCare to shift money to education. During his second term, he faced pushback on a $4.8 million proposal to upgrade the dining room at the governor's mansion. Critics called the proposed space "Bredesen's Bunker." He also placed more restrictions on TennCare during his second term. He was forced to cut spending by more than $100 million and bought out some state employees, cutting the workforce by 5 percent.


Bill Haslam (2011-2019) When he was first elected, Haslam's top priorities were education and the economy. One signature program, Tennessee Promise, guarantees any student who graduates from a Tennessee high school is entitled to attend an in-state community or technical college at no cost. He also implemented the Drive to 55 initiative, which seeks to get the percentage of residents with college degrees up to 55 percent. The economy also saw major growth in the last eight years. Haslam lowered the sales tax on food and eliminated two other taxes he claimed hurt farmers. He signed legislation that provides incentives for corporations to move their businesses to Tennessee. The T.E.A.M. Act worried some people who thought it would look as if the executive branch was doing favors for friends and colleagues. Other big moments in his term include his veto of the Ag-Gag Bill in 2013 and his veto of a bill that would have made the Bible Tennessee's state book. There have also been times when he chose not to sign bills into law and let them become law without a signature. It happened with the issue of carrying guns on college campuses and a bill protecting science teachers that advocated against evolution. Haslam made another big move in his final days as chief executive when he granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown after she had served nearly half of her life in jail for shooting and killing a man when she was 16-years-old. Haslam is considered a likely candidate to replace outgoing U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander.
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