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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,122


This is the grave of Hugh Lawson White.

Born in 1773 is what is today Iredell County, North Carolina, White grew up on the late eighteenth century. His father was one of those genocidal pioneers who rushed across the Tennessee line at the start of the American Revolution and started White’s Fort, which became one of the centers of white settlement. Young Hugh grew up in that and got to know all the major figures of early Tennessee. He became the personal secretary of William Blount, the first senator from Tennessee. He then fought in John Sevier‘s army of genocide against the Cherokee in 1793. His family later claimed it was White who killed King Fisher, leader of the Chickamauga Cherokee. The truth or not is irrelevant compared to the fact that it was considered the greatest thing ever to kill Indians.

After the genocide, White went to Pennsylvania for a bit to study the law and he got married up there. Then it was back to Tennessee and state leadership. In 1801, he was appointed to the Superior Court of Tennessee, which was the equivalent of the modern state supreme court. He did that for six years and then stepped away to go to the state legislature in 1807 and then to the state senate in 1815. He was a pretty active state legislator and in ways that were actually useful. For instance, he was behind a new law to make dueling illegal, which was the action of choice for Andrew Jackson like 481 times in his career when he felt insulted and he was hardly alone. So to act against it was to act for civility and decency and acting like adults. It hardly ended dueling, but at least it was illegal. White also proved himself to be financially astute as a legislator, working on solid land laws and then leaving the state senate to become president of the Bank of Tennessee. There he acted as a conservative force on the bank, which was useful in an era of yahoos who had no idea what they were doing trying to create monetary policy. He was now a big enough deal that he was part of the commission to settle claims between the U.S. and Spain in the aftermath of the Adams-Onis treaty that brought Florida into the United States.

In 1825, Andrew Jackson resigned from the Senate, preparing a full blast against John Quincy Adams to prepare his 1828 presidential run. The state legislature chose White to replace him. It was a unanimous vote of someone the body expected to continue Jackson’s policies and be a major supporter of him in the Senate. He was a quite active senator from the very beginning. In fact, through his entire career, he had a habit of attending every session of the Senate, even the ones when his colleagues were giving boring speeches. He thought this was his job and he took it seriously. He started getting attention by spearheading the objections to the U.S. sending delegates to the Congress of Panama in 1826, which was an attempt by the new Latin American nations to have a unified strategy in resisting Spain and future colonization attempts. They didn’t really want to invite the U.S. but Simon Bolivar pushed it through. But when they did, it was quite controversial. Men such as White claimed to do so was to violate Washington’s principle of neutrality from his Farewell Address. But like so many issues during these years, this was a cover-up for the real issue: slavery. These new Latin American nations had all (or maybe almost all) ended slavery. The South wanted nothing to do with nations who would do such a horrible thing. So White led the charge to defend slavery from scary Latin American emancipationists. After debate, the U.S. did send two delegates to it, but one died on the way and the other got there after it ended.

In his early years, White’s positions tended to follow those of Andrew Jackson and the southern elite. He hated the 1828 tariff that would lead South Carolina to threaten secession, speaking of debates about slavery where no one would use the word. He opposed federally funded internal improvements and supported Jackson in 1828. He disliked the Bank of the United States. He also called for the elimination of the Electoral College (this may be the only issue where Andrew Jackson was absolutely correct).

But by the end of Jackson’s first term, they began to split. White stated moving toward more moderate positions. Jackson took it personally because of course he did. He offered White the position of Secretary of War, but the latter turned it down and this seemed to insult the president. During the nullification crisis, White supported the moderate position of Henry Clay‘s faction in the Senate. At the core of this split seems to be that White believed Jackson was collecting too much power in the executive. White was enough of a states’ rights believer that while he opposed South Carolina’s extremism, he also took the Whig critique of Jackson as a dictator in training seriously.

Jackson had also lost of support in Tennessee during his presidency. That state had a lot of Whigs in it. Jackson wanted Martin Van Buren to replace him in 1836. But the Tennessee legislature proposed White instead. Jackson was furious. So that was the final break. White believed that no president should choose their successor, though that’s really what the Virginia Dynasty had done. In any case, White finally just left the Democratic Party and joined the Whigs. But that really wasn’t a functional political party of its own. 1836 was the year when Whig leaders tried to run a bunch of regional candidates with the hope of throwing the election into Congress, where it expected to have the majority and then could choose a president. White was one of those guys. It did not work. White did win Tennessee and Georgia, placing him second only to William Henry Harrison among those four Whig candidates, but Van Buren won the majority anyway.

By this time, Jackson and White truly hated each other. White had accused the administration of fraud. Jackson was personally insulted. I’m actually surprised he didn’t challenge White to a duel, but Jackson was now old and of course it would look bad for an ex-president to do this. But Jackson had dedicated quite a bit of time to supporting allies to take over the Tennessee legislature in his post-presidency. This is what led to the rise of utter nobodies such as James Polk. That future president and other Tennessee Democrats had it out for White. In 1840, the Subtreasury Bill was before the Senate. This was the latest salvo in the Democratic war against banks. Although it eventually laid the groundwork for the U.S. Treasury to become a functional system, at the time, almost all Whigs opposed it. Democrats in the legislature demanded White vote for it. He refused. Knowing he would not be returned to the Senate, he then resigned.

White returned to Knoxville. There was a big party for him. Then he got sick and died, who knows from what. He was 66 years old. White had experienced much death in his life. Between 1825 and 1831, eight of his ten children died of tuberculosis, which White himself somehow escaped. Much later, a Hugh Lawson White became governor of Mississippi, but there was no relation that I can see.

Hugh Lawson White is buried in First Presbyterian Cemetery, Knoxville, Tennessee.

Very briefly in 1832 and 1833, White was president pro tempore of the Senate. If you would like this series to visit other senators to have held this position, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Littleton Tazewell, who preceded White, is in Norfolk, Virginia and George Poindexter, who succeeded him, is in Jackson, Mississippi. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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