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Home News Local News How Scott County became Tennessee's most Republican county

How Scott County became Tennessee’s most Republican county

Editor’s Note — Some of the following information comes from a May 2020 “Forgotten Times” feature in the Independent Herald, entitled, “Scott County’s switch from blue county to red county.” Given our report from last week’s election that Scott County is Tennessee’s most reliable Republican county (see related story, Page A1), we thought our readers might be interested in revisiting this bit of local history.

Writing for the Cumberland Chronicle in 1904, Jehu Phillips — Scott County’s first trustee — wrote that the Civil War flipped Scott County to a loyal Republican stronghold.

“Before the Civil War the Whig and Democratic parties were about equally divided in this county,” wrote Phillips, an ancestor to former district attorney general Wm. Paul Phillips and his brothers, financial advisor Steve Phillips, Dr. Gary Phillips and retired federal judge Tom Phillips. “I was raised a Democrat, but after the war nearly every citizen in this county voted the Republican ticket and have been doing so in this county since that time.”

Phillips wasn’t wrong. He wasn’t wrong in 1904, and his words remain true more than a century later.

There have been exceptions at the state and local levels — in fact, Scott County’s own Les Winningham enjoyed a lengthy tenure as a Democrat in the state legislature — but Scott County has not voted for a Democrat for president since the Civil War, and is the only county in Tennessee with that distinction.

In recent years, Scott County has become even more solidly Republican. In 2016, Donald Trump received a larger share of the vote than in any other county in the state, with the exception of Wayne County. In 2018, Scott Countians voted for Republican Governor Bill Lee by the largest margin of any of Tennessee’s 95 counties. And, last week, Scott County voters cast ballots for Trump by the widest margin of any county in the state.

More than 88% of the votes cast last week — nearly 9 out of every 10 — were for Trump. What’s more, every other Republican on the ballot won Scott County by a larger margin than any other county in the state or in his district.

There have been efforts to explain white America’s overwhelming vote for Trump as having racial undertones. Writing for the New York Times, opinion columnist Charles Blow flatly called white Republican voters racists. In a news analysis piece, CNN also suggested racism was in play.

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But Scott County’s loyalty to the Republican Party is not driven by racism. Ironically enough, this county’s deep shade of red was created during the nation’s most tumultuous time — when Scott County rejected secession and efforts to preserve the institution of slavery and joined forces with Republican President Abraham Lincoln and the Union.

In 1861, Democrats controlled Tennessee. Gov. Isham Harris, one of those Democrats, strongly opposed Lincoln, and threatened secession even before Lincoln was elected in 1860. The governor led a secession referendum in the Winter of 1860 and failed. Tennessee remained with the Union.

Months later, as public sentiment began to shift after the attack on Fort Sumter, Harris forced another vote. This time, Middle Tennessee shifted to pro-secession West Tennessee and left anti-secession East Tennessee high and dry.

Scott Countians were unique in their stand against secession, even as a part of the larger East Tennessee region that overwhelmingly rejected the measure to join the Confederacy. After listening to a fiery speech delivered by future president Andrew Johnson on the steps of the Scott County Courthouse in Huntsville, Scott Countians rejected secession by the largest margin of any county in the state: 541 to 19.

When news of Tennessee’s secession reached back home, Scott Countians were incensed. At a special meeting of county court, one old farmer rose to shout, “If the g*d***n state of Tennessee can secede from the Union, Scott County can secede from the state of Tennessee.”

And Scott County did just that, declaring its independence and forming what it called the Free & Independent State of Scott.

Angered by the move, Gov. Harris sent Confederate troops to Scott County to arrest and hang members of county court. But none of them were ever captured.

To be clear, Scott County didn’t vote to stay with Lincoln’s Union because this was a Republican enclave. In 1860, the Republican Party was still brand new. It was created largely in opposition to the institution of slavery. Scott Countians did not support Lincoln in the 1860 election. In fact, it has been written that only one voter here — Shadrack “Shade” Lewallen — cast a ballot for Lincoln in that election. Scott Countians instead supported Constitutional Union Party candidate John Bell.

But Scott County was not a slave-owning community. Slave census records show that there were 61 slaves owned in Scott County in 1860 — the fewest of any county in  Tennessee, and one of just two counties in the state where fewer than 100 slaves were owned.

Scott Countians were so opposed to secession and the Confederacy that scores of local residents snuck across the border into Kentucky to join the Union army. Several local families helped hide other soldiers from patrolling Rebel forces as they used Scott County as their own gateway into Union territory to the north. One of those families was Marcum family of Buffalo Creek, where a teenage girl named Julia Marcum was seriously wounded as she fought off Confederate soldiers who visited the farm with the intention of killing her father for his loyalty to the Union.

The anti-secession sentiment from the Civil War forever changed politics in Scott County. Formed in 1849, Scott County had voted for a Democrat for president just once: James Buchanan in 1856 (in 1852, Scott Countians voted for Whig candidate Winfield Scott, the War of 1812 hero for whom Scott County and the Town of Winfield were named). But after Lincoln received just one vote in Scott County in 1860, he received a majority of the votes here in his 1864 re-election bid — even though the votes were not officially recorded because the federal government officially recognized Scott County as part of Tennessee, which had seceded.

“When Abe Lincoln ran for president the second time most of the voters in Scott County were fighting for the Union Army, but there had been a wonderful change in sentiment and most of those in Scott County voted for Abe Lincoln for president,” Phillips wrote in 1904.

From that point, Scott Countians kept right on voting Republican — even when the rest of the former Confederate States of America, or at least the parts of them where white voters were in the majority, were voting Democrat.

In 1868, war leader Ulysses S. Grant — a Republican — won the presidency in a landslide. And more than 90% of Scott Countians voted for him.

In 1872, when Grant sought re-election, Scott County voted for him by the largeset margin of any county in the state, with more than 90% of voters again casting their ballots for the famed Civil War general.

Then came the contentious election of 1876. Beat down by the Civil War, and not even fielding a candidate in the 1872 election, the Democratic Party made a triumphant return by nominating New York Gov. Samuel J. Tilden for president. Republicans, meanwhile, nominated Rutherford B. Hayes, the governor of Ohio.

Tilden actually won the popular vote, with 50.9% to Hayes’ 47.9%. But Hayes won the Electoral College, after being awarded all of the electoral votes in four contested states.

The 1876 election, which left the United States on the brink of a constitutional crisis after the vote was so close and so tightly contested, marked the end of the Reconstruction era in the South. White southerners resented the presence of federal troops in their back yard, and a compromise was struck that called for their withdrawal.

Tilden held a 184-165 lead over Hayes in the electoral college, but the election results were disputed in four states: South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana and Oregon. Tilden was reported to have won the electoral vote in all three of the disputed Southern states. But there were widespread reports of voter fraud. Black voters — who voted overwhelmingly Republican, for obvious reasons — endured threats of violence at the polls. In South Carolina, 101% of all eligible voters cast ballots. There were also reports of confusing ballots being printed in Southern states with the intent of misleading voters.

As the alleged improprieties came to light, the election commissions in the three states — which were dominated by Republicans because they were appointed by the federal government after the Confederacy’s rebellion was defeated — discounted enough Democrat votes for Hayes to be declared the winner in each state. And, as a result, the Republican had a 185 to 184 lead in the Electoral College.

Democrats were angry, of course, and a second civil war looked imminent. But a compromise was reached in which Republicans would withdraw all federal troops that remained in the South in exchange for conceding the presidency to Hayes.

Tilden won Tennessee in that 1876 election, receiving 60% of the vote to just 40% for Hayes. But while newly-freed slaves — who were exercising their right to vote throughout the South — won the presidency for Hayes, something strange happened in Scott County, one of the whitest counties in all of the former confederacy. More than 80% of voters here cast their ballots for the Republican. It was the largest majority for Hayes of any county in Tennessee — and, with the exception of a handful of counties in eastern Louisiana’s plantation country, and one county in Mississippi, there was no other county anywhere in the South where Hayes won 80% or more of the vote.

Not once since that 1876 election have Republicans voted for a Democrat for president. The margins have been larger some years than others, but the end result has always been the same.

Much of the time, most of East Tennessee — which was also turned Republican during the secession fight of 1861 — has voted for the GOP candidate alongside Scott Countians. But that hasn’t always been the case. There have been presidential elections that have seen Scott County stand alone in support of the Republican candidate.

Most notably, when Democrat Bill Clinton won election in 1996, every surrounding county, with the exception of Pickett County, voted for Clinton. But Scott County voted for Republican nominee Bob Dole.

In 1992, when Clinton was first on the ballot, every county neighboring Scott County — including Pickett County — voted for the former Arkansas governor. Scott County stood alone in support of Republican George H.W. Bush.

In 1920, most of East Tennessee voted for Republican Warren G. Harding as the Volunteer State broke from the rest of the former confederacy, which supported Democrat James M. Cox. But Scott Countians voted for Harding by the largest majority of any county in the state.

And that’s the way it’s been, ever since the Civil War. Scott County is the only county in Tennessee that has not supported a Democrat for president since the war — true to Jehu Phillips’ words in 1904.

In fact, the only time since the war that Scott County hasn’t voted Republican was in 1912, and then they voted for a former Republican, Theodore Roosevelt. The former two-term president felt disenfranchised with Republican President William H. Taft and started the “Bull Moose Party,” a progressive movement. Scott County, along with Campbell, Morgan and Anderson counties and much of the rest of East Tennessee, voted for Roosevelt. But, never content to just be ordinary, Scott County voted for Roosevelt by the largest margin of any county in Tennessee.

And that is the story of how Scott County became a loyal Republican county. Through the years, political allegiances have swung wildly in the south — from somewhat split to heavily Democratic in the mid 20th century, then heavily Republican, back to blue during the Clinton era, and finally red again. Through it all, Scott County has been steadfastly red.

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Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.
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