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Mini Biographies of Scots and Scots Descendants (B)
Brown, Joseph E.

Brown, Joseph E.Scots/Irish originally from Scotland

Joseph E. Brown
a North Georgia Notable

Born 1821, South Carolina
Died 1894

Georgia politician

Joseph E. Brown: Businessman, Educator, and Politician

by Carole E. Scott

Georgia's Joseph Emerson Brown was a self-made man successful in both business and politics who became rich, in part, by adroitly using his political power to foster his extensive business interests. Being on the losing side of The War Between the States undoubtedly slowed down his acquisition of wealth, but it did not even temporarily impoverish him. It was what he said, and what he did; not charisma, that won elections for Joe Brown, as he was not very likable; neither a good speaker or good looking; and came from a humble background in a day when most of Georgia's political leaders came from the elite planter class. The only man to have four times been elected governor of Georgia, conceivably, if he had not been forced to resign as a result of the defeat of the Confederacy, he could have been reelected to a fifth term. He also served the State as a circuit judge, state senator, chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, and U.S. Senator. (While in his day Georgia's governors were elected by popular vote, U.S. Senators were elected by the state legislature.)

Georgia Governor
Joseph E. Brown
He was the owner of iron and coal companies in Northwestern Georgia (mostly Dade County); the president of the firm that after the war leased the State-owned Western & Atlantic Railroad; and a large investor in real estate and stocks and bonds.

Georgia's coal and iron deposits were largely undeveloped until after the Civil War, when Brown began mining operations. He realized the potential of railroads in general both in economic development and as a field of investment. Besides that, railroads fascinated Joe. Mixing business with pleasure, he often spent days riding up and down the Western & Atlantic's line connecting Atlanta with Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Because the governor chose to say little about his investments and placed no value on them in his will, it is impossible to accurately measure how wealthy he became, but in 1881, while serving in the U.S. Senate, The New York Times reported that Brown was worth one to two million dollars. [July 2, 1881] At his death some estimated his wealth at up to $12 million.

Brown's contribution to Education

Called "The Ploughboy" before the war by planter enemies because he came from a non-slave owning family, he moved to North Georgia after his birth in the Upcountry of South Carolina in 1821. In this mountainous part of Georgia's Upcountry there where few educational opportunities; so when he was 19, clad in homespun clothes, he traveled to South Carolina, where he traded a yoke of oxen for room and board and arranged to attend the Calhoun Academy on credit.

Upon his return from that school, Brown taught school in Canton, Georgia and studied law in his spare time. Without ever having read a day in a lawyer's office, he was admitted to the bar in Canton [Cherokee County]. He also worked as a tutor. Throughout his life he sought to prevent others from having to struggle as he had in order to get an education. As Georgia's governor in 1858, he advocated that schools be established so that every "free white child" would have the right to attend. "Let," he said, "the children of the richest and the poorest parents in the state meet in the school room on terms of perfect equality of right..." This was needed, he believed, because the State's lack of development was for want of education. While he did not get all he asked the legislature for, it did set aside money from earnings of the Western & Atlantic (W&A) to educate white children.

Brown served on the University of Georgia's board of trustees from 1857 to 1889. He served, too, as president of the Atlanta Board of Education from 1869 until 1888. His contribution to education in Atlanta was recognized after his death by the naming of a now closed high school (originally a junior high school) in his honor. When he was in the U.S. Senate, Brown said that the federal government should finance the education of children of all classes and both races. He did not agree with those who said the education of the people was not a federal responsibility because "we do not live under the Constitution that we lived under" prior to the War Between the States. This was due to the fact that its powers had been greatly expanded since then.

In 1845, after passing the bar, Brown enrolled at Yale's Law School, financing this with money borrowed from a Canton physician who he would later, as governor, appoint to head the State-owned railroad, the Western & Atlantic. After receiving a Bachelor of Law degree in 1846, he returned to Cherokee County, where he practiced law and married the daughter of a local Baptist preacher.

His belief system

Before 1865, Brown was a Jacksonian Democrat who shared Jackson's belief in the spoils system; his anti-bank philosophy; and his appeal to the common man. An adroit opportunist, he was so devoted to states' rights that many historians believe that as Georgia's governor he hindered the Confederacy's war effort.

As governor, he replaced both the top management of the W&A and many minor officials with supporters. He instructed the Road's superintendent "to cut all unnecessary expenses, but keep the railroad in good repair; dismiss all employees who were supernumeraries or not absolutely necessary to the operation of the road. Where salaries were found to be higher than those paid for similar service on other railroads they were to be reduced. He was to require 'absolute subordination, and prompt obedience to orders.' All employees, regardless of position, who were known to use 'intoxicating liquors of any kind' as beverage or were engaged in 'gaming' or 'any other dissipation of immorality' were to be dismissed. Strict economy was to be required in even small transactions....'Prompt obedience to these orders will be required. That they may not be misunderstood by any, you will have them printed and a copy delivered to each officer and employee on the road.'"

After the War, he became a Republican and moved to Atlanta, which the Republicans who then controlled the state government had made the State's new capital. Despite having allied himself in both politics and business with carpetbaggers and scalawags, after the State was "redeemed," he returned to the Democratic Party. He then became a member of a group of Atlanta politicians and their handlers called by various people at various times the Atlanta Ring or the Kirkwood Ring. (The chief handler was Henry Grady, editor of the Atlanta Constitution.) For many years, Brown and two other members of this group, called the Bourbon Triumvirate, dominated the State politically. As a Democrat, Brown was appointed to and subsequently elected to the U.S. Senate.


In a December 7, 1860 public letter, Brown explained why people like those from whom he sprang would suffer if the slaves were freed, something he believed the capture of the White House by a Republican and the resulting Republican-appointed federal judiciary would bring about within a quarter of a century. If, he wrote, as had been true in Great Britain when its slaves were freed, slave owners were compensated for the loss of their slaves as he, who by then owned a few slaves, believed was fair, non-slave owners would have to pay high taxes to raise the necessary funds. This would be true even if, as was unlikely, Northerners agreed to bear part of the cost. Like many Southerners, he did not think whites and blacks could peacefully co-exist in the absence of slavery; so he thought sending them to Africa was a good idea. However, the cost of financing their transportation; the acquisition of land for them there; and supporting them until they could get established would significantly further increase the tax burden on non-slave owners.

If they were not sent to Africa, they would remain in the South because some of the Northern States had already passed laws prohibiting free blacks from settling in them. Even if slave owners were not compensated for the loss of their slaves, and the slaves were not returned to Africa, non-slave owners would suffer economic harm. This was because money that still relatively wealthy Southerners would previously have invested in slaves would, instead, be used to buy land. They would soon buy all the lands in the South worth cultivating. Then poor whites would all become tenants like they were in England, the New England States, and in the other old countries where slavery did not exist. The freed slaves, too, would become tenants, and they would have to begin life as free men miserably poor, with neither land, money nor provisions. They must, therefore, become day laborers for their old masters and come into competition with poor white laborers. This competition between blacks and whites would, he believed, reduce whites' wages. Because abolitionism was an attack on property rights, he warned Georgia's non-slave owners that they should not sit idly by and allow other people's slave property to be taken from them.

According to some historians, Brown's forecast of a non-slave future was pretty accurate. Economic historian Gavin Wright, for example, observes that, while before the War the South was not a low wage region, afterwards, for the unskilled, it was, and unskilled whites' wages were depressed almost to the level of those paid blacks. Slave owners who, he says, before the War sought to maximize the value of the output of their slave workers, and, therefore, their value, after the War became landlords desiring to maximize the value of the output of their land.

Fortunately for Brown, it was not known until long after his death that in order to obtain his release after the War, he agreed to induce Georgians to be loyal to the U.S. However, it appears that there was no dishonesty involved in his making this promise, as it seems that, ever the realist, he believed what he preached. He explained joining the Republican Party after the War by observing that "We may offer resistance, or refuse to act, for years to come, and live under military government, or in a state of anarchy, and we will still be compelled, in the end to come to the terms dictated by the conqueror. Then why delay longer? "To continue to pay taxes and be dominated by a government in which you had no representation was," he believed, "unthinkable.

His Later Years

During the last decades of his life Brown was one of Georgia's three most powerful politicians. The other members of the Bourbon Triumvirate were fellow Atlantans Alfred H. Colquitt and John B. Gordon. Though from a more prosperous family than Joe Brown, John Brown Gordon (no relation) was also a lawyer; from the same part of the State; and owned coal mines there that by 1860 had made him financially secure. Unlike Brown, this fearless General was handsome, a fine orator; and a natural-born leader of men; yet he was much less successful as a businessman. After the War, Gordon was elected governor and to the U.S. Senate. (Today there is a Gordon County in Georgia, but there is no Brown County.)

How Brown solved some of his political problems is revealed by the advice he gave his carpetbagger partner Hannibal Kimball regarding how he might get the State of Georgia to honor the "Bullock bonds," bonds issued during the administration of carpetbagger governor Rufus Bullock, a one-time ally of Brown. Kimball should, Brown said, obtain funds sufficient to control the important newspapers, conciliate the politicians most popular with the people, and hire lobbyists. While Brown often resorted to such use of the "carrot," he sometimes resorted to the stick. To silence one newspaper editor he forced the liquidation of the newspaper by having a bank in which he was a major stockholder foreclose on a loan to the editor.

Brown gained the seat in the U.S. Senate earlier denied him by the voters of Georgia when General John B. Gordon gave up his seat in order to accept a $14,000 a year position with the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L&N) Governor Alfred Colquitt appointed Brown to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by General Gordon, and both Brown and Gordon agreed to support Colquitt for reelection. Because many believed Brown had paid off Gordon in order to get his seat, they were subject to an avalanche of criticism.

Brown made money through trading before he became governor, while he was governor, and thereafter. He made money during the war trading in bonds, especially railroad bonds, and lending the State money. He was the president of and owned stock in the company that leased the State-owned railroad, the Western and Atlantic (W&A). This business fit like a hand in a glove with his extensive interests in coal and iron mining in the Northwestern Georgia served by the W&A because he used it to transport his iron and coal, and it used his coal. He also owned stock in a sleeping car company, the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, the East Tennessee Railroad, the Virginia Railroad, and the Texas and Pacific Railroad. He was also a major stockholder in Georgia's Citizens Bank.

He began practicing law in Atlanta in 1866, and his services were soon in greater demand than any other lawyer in the State. None charged higher fees than he did. In 1866, he was retained as counsel for four Augusta banks for a fee of $5,000, and he and the president of a Macon bank agreed to be informers for the U.S. Treasury in exchange for 25 percent of any money it recovered. In 1867, he contracted to defend a bank for $9,000.

As of April 1, 1866, he owned 6,818 acres of land in plots scattered around the State. To this he soon began adding Atlanta real estate. At that time most of his investments were in farm land and Atlanta real estate. Tax returns for 1872 reveal that he valued his Fulton County investments at $114,000 ($70,000 in Atlanta real estate and $25,000 in stocks and bonds). He owned 1,696 acres of land in Cherokee County; 1,520 in Gordon County, and 1,708 acres in eight other counties. In addition, he owned coal- and iron-bearing land in Bartow, Cherokee, and Dade counties. He also owned 28,000 acres of land in Texas that he had traded his stock in the Texas and Pacific Railroad for.

When he was governor, Brown said he would be willing to lease the State owned and operated Western and Atlantic Railroad for $25,000 a month. By late 1870 the public outcry against graft in the Western & Atlantic was so loud and insistent that the idea of leasing the road received support from both major parties. The Democrat who introduced in the General Assembly a bill to lease the W&A asked Brown, who was then Chief Justice of Georgia's Supreme Court, to put the finishing touches to the bill.

A group headed by Brown and Kimball submitted a bid, and although their bid of $25,000, the minimum allowed, was not the low bid, they got the lease. Their group merged with one of the two other bidding groups, one of whose members got a large payment from Brown for unspecified services. ("I have made it a rule as a lawyer," Brown wrote, "to law for other people who desired it and compromise for myself."

Like Gordon, at his mines Brown worked convict labor leased from the State. Public protest against the lease system resulted in four investigations of convict camps. Investigating committees consistently gave Brown the best report. Presumably, Brown did not hurt his cause by giving investigators free transportation on the W&A and hosting a dinner for them

In 1887, in a debate about a proposed amendment to the Constitution he opposed that would prevent a state from denying the right to vote on the basis of sex, he denied that suffrage would raise women's pay because wages are determined by supply and demand, and being able to vote would not supply women with more strength and ability.

In a speech he made on the floor of the Senate on March 27, 1882 on a tariff bill, Brown revealed that he was opposed to direct (internal) taxes because, unlike a tariff, they were not progressive. Tariffs on imports are progressive in nature, he said, because the wealthy consume a disproportionate share of imports; while the burden of that day's direct taxes levied a more equal burden on the public. He advocated the elimination of direct taxes because they were not progressive. Only in time of war did he think it was right to levy them. Although he said in this speech that the federal government should spend less, in the Senate he fought hard to direct federal funds to Georgia; disproportionately in the case of education because Georgia, like the other Southern States, lagged behind the rest of the nation. Even though the intent in levying a tariff is to raise revenue, he pointed out, it will serve to protect domestic producers of the product the tariff is levied on; so there is no such thing as a purely revenue tariff.

"I am," he declared, "neither a free-trade man, willing to collect all the money we have to raise by direct tax upon the people, nor am I willing to lay a tax simply for protection when the Government does not need the money. But if I had it in my power I would raise all the money necessary to support the Government by tariff, and I would so adjust the tariff which we have to raise to meet the necessary expenses of the Government as to afford as far as possible an incidental protection to home industry...." He was also a supporter of a return to a bimetallic (gold and silver) monetary standard.

Brown retired from the Senate before his death in 1894. By then most Georgians had forgiven him for turning Republican after the War. According to the author of a history of Cherokee County, "It was Brown's gift for expediency that caused him to fall into popular disfavor when the war and his last term as governor were over. Foreseeing the era of the carpetbaggers, he aligned himself with the Republican party and advocated submission to the victorious North. That he was able by this policy to make reconstruction easier for Georgia is now undisputed, but his about-face won him much contemporary bitterness."

Thanks to Richard Brown for the above.

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