Georgia governor and U.S. senator Joseph Emerson Brown (1821-1894) is chiefly remembered for his political representation of the common man and his obstructionist attitude toward the policies of Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
Joseph E. Brown was born in Pickens District, S.C., on April 15, 1821, but his family soon moved to the mountains of northern Georgia. At the age of 19 Brown attended school in Anderson District, S.C. He returned to Canton, Ga., where he directed the local academy and read law. In 1845, after admission to the Georgia bar, he left to attend Yale Law School. He graduated in 1846, settled in Canton, and began practicing law.
In 1849 Brown was elected to the state senate, where he demonstrated a capacity for work and innate political skill. In 1855 he became judge of the Blue Ridge circuit. A Democrat, Brown was elected governor in 1857, 1859, 1861, and 1863—a record never equaled before in the history of Georgia.
Brown protected the interests of the average Georgian and sought measures to extend benefits to the plain people. He opposed legislation especially favorable to the banks of the state, advocated the establishment of free schools and endowment of the state university, reformed the administration of the state-owned Western and Atlantic Railroad, and improved the militia system.
Though Brown consistently maintained proslavery and secessionist attitudes, he was in constant conflict with the Confederate government: he was nearly fanatical in adhering to the doctrine of state sovereignty, while the exigencies of the Civil War forced President Davis to promote centralization of government. Brown opposed Davis's acceptance of state troops without the governor's permission and the appointment of officers to command Georgia troops. He disputed both the wisdom and constitutionality of the conscription law and at times obstructed its application; he protested against seizure of property without compensation; and he opposed the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.
At the end of the war in 1865, Brown was imprisoned briefly and then resigned the governorship. During Reconstruction he advised compliance with the congressional plan, an attitude which subjected him to widespread denunciation. He even joined the Republican party. In 1868 he was named chief justice of the state supreme court but 2 years later resigned to become president of the Western and Atlantic Company. By 1872 Brown had rejoined the Democratic party. He was elected U.S. senator in 1880 and twice reelected, serving until 1891. Brown died on Nov. 30, 1894.
The best full-length work on Brown is Louise Biles Hill, Joseph E. Brown and the Confederacy (1939). This is a well-documented study of Brown's career as Georgia's wartime governor and his significance in the failure of the Confederacy. Elizabeth Studley Nathans, Losing the Peace (1969), contains useful information on Brown's railroad interests and on his activities as a Republican. Brown is a prominent figure in E. Merton Coulter, Georgia: A Short History (1947; rev. ed. 1960).
Parks, Joseph Howard, Joseph E. Brown of Georgia, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977.