Governor and U.S. Congressman Alfred A. Taylor was born in Happy Valley, Carter County, August 6, 1848, the second son of Emma Haynes and Nathaniel Green Taylor. His father was a farmer, Methodist minister, twice First District U.S. representative, and commissioner of Indian Affairs under Andrew Johnson. Alf Taylor entered politics as a Republican, while his younger brother, Robert L. Taylor, joined the Democrats. Together the two became cornfield debaters, fiddlers, and adept storytellers; Alf also gained a reputation as an avid fox hunter.
After attending academies in New Jersey and Carter County, Alf Taylor read law and was admitted to the bar. In 1874 he won a legislative seat on the Republican ticket. In 1881 he married Jennie Anderson of nearby Buffalo Valley and they became the parents of ten children.
In 1886 the Republicans tried to head off Democratic plans to nominate Bob Taylor for governor by nominating Alf Taylor. The Democrats nominated Bob Taylor anyway, and the resulting campaign became famous in Tennessee history as the “War of the Roses.” Alf Taylor lost, but he won the First Congressional District seat in 1888, 1890, and 1892. He supported the McKinley Tariff and the Lodge Federal Elections Bill, a measure to protect African American voting rights with federal supervision.
After leaving Congress, Alf started a new career, once more teaming with his brother Bob. The brothers launched a joint lecture tour, titling their lectures “Yankee Doodle” and “Dixie.” More lecturing and farming followed, with unsuccessful periodic forays into politics. In 1920, when Taylor was seventy-two years old, a division within the Democratic Party provided him with the opportunity to make another race for governor. To counter criticism of his age, he introduced a story about “Old Limber,” an aging foxhound who beat the pack. Three sons and a friend formed the Old Limber Quartet that opened speaking engagements. Rival Democrats had little political ammunition beyond Taylor’s support for the Lodge Bill thirty years earlier. Taylor won 55.2 percent of the vote in the first gubernatorial election in which women voted.
Tennessee struggled with an outmoded tax system, and since 1910 the state had sunk steadily into debt. Taylor proposed a new tax commission, capable of compelling county assessors to set fair rates and taxing farmland according to its earning power. Taylor made recommendations for addressing the state’s “Big Four” problems–taxation, rural schools, highways, and economy in government–but legislative opposition blocked his program. In addition, many critics of the Taylor administration question his failure to prevent the execution of Maurice F. Mayes, an African American accused of murdering a white woman in Knoxville.
In 1922 Taylor faced Austin Peay in his bid for a second term. The candidates’ programs were not materially different, but Peay won. Taylor returned to his East Tennessee home, where he died in 1931.
Robert L. Taylor Jr., “Apprenticeship in the First District: Bob and Alf Taylors Early Congressional Races,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 28 (1969): 24-41 and “Tennessees War of the Roses as Symbol and Myth,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 41 (1982): 337-59