Arthur S. Colyar, attorney, political leader, newspaper editor, and industrialist, was born in Jonesborough, one of thirteen children of Alexander and Katherine Sevier Sherrill Colyar. Colyar received his education in the Washington County common schools, and in 1828 he moved with his parents to Franklin County. He was first employed as a teacher and later read law before his admission to the bar at Winchester in 1846. Politically, Colyar supported the Whigs in a traditionally Democratic stronghold. By 1860 he owned approximately thirty slaves and was a member of the Constitutional Union Party. Colyar opposed secession until Tennessee joined the Confederacy in 1861.
In October 1861, while campaigning for a seat in the First Confederate Congress, Colyar contracted pneumonia. He recuperated and practiced law in Winchester until 1863. One anecdote holds that he defended a Unionist unlawfully jailed by Confederate authorities at the risk of his own life. He left Winchester soon after the abortive Confederate General Assembly met there, following the Tullahoma offensive by General W. S. Rosecrans in June 1863.
In November 1863 Colyar was elected to the Confederate Congress and served from May 1864 until March 18, 1865. Although he supported direct taxation, the agricultural tax-in-kind, and taxes on corporate profits, he opposed economic controls, a stance he repudiated after the war. He opposed the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Colyar recognized the wisdom of opening peace talks and refused to support a motion to banish Senator Henry S. Foote for undertaking peace negotiations in early 1865.
At the end of the war Colyar received a quick presidential pardon in September 1865. Thereafter, he lived in Nashville, where he returned to his law practice, engaged in state politics, and became involved in a variety of political and industrial matters. On three occasions Colyar ran unsuccessfully for governor on an independent ticket: in 1870 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the gubernatorial nomination of the Conservatives and Democrats; in 1871 he allied with the Reunion and Reform Association; and in 1872 abandoned that organization and ran as an independent before retiring from the election in favor of John C. Brown. In 1876 he was one of the organizers of the Greenback Party, a delegate to that party's national convention, and an unsuccessful candidate for the general assembly. He was elected as an independent to represent Davidson County for the first and extra sessions of the 1877 legislature. In 1878 he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
His political activities always were associated with his diverse business interests in industry, mining, and commerce. Colyar's interest in coal mining and the iron furnace industry began in 1858, when he purchased the Old Sewanee Mining Company, which became the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company after the war, and later developed into Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railway Company, one of the region's most important firms. Colyar sold ownership interest in 1881, but his interest in the company remained substantial. In 1882 he joined with Joseph B. Killebrew and others to organize the Rockdale Company and the Rock City Real Estate Company to acquire and develop mineral rights in Maury County. He also had interests in Rising Fawn Furnace, the Chattanooga Furnace, and Soddy coal mines. In 1881 he purchased controlling ownership of the Nashville American, which he edited and published until 1884.
A New South proponent, Colyar encouraged industrial development through the promotion of northern capital, agricultural diversification, and foreign immigration. As vice-president of Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railway Company, he avidly supported the state program of convict leasing, which supplied convict labor to replace free miners. In 1885 the Nashville Banner exposed Colyar's involvement in the convict lease system. A legislative investigation and a libel suit resulted. Colyar successfully thwarted an early penal reform movement and escaped censure.
Colyar's interests were varied. He was involved in the building of the University of the South at Sewanee in the postwar years. In 1904 he published the two-volume Life and Times of Andrew Jackson. At an unknown date Colyar married Agnes Erskine Estill of Winchester; they were the parents of eleven children. Two years after the 1886 death of his first wife, Colyar married Mrs. Mary McGuire of Louisville, Kentucky. Colyar died in Nashville in 1907 and is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery.
Clyde Ball, “The Public Career of Col. A. S. Colyar, 1870-1877,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 12 (1953): 24-47, 106-28, 213-38; Sarah M. Howell, “Editorials of Arthur S. Colyar, Nashville Prophet of the New South,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 27 (1968): 262-76