Balie Peyton, born near Gallatin, Tennessee, was an attorney and colorful political figure whose career included public service in Tennessee; Washington, D.C.; Louisiana; Chile; and California. Throughout most of his adult life, he also conducted a breeding operation for thoroughbred race horses on his Station Camp Creek farm in Sumner County.
Elected in 1832 to the House of Representatives of the Twenty-third Congress as a Jacksonian, Peyton afterward bolted the president’s party but won reelection. He was one of the founders of the Whig Party in Tennessee.
In 1837, Peyton moved his family to New Orleans, where he practiced law and participated in Whig politics. He worked vigorously on William Henry Harrison’s successful campaign for president in 1840. When Harrison died four weeks after his inauguration, President John Tyler appointed Peyton to a four-year term as U.S. attorney general for the Eastern District of Louisiana. During the mid-1840s, Peyton was frequently mentioned for cabinet-level appointments. Jacksonians expected he would be appointed U.S. attorney general by President Tyler; others regarded him as fit for various high-level offices. The offer that materialized was for secretary of war, and he declined it.
On the day before Congress declared war on Mexico, Peyton volunteered in New Orleans as a private in the ranks, and within a few days he was promoted to colonel. Ordered by General Edmund P. Gaines to recruit a regiment of six-month volunteers, Peyton mustered ten companies into the service of the United States on May 22. Once in Mexico, Peyton volunteered as aide-de-camp for General Zachary Taylor. Later, he transferred to the staff of General W. J. Worth in time to be commended for his participation in the battle of Monterrey.
Confident that Taylor, a war hero and Louisianan, would be the Whig nominee for president, Peyton promoted his candidacy. Taylor wanted to campaign independent of any political party, but Peyton maneuvered the general into abandoning a non-partisan race and acknowledging that he was a Whig. With Taylor’s election in 1848, Peyton was appointed minister to Chile. He completed a relatively uneventful four-year term there before going to San Francisco in 1853 at the mid-term of the California gold rush.
Opening a law office in San Francisco, Peyton soon became an acknowledged leader in the political life of the city. He was a leading conciliator in defusing a deadly hostility that developed between two opposing citizens groups, reformers known as the Vigilance Committee of 1856 and a smaller status quo group known as Law and Order. At a critical moment, Peyton successfully assured the governor of California of the imminent dissolution of the Vigilance Committee and persuaded him to desist from his plans to declare martial law in the city. A few days later, the committee publicly disbanded.
As the national Whig Party faded from the scene, Peyton joined the American Party and in 1856 was state-at-large elector for the Fillmore-Donelson ticket. He regarded his efforts as an attempt to save the Union.
Peyton returned to Tennessee in 1859. Arriving in New York on November 27, he continued to Philadelphia where a cousin persuaded him to join in forming a national union party. Several weeks later, Peyton launched the Constitutional Union Party in a speech at Philadelphia, portraying the new party as an alternative to sectional parties that threatened to destroy the Union. Their effort was too late. The party’s presidential ticket, John Bell of Tennessee and Edward Everett of Massachusetts, carried only three states: Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.
During the years 1861-65, Peyton resided on his Station Camp Creek farm. One of his first visits to Nashville in 1862 was to the Louisville and Nashville Railroad station to receive the mortal remains of his son, Balie Jr., a Confederate infantry officer killed in the battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky.
Peyton was a confidant of Military Governor Andrew Johnson until 1864, when Tennessee Unionists split into radical and conservative factions. As a Conservative Unionist, he opposed Johnson’s successful attempt to control the vote in the Tennessee presidential election of 1864. Peyton’s only election to public office after the war was to a seat in the State Senate for a single term (1869-71).
Throughout his career, Peyton was a political ally of many, but especially of Congressmen William Bowen Campbell and John Bell of Tennessee; Senators Henry Wise of Virginia, Alexander Barrow of Louisiana, Henry Clay and John J. Crittenden of Kentucky; and William H. Polk, the president’s brother.
Balie was the inspiration for his brother, Joseph Hopkins Peyton, who campaigned successfully as a Whig for the Tennessee State Senate in 1840. Two years later, voters elected him to the House of Representatives of the Twenty-eighth Congress and reelected him to a second term. Death overtook him on November 11, 1845, before the Twenty-ninth Congress convened on December 1.
Nationally known for the fine racehorses bred on his farm, Peyton had promoted and staged the Peyton Stake, a futurity race for colts and fillies dropped in the spring of 1839. Held at Nashville in 1843, the race attracted international attention because the purse was the largest that had ever been offered in America or Europe.
Prior to the death of Balie Jr. in the Civil War, family life for Peyton was shattered by the fatal illness of his thirty-four-year-old wife Anne Alexander Smith Peyton in New Orleans in 1845. Two years later, his youngest daughter, “Nan,” died at age seven when thrown from her pony. His oldest child and daughter, Emily, cared for her father from the time her mother died until Balie’s death. She never married. Balie was pleased when his son John Bell Peyton married Frances Trousdale, daughter of Governor William Trousdale, in 1861. Balie Peyton died in 1878. John Bell died in 1914.
James Douglas Anderson, Making the American Thoroughbred, Especially in Tennessee, 1800-1845 (1916);
Walter T. Durham, Balie Peyton of Tennessee: Nineteenth Century Politics and Thoroughbreds (2004)