George Washington Jones was a congressman and prominent Tennessee Democrat from the Jacksonian era through Reconstruction. Born in Virginia on March 15, 1806, Jones’s family migrated to Giles County in 1816. After his father’s death in 1820, he was apprenticed to a saddler in Fayetteville, Lincoln County. He opened his own saddler’s shop after completing his apprenticeship, but he soon embarked on a political career. In 1832, the legislature appointed him justice of the peace, and in 1835 he was elected to the first of three terms in the state legislature. Recognized by Democratic leaders as an effective campaigner, he campaigned as a candidate for presidential elector for Martin Van Buren in 1840, and in 1843 Jones was elected to represent the southern half of Middle Tennessee in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Jones entered the House devoted to limited government and a strict construction of the Constitution, and he joined with Andrew Johnson to promote the interests of small farmers and artisans. Although both campaigned for James K. Polk in the 1844 presidential election, their independence led to their being shunned by the Polk administration. Nevertheless, as a principled Jacksonian representing an overwhelmingly Democratic district, Jones spent sixteen years in Congress. His reputation for honesty and faithful service meanwhile made him one of the House’s leading members. As a slave owner, he defended southern rights in slave property, but in the conflict over slavery’s expansion he advocated “nonintervention,” or “popular sovereignty”–that is, leaving the decision to the residents of a territory–as the democratic solution to whether slavery should exist in western territories. At the same time, he contended that the rise of corporations presented a greater issue than slavery’s expansion and voted consistently against bills granting public lands to assist railroad construction. These votes and his commitment to nonintervention eventually put him out of step with his party. He declined to run for re-election in 1859 when he faced a formidable challenge from a fellow Democrat.
Although retired from Congress, Jones remained an active political figure. Following Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860, Jones initially opposed secession and worked to preserve the Union. After the assault on Fort Sumter, however, he supported Tennessee’s joining the Confederacy, hoping that a united South might shorten the Civil War. He was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives and in his one term became one of the strongest proponents of states’ rights. His old friend, President Andrew Johnson, pardoned Jones at the end of the war, but his participation in Reconstruction was limited when Tennessee’s Radical Republican government disfranchised former Confederates. When Governor DeWitt C. Senter effectively lifted this proscription, Jones was elected to represent Lincoln County at the 1870 Constitutional Convention. He disappointed party leaders, though, when he stormed out of the convention and opposed the 1870 Constitution because it authorized a poll tax. With his political career over, he spent his remaining years in Fayetteville until he died of pneumonia on November 14, 1884.
Jonathan M. Atkins, “‘The Purest Democrat’: The Career of Congressman George W. Jones,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 65 (Spring 2006): 2-21