Governor and U.S. Senator Isham G. Harris was born near Tullahoma, Franklin County, on February 10, 1818, the son of Isham and Lucy Davidson Harris. Raised on his father's farm, where a small number of slaves worked the land, Harris attended public schools and Winchester Academy. In 1832 Harris moved to Paris, Tennessee, where he earned a living as a merchandise store clerk. Within a short time, he moved again to Tippah County, Mississippi, where he studied law at night and operated his store during the day. Left penniless after a local bank failure, Harris returned to Paris and resumed his earlier business partnership. In 1841 he obtained admission to the Tennessee bar and quickly acquired a reputation for honesty and legal proficiency.
Harris's long political career began with his election to the Tennessee State Senate in 1847. The next year, he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives. Reelected in 1850, he declined a third term two years later in order to practice law in Memphis. In 1857 Harris was elected governor of Tennessee. He won reelection in 1859 and 1861.
Events leading to secession and war overshadowed Harris's gubernatorial years. Harris urged secession after Abraham Lincoln's election as president in November 1860. On April 25, 1861, following the bombardment of Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and an earlier unsuccessful attempt to persuade Tennesseans to secede, Harris pushed through the general assembly an ordinance of independence and another one allying Tennessee with the Confederacy; both won voter approval in a June plebiscite. In a tense atmosphere of polarization and danger, Harris prevented the separation of East Tennessee when the state seceded from the Union. He raised one hundred thousand troops for the Confederacy and remained as governor until forced to flee the state after the Union capture of Nashville in 1862. He volunteered as an aide-de-camp on the staffs of Albert S. Johnston, Braxton Bragg, John B. Hood, Joseph E. Johnston, and P. G. T. Beauregard. At Shiloh (1862) General Albert Johnston died in Harris's arms. Serving in the Confederate army at headquarters of the Army of the West for the last three years of the Civil War, Harris participated in all the important battles in Tennessee and those of the Army of the West except Perryville (1862).
Following Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865, the impoverished Harris fled south to avoid capture and imprisonment. He escaped to Mexico, where he lived for eighteen months before spending a year in England. In 1867 he returned to Memphis to resume his law practice and attempt a political comeback.
In 1877 the legislature elected Harris to the U.S. Senate; he won reelection in 1883, 1889, and 1895. Popular at home and respected by congressional colleagues, Harris served in the Senate during the period of party stalemate and equilibrium when national power was vested in Congress, not the presidency. For twenty years he shaped national legislation as an advocate for low tariffs, state rights, bank reforms, limited government, currency expansion, strict constitutional construction, and protection for workers and farmers from exploitation by moneyed interests. He carefully and shrewdly distributed federal patronage to enhance his political base at home. Harris emerged as the leader of Tennessee's conservative Bourbon Democrats, who championed the rights of the individual states and the existing social order, especially white supremacy. As he built up seniority, Harris became an influential member of the upper chamber during Gilded Age America. He gained appointments to various important committees, including finance, claims, rules, the District of Columbia, and the Democratic advisory or “steering” committees. After Democrats assumed control of Congress in 1893, Harris was elected president pro tempore of the Senate, serving in that capacity until March 1895.
Harris voted with the southern Democrats on the major issues before the Senate. He supported tariff reduction to meet government obligations only, preferring the Wilson bill in 1894 to the McKinley Tariff of 1890. Harris denounced the Federal Election Bill as an abridgment of states' rights and a racial provocation. Throughout his career, Harris was involved in the currency question. He favored the Bland-Allison Act of 1878 and the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, both of which permitted limited coinage of silver. In 1893 Harris led silver Democrats against President Grover Cleveland's demand for unconditional repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. In 1895 he attended a convention of over two thousand pro-silver delegates in Memphis and later emerged as chairman of the Democratic Silver Committee. Harris joined the William Jennings Bryan campaign for the presidency in 1896. His political disappointment over Bryan's defeat aggravated his failing health, and Harris died in Washington, D.C., on July 8, 1897. He was buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis.
George W. Watters, “Isham Green Harris, Civil War Governor and Senator from Tennessee, 1818-1897” (Ph.D. diss., Florida State University, 1977)