John H. McDowell, newspaper editor and leader in the Agricultural Wheel and Farmers’ Alliance, was born December 12, 1844, near Trenton in Gibson County, the son of John Davis and Nancy H. Irwin McDowell. Young McDowell attended St. Andrews College until the Civil War interrupted his education. He joined Company H of the Twelfth Tennessee Infantry but was discharged as underage. Undeterred, McDowell joined a cavalry regiment and served under Generals Earl Van Dorn and Nathan Bedford Forrest.
After the war McDowell returned to farming, first in Arkansas and then Obion County. In addition to farming, he edited the Union City Anchor and became involved in Democratic Party politics. In 1882 McDowell won his first term in the Tennessee General Assembly. He served two terms in the Tennessee House of Representatives (1883-85 and 1905-7) and one term in the state Senate (1887-89). McDowell shepherded a constitutional amendment to impose prohibition through two legislatures and brought it to a statewide vote, where it was defeated in 1887. He also championed an anti-Sunday baseball law to prevent semiprofessional baseball games (as well as the gambling associated with them) on Sundays.
In addition to his prohibition and antigambling reform efforts, McDowell became a leader in the growing agrarian movements of the 1880s. A member of the earlier Patrons of Husbandry (Grange), he joined both the Agricultural Wheel and the Farmers’ Alliance, becoming a national vice-president in both organizations. In 1888 McDowell became owner and editor of The Weekly Toiler, the state organ of the Wheel, which was published in Nashville. From the pages of the Toiler, McDowell marshaled support for the farmers’ organizations, the cooperative efforts of the Wheel and Alliance, the jute boycott, and the election of agrarian-friendly legislators. In the fall of 1890 McDowell left the Toiler to manage the gubernatorial campaign of John P. Buchanan, the president of the Tennessee Farmers’ Alliance and Laborers’ Union. Governor Buchanan rewarded McDowell with the prize state patronage position of coal oil inspector. McDowell succeeded Buchanan as state president in the Alliance.
McDowell resisted reform efforts, both in the temperance and agrarian movements, that called for the formation of a third party. By 1892 many Democratic leaders openly worried that the Alliance would soon dominate the party. As a result, Buchanan’s campaign for a second term became an acrimonious battle for control of the party, and McDowell became the lightning rod for the fears of traditional party leaders. When Democrats invoked party discipline that precluded support for Alliance demands, many Alliance members withdrew to establish the People’s Party (Populists), and McDowell reluctantly joined them. Politically unsuccessful, the Populists nevertheless remained a thorn in state politics for the remainder of the century.
In 1896-97 McDowell headed the agriculture department of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. Into the new century, he continued to make temperance speeches, often sharing the platform with men who had earlier opposed his agrarian efforts.
McDowell married Emma Sandeford of Gibson County, and they were the parents of seven children. McDowell died sometime after 1911.