John H. Savage, congressman, state legislator, and veteran of three wars, was born at McMinnville on October 9, 1815, the son of George and Elizabeth Kenner Savage. Savage attended common schools and the Carroll Academy at McMinnville before studying law; he was admitted to the bar in 1839. His law practice began at Smithville but moved to McMinnville after the Civil War.
Savage’s political career began in 1841, when he became attorney general for the Fourth Judicial Circuit, a post he kept until 1847. He served as a presidential elector on the Democratic ticket of James K. Polk in 1844. Savage served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1849 to 1853 and from 1855 to 1859. He lost a bid for a seat in the Confederate Congress in 1863.
Savage served in three wars. In 1836 he fought in the Seminole War as a private in Captain William Lauderdale’s company of mounted volunteers. More than a decade later, he served in the Mexican War, where he held the rank of major. Again, in the Civil War, Savage volunteered and was commissioned as a colonel in the Tennessee Sixteenth Infantry, C.S.A. In 1862 he was wounded at Perryville and again at Stones River. In February 1863 Savage resigned his commission in anger over his failure to advance in the ranks. He believed Isham G. Harris had received preferential treatment in advancements, and the two men remained bitter personal and political enemies thereafter.
After the war, Savage served three terms in the state House, 1877-79 and 1887-91, representing Warren County. He also served a single term in the state Senate, 1879-81. The Tennessee General Assembly created a weak Railroad Commission in 1883, and Savage headed the three-man regulatory agency. Crippled by weak enabling legislation and stymied by a federal injunction blocking the activities of the agency, the commission made no progress against rebates, differential rates, and other abuses. The 1885 General Assembly rescinded the enabling legislation that created the commission. Many Tennesseans blamed its demise on Savage’s uncompromising and “fanatical” enthusiasm for reigning in the transportation giants. Irascible, argumentative, and stubborn, Savage was a Buchanan delegate in the 1890 Democratic gubernatorial convention but remained ardently opposed to the Populists, who emerged from the agrarian reform movement in 1892. Savage initially opposed the poll tax but supported it in 1889 as a mechanism for ending electoral corruption.
Savage never married. In 1903 he published his memoirs, The Life of John H. Savage. Savage died at McMinnville on April 6, 1904, and is buried at Riverside Cemetery. His papers are available at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Roger Hart, Redeemers, Bourbons and Populists: Tennessee, 1870-1896 (1975)