Joseph E. Washington, congressman, state legislator, tobacco planter, and a founder of the Tobacco Protective Association, was born November 10, 1851, at Wessyngton in Robertson County, the son of George Augustine and Jane Smith Washington. In 1873 he graduated from Georgetown College in Washington, D.C., and in 1888 earned an M.A. degree from the same school. He joined the first Vanderbilt University law class in 1874, but, although he was admitted to the bar, he never practiced law.
Politics, railroads, and tobacco defined Washington’s career. He served one term in the Tennessee House (1877-79). In 1886 he won the first of five terms in the U.S. Congress, where he served from 1887 to 1897 and sponsored legislation demanded by the state’s farmers to relieve the depression in agricultural prices. Washington served as a director of both the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad and the Nashville and Decatur Railroad. In the 1870s he joined the Patrons of Husbandry and served as the secretary of the local Grange cooperative store. A nominal member of the Agricultural Wheel and the Farmers’ Alliance in the 1880s, Washington questioned whether the time was “ripe” for farmers to organize. In 1904, however, he became one of the founding members (along with his brother-in-law Felix Ewing and Charles Fort) of the Planters Protective Association, an organization of dark-fired tobacco planters allied against the so-called tobacco trust.
Washington married Mary Boling Kemp of Virginia, and they were the parents of four children. He died at Wessyngton on August 28, 1915, and is buried in the family cemetery.
Tracy Campbell, The Politics of Despair: Power and Resistance in the Tobacco Wars (1993); Christopher Waldrep, Night Riders: Defending Community in the Black Patch, 1890-1915 (1993)