One of the most controversial governors in Tennessee’s history, Malcolm R. Patterson was born in Memphis June 7, 1861, the son of Colonel Josiah Patterson, a prominent local attorney. Patterson attended Christian Brothers College and Vanderbilt University, then read law at his father’s firm. In 1884 he was named attorney general of the criminal court at Memphis, a position that he held for six years. In 1900 Patterson entered the political arena and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1907 he was elected governor of Tennessee, unseating the incumbent John Isaac Cox.
As governor, Patterson proved to be a competent, albeit uninspiring, administrator. He oversaw creation of the State Highway Commission and led a movement for improvements in public education. Perhaps his finest moment occurred in 1909, when he quelled an uprising by the Night Riders of Reelfoot Lake, a west Tennessee vigilante group. Patterson’s swift and decisive action earned him praise across the state and helped him win a second term in office.
Patterson’s popularity, however, was short lived, and he soon found himself mired in controversy. Many of the governor’s problems arose from his seemingly inconsistent stand towards prohibition. Though Patterson pledged to support temperance during his 1907 race, he reversed his position in 1909 by vetoing a popular bill prohibiting liquor sales within four miles of a school. Though the legislature subsequently overrode the veto, it angered temperance supporters, who labeled Patterson a turncoat.
Patterson was also criticized for his liberal policy regarding pardons. In his four years in office, he pardoned over fourteen criminals. Critics, including many law enforcement officials, accused the governor of releasing felons for partisan purposes. Though he vigorously denied such charges, Patterson was branded a machine politician and an obstacle to reform.
Patterson’s association with Duncan Brown Cooper ultimately doomed his political career. Cooper, editor of the Nashville American and a close advisor to the governor, was engaged in a running feud with rival editor and prohibitionist leader Edward Ward Carmack. In November 1908 Cooper and his son, Robin, encountered an armed Carmack on a Nashville street. A gunfight ensued, and Robin Cooper killed Carmack. Although Patterson had worked to prevent such bloodshed, some prohibitionists accused the governor of complicity in the shooting.
Such rumors intensified in 1910 when Patterson pardoned both Duncan and Robin Cooper for their role in the shooting. Prohibitionists, already angry at Patterson for his 1909 veto, openly charged the governor with conspiring to assassinate their martyred leader. Wild tales of intrigue dogged Patterson and the controversy bitterly divided the state’s Democratic Party. Finding himself a pariah among many voters, Patterson declined to run for a third term and retired from politics in 1911. He returned to his home in Memphis and resumed his legal practice. He died there in 1935, his achievements clouded by his contentious past.
Paul E. Isaac, Prohibition and Politics: Turbulent Decades in Tennessee, 1885-1920 (1965)