This Nashville newspaper traces its origins to the Nashville Whig, begun by Joseph and Moses Norvell in 1812, when the city had a population of twelve hundred. The Whig survived more than a dozen mergers and consolidations to eventually become the Nashville American. Colonel Luke Lea launched the first issue of the Tennessean on Sunday, May 12, 1907. Three years later, the two newspapers merged as the Nashville Tennessean.
The newspaper was always identified with the Democratic Party, and in 1911 the state legislature elected Luke Lea to the U.S. Senate, making him, at thirty-two, the youngest member of that body. Lea only served one term; in 1917 Kenneth D. McKellar defeated him to become the state’s first popularly elected senator.
The Nashville Tennessean was published in both morning and afternoon editions until March 1933. The depression increased Lea’s financial difficulties to the point that the paper was placed in the hands of a federal receiver, Littleton Pardue, a lawyer from Ashland City. Silliman Evans Sr. purchased the newspaper at a public auction on January 7, 1937, for $850,000. He took over its management on April 17 and within forty-five days had the newspaper operating in the black again.
Shortly after Evans Sr. purchased the Nashville Tennessean, he established a joint printing agreement with James Stahlman, publisher of the Nashville Banner. Under the terms of the agreement, Evans dropped the Tennessean’s evening edition and Stahlman dropped his Sunday edition. The agreement continued until 1998, when the Banner ceased publication.
In 1948 Evans recalled the highly regarded Coleman Harwell from the New York World Telegram as editor. A Nashville native, Harwell initially joined the Nashville Tennessean in 1927 as a reporter and had advanced to managing editor by 1931, when he left. Historian Hugh Davis Graham characterized Evans and Harwell as congenial journalists, whose New Deal support gave a liberal voice to the Tennessean.
During the 1950s and 1960s, several reporters who worked for the Tennessean went on to outstanding careers elsewhere. They included David Halberstam, Tom Wicker, Fred Graham, and Wallace Westfeldt. Albert Gore Jr. also worked for the newspaper during the early 1970s.
The senior Evans published the newspaper until his death in 1955 at the age of sixty-one. His son, Silliman Evans Jr., took over as publisher and managed the newspaper until his death in 1961 at the age of thirty-six. During his tenure, Evans Jr. replaced Harwell with Edward Ball, formerly head of Nashville’s Associated Press Bureau. Following the death of Evans Jr. ownership of the newspaper passed to his mother, Lucille McCrea Evans, and his brother, Amon Carter Evans. In 1963 the newspaper’s name was changed to the Tennessean, and a year later, Amon Carter Evans became publisher. Evans soon hired John Seigenthaler as managing editor. Seigenthaler had worked for the newspaper from 1948 to 1961 before serving as administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, 1961-62.
In 1979 Evans and his mother sold the Tennessean to the Gannett Corporation, which continues as its owner to this day. Gannett retained John Seigenthaler as editor and publisher until his retirement in 1992. Seigenthaler also served as USA Today’s founding editorial director.