Newton Cannon, Tennessee's first Whig governor, was born in North Carolina. His family settled in Williamson County, Tennessee, in 1790, where Cannon received a common school education. He attempted several occupations before establishing himself as a wealthy planter. His public career began with his election to the state Senate in 1811, and over the next decade he served as a volunteer in the Creek War, an Indian commissioner, and United States congressman. After losing to Sam Houston in the 1827 gubernatorial election, Cannon returned to the state Senate and later served as chair of the Committee of the Whole at the 1834 state constitutional convention. He sought the governor's office again in 1835, when his endorsement of Senator Hugh Lawson White's presidential candidacy, along with public uncertainty over incumbent William Carroll's eligibility under the new constitution, helped him win an easy victory.
Cannon's first administration produced the passage of an act providing state aid for internal improvements by authorizing the governor to subscribe for stock in railroad and turnpike companies. In 1836 he called the first special session of the state legislature in the state's forty-year history in order to determine what to do with Tennessee's share of the federal distribution of surplus revenue funds. Despite criticism of his handling of a call for volunteers for service in the Second Seminole War, Cannon easily won reelection in 1837. During his second term the general assembly passed legislation expanding state support for internal improvements and created a new state bank, designating its profits to assist in the funding of public education. Cannon soon faced public condemnation, however, over locations for branches of the state banks made by his appointees to the board of directors. He also received criticism for his strict interpretation of the internal improvement laws, which he claimed prevented him from approving sites for companies in East and West Tennessee. These developments, along with his failure to become an insider among the leaders of Tennessee's emerging Whig Party, weakened Cannon's bid for a third term.
In 1839 Cannon faced his strongest competitor, when Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives James K. Polk retired from Congress to run for governor. In his campaign Polk stressed national politics to force Tennessee voters to choose between the maturing Whig and Democratic Parties. Cannon, who had long identified himself as a Whig, argued that national issues should not influence a state election, but he defended the national party's program. The incumbent's slow and ponderous speaking style proved no match for that of the polished Polk, and the challenger defeated Cannon–although by a mere 2,500 votes–in an election that clearly defined the two parties in the state. Despite the narrow margin of his loss, Cannon played no further role in state politics, and he died in retirement on his plantation near Franklin in Williamson County.