Robert L. Taylor, three-term governor and one-term U.S. senator, was born into a political family in Carter County, July 31, 1850. At the time, his uncle Landon Carter Haynes, a Democrat, was serving as Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, and his father, Nathaniel Greene Taylor, a Whig, farmer, and Methodist minister, had lost a congressional race to Andrew Johnson the year before. Haynes later became a Confederate senator, and Nathaniel Taylor served two terms in Congress before receiving an appointment as commissioner of Indian Affairs under President Andrew Johnson.
Influenced by these models and encouraged by his mother, Emma Haynes Taylor, Bob Taylor grew up in the Watauga River Valley, the third son in a family of four daughters and six sons. The second son, Alfred A. Taylor, became identified indelibly with Bob as a political rival for elected office. Alfred Taylor eventually became a Republican, while Bob Taylor joined the Democratic Party of his mother and Uncle Landon. “Democracy,” as he called it, eventually became his civil religion. In their youth the two boys conducted cornfield debates, learned to fiddle, and exchanged humorous stories, all of which would figure in their later political life.
Bob Taylor attended several schools, ending at East Tennessee Wesleyan University (in Athens), where his father taught for a time. Dramatics attracted Taylor, and he exhibited a remarkable talent for storytelling. Following college, he farmed, manufactured bar iron, and read law in Jonesborough. During this time, he courted Sallie Baird of Asheville, North Carolina, but delayed marriage to launch his political career.
In 1878, after Alf Taylor lost the Republican nomination for the First Congressional District, Democrats encouraged Bob Taylor to run in the general election. Although the First District was Republican, Taylor triumphed, evidently attracting Alf’s disgruntled following and setting a pattern of sibling political rivalry as well as establishing his image as a vote getter. In 1881 Taylor lost the election for the U.S. Senate in the general assembly, but the experience inaugurated a lifelong quest for a Senate seat. In this period, he helped found the Johnson City Comet, served as a presidential elector in 1884, and was appointed pension agent in Knoxville in 1886. That same year, he ran for governor against his brother Alf, the Republican nominee, in a race that became known as the “War of the Roses.” Joint campaigning, humor, and general goodwill marked the contest, which Bob Taylor won.
Taylor disliked executive office. Criticism cut him, and his association with the New South (business-oriented) wing of his party brought opposition from the Bourbons, who spoke for agrarian interests and states’ rights. Taylor’s style generally straddled the issues, but his support for federal aid to education and his appointments of New South men infuriated the Bourbons. In 1888 the Bourbons attempted to block his renomination and stymied his bid for a second term for thirty-eight ballots. Taylor also garnered criticism for granting an excessive number of pardons, but though he released more prison inmates than his predecessor, he pardoned fewer than his two successors. He demanded a reformatory and, when the legislature failed to provide one, pardoned youthful offenders. The most important legislation of his second term brought no credit to Taylor or his party. In 1889 the legislature, controlled by the Democrats, passed a series of election laws, including the poll tax and registration laws, that discouraged voting and virtually disfranchised the poor, especially African American Republican voters. Taylor supported this legislation.
In 1891 Taylor left office in ill health. During his convalescence on Alf Taylor’s Nolichucky River farm, he acquired a new vocation. Alf Taylor suggested lecturing, a career his brother launched later that year. Success followed and, with it, financial well-being for his family. But financial success was not enough. In 1893 Taylor unsuccessfully challenged William B. Bate, a Bourbon Democrat, for his U.S. Senate seat. Following a joint lecture tour with Alf Taylor, Bob accepted another Democratic nomination in 1896 for the governorship, the office he disliked. Taylor’s motives for acceptance were mixed: he may have entered to win favor for his next Senate race but more likely his commitment to his civil religion–his party–impelled him.
Taylor won, but the legislature did not repay him with a Senate seat when Senator Isham G. Harris died in office. During his third term, he presided over the state’s centennial celebration. Ill and under a financial strain, Taylor considered resigning and went into retirement after a single term, “fly[ing] away to the haven of [his] native mountains . . . safe from the talons of some old political vulture, safe from the slimy kiss and the keen dagger of ingratitude.” (1)
Taylor returned to lecturing. His wife died; he remarried, divorced, and married again. In 1905 Taylor founded Bob Taylor’s Magazine, a periodical aimed at southern readers and carrying, among many other things, reprints of several of his lectures and other personal writing. His interest in industrialization and education remained, especially in what he called “high technological training.” Also, in 1905, Senator Bate, his former opponent, died. Taylor lost the legislative contest to succeed him, but the following year the Democrats held a primary for nomination to Edward Ward Carmack’s Senate seat. Taylor defeated Carmack and merged his publication (which became The Taylor-Trotwood Magazine), before leaving for Washington. After three contented years in the Senate, Taylor recognized that his party faced defeat in the 1910 governor’s race. As in 1896, when a divided party looked to Taylor, the factionalized Democratic Party offered him the nomination. He reacted as he did in 1896 and accepted the nomination he did not want, risking the Senate seat that had always been his goal. Taylor lost the race to Ben Hooper, the Republican candidate. Less than two years later, in 1912, while still in the Senate, Taylor died, following a gallstone attack.
Dan M. Robison, Bob Taylor and the Agrarian Revolt in Tennessee (1935); Robert L. Taylor Jr., “Demagoguery, Personality, and the Gospel of Democracy: Family Influence on Centennial Governor Taylor,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 55 (1996): 160-75