William Carroll served as Tennessee’s governor for all but two years between 1821 and 1835. He was a prominent figure in the state’s early Democratic Party, and his career symbolized the era’s popular protest against established political interests. Carroll was born near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and was the oldest son of the nine children of Thomas Carroll, a merchant who was an associate of Albert Gallatin, the secretary of the treasury for Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The younger Carroll received only a limited education that emphasized practical fields like bookkeeping, surveying, mathematics, English language and grammar, and probably farming and rudimentary military training. Most of what he learned came from experience working in his father’s hardware store and other mercantile ventures, and he devoted his early years toward providing the foundation for his own business career. Carroll possessed a natural intelligence, however, and in his later years compensated for his lack of formal training through his own reading. At his death, the Nashville Republican Banner obituary commended his private pursuit of knowledge and declared him a success in overcoming his early educational deficiencies.
Carroll came to Nashville in 1810 at the age of twenty-two with a letter of introduction from Gallatin to Andrew Jackson, which he used to establish the local connections to enable him to open a hardware store and nail factory. The success of these businesses put him at the forefront of the town’s development throughout the 1810s. In 1816 Carroll purchased the General Jackson, the first steamboat on the Cumberland River. The next year, he and other leading merchants attempted to bring a branch of the Bank of the United States to Nashville. When the legislature blocked this effort, he was named to the board of directors of the newly created Bank of Nashville.
Carroll gained his military reputation during the War of 1812. He organized and served as captain of a volunteer company, and Jackson appointed him brigade inspector for the campaigns to Natchez in 1812 and against the Creek Indians in 1813. On the latter campaign, he participated in several battles before sustaining a severe wound during Jackson’s victory at Horseshoe Bend. Notwithstanding this injury, he returned to the field when he was elected to succeed Jackson as commander of the Tennessee militia after Jackson was promoted to major general in the regular army. Carroll’s troops provided Jackson with crucial reinforcement that helped to turn the battle of New Orleans into an American triumph. Because of his contributions at New Orleans, Carroll emerged from the war with a reputation second only to that of Jackson himself.
Following the war Carroll returned to his businesses and prospered until the financial Panic of 1819 forced him into bankruptcy. The panic ruined Carroll commercially, but it launched his political career. Hard times promoted a popular resentment against Tennessee’s banks. A political faction of planters and land speculators led by John Overton controlled the banks and suspended specie payment, to the detriment of debtors and small farmers. In 1821 Carroll, as military hero and bankrupt entrepreneur, emerged as the ideal candidate to oppose the Overton faction. Carroll supporters presented him as a poor man standing against the pretensions of the wealthy. In promotional circulars Carroll declared himself “no friend of banks” and speculated that “we would . . . have done better, if we had never seen one in the state.” Still, he rejected radical proposals to abolish the banks because “their sudden downfall would be ruinous to the interest of the people.” (1) Instead, he favored compelling the banks to resume specie payments, with continued supervision over future operations. This moderately conservative approach actually differed little from that of his opponent, Colonel Edward Ward, who proposed consolidation of Tennessee’s banks into one central institution. Carroll’s image as a self-made man ruined by the panic, however, contrasted sharply with Ward’s standing as the candidate of the Overton faction and as a well-educated scion of inherited wealth, and he defeated Ward by a more than four-to-one margin.
When Carroll first took office, the 1796 state constitution severely limited gubernatorial authority, but Carroll’s popularity and personality gave him considerable influence in the general assembly. At his urging, the legislature passed a law compelling the banks to resume specie payments by April 1824, although it later moved the date for resumption back to September 1, 1826. Likewise, in 1825 the assembly repealed a prohibitive tax on banks operating in Tennessee without a state charter, and with Carroll’s support the Bank of the United States finally opened a Nashville branch the next year. The 1796 constitution’s restriction on gubernatorial service to no more than six years in any eight-year period forced Carroll’s retirement in 1827, but in 1829 he was again eligible for office and won the first of another three consecutive terms. The legislature again proved receptive to his proposals, and during the next six years the assembly funded internal improvements, established a penitentiary and mental hospital, reorganized the judicial system, and revised the penal code. During this second phase of Carroll’s leadership, the last remaining bank from the Panic of 1819 closed, and Tennessee established new banks that provided the state’s financial system until the Civil War.
As a champion of “the people” against entrenched interests, Carroll foreshadowed on the state level Andrew Jackson’s rise to national prominence. Still, the governor hesitated to commit himself fully to Jackson’s presidential prospects, probably because he believed that the hero lacked the experience and reputation necessary for a serious run for the nation’s highest office, but perhaps also because he was aware of his former commander’s opposition to banks and preference for an exclusively specie currency. In any case, despite his pubic endorsement of Jackson and his work as campaign treasurer for the 1824 election, Carroll remained a regular correspondent and advisor of one of Jackson’s opponents, Kentucky’s Henry Clay. When Jackson won a plurality of the popular vote but lost the presidency in the House of Representatives, Carroll abandoned Clay and avidly supported Jackson’s successful candidacies in 1828 and 1832. He worked arduously to ingratiate himself with Jackson, who was aware of Carroll’s earlier duplicity. By the early 1830s he had returned to Old Hickory’s favor and, once readmitted to the leadership of Jackson’s forces in Tennessee, remained a loyal supporter of the Democratic Party. This loyalty even led him to endorse Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s hand-picked successor, in the 1836 presidential election instead of following the dissident Tennessee movement for Senator Hugh Lawson White.
Carroll’s political career came to an end shortly before Van Buren’s election. An 1834 convention revised the 1796 constitution but retained the previous limitations on the governor’s term of office. Nevertheless, Carroll attempted to remain in office for a fourth term by claiming that he was eligible for a first term under the new frame of government. The majority of voters disagreed with this interpretation, however, and former congressman Newton Cannon easily defeated the incumbent. Following this loss, Jackson appointed Carroll as an Indian commissioner to conclude negotiations for the Cherokee removal, and in 1838 President Van Buren appointed him a special agent to the Creeks. Critics charged that Carroll used these positions to enrich himself through illicit land speculation. Never proved or disproved, these charges probably stemmed from political motives to foil his future candidacy for the governorship or a congressional seat. Despite Democratic encouragement, Carroll never again stood for public office after his 1835 loss. By the early 1840s his health had declined significantly, and he died at his Nashville home in 1844.
Carroll held the office of Tennessee’s governor longer than any other person, and despite the partisan rancor of the 1840s, his death was widely mourned. The Republican Banner, a Whig newspaper, reflected that “the country has lost a great and useful man; who has served her in war and in peace with eminent advantage, success and glory.” (2) He was the first chief executive to lead the general assembly in undertaking significant reform, while his image as the champion of the people against wealth and power brought to Tennessee the new democratic style of politics that is usually associated with the emergence of Jackson as a national leader.
Jonathan M. Atkins, Politics, Parties, and the Sectional Conflict in Tennessee, 1832-1861 (1997); Paul H. Bergeron, Antebellum Politics in Tennessee (1982)