Recalling 1899 When Governor Bob Taylor “Quit” Politics

Robert “Bob” Taylor and Alfred “Alf” Taylor are notable in Tennessee for their legendary 1886 brother-against-brother “War of the Roses” gubernatorial campaign, acquiring its colorful name from the original 1455-85 “War of the Roses” conflict fought for the throne of England between supporters of the houses of Lancaster (red roses) and York (white ones). Bob emerged the victor.

In 1899, after completing two terms as governor (1887-91 and 1897-99), Bob Taylor quit the field of politics (at least for seven years) when he lost his third bid for the job. In typical poetic form, Governor Taylor commented on his difficult pronouncement. Note in his words the adoration he expresses for his beautiful East Tennessee mountain home:

“I am about to shuffle off this mortal coil of politics and fly away to the haven of my native mountains where I may think and dream in peace, safe from the sickening sting of unjust criticism, safe from the talons of some old political vulture, safe from the slimy kiss and keen dagger of ingratitude.

“I do not mean to say that all politicians are vultures or that they are all hypocrites or assassins, for the great majority of our public men are upright and honest and worthy of the confidence reposed in them by the people. Yet there are black wings in the political firmament and reptiles crawl and hiss in every capital.

“But thank God, the live thunders of eternal truth always clear the atmosphere and the heel of justice will surely bruise the serpent’s head. I do not retire from this office with the ranking of disappointment and chagrin in my bosom, but rather as one who retires from labor to rest, from war to peace, from trouble to happiness.

“I do not retire, the ‘somnambulist (sleepwalker) of a shattered dream,’ but with all the buds of hope bursting into bloom and all the bowers of the future ringing with melody. I am contented with my lot in life. Three times I have worn the laurel wreath of honor (U.S. House of Representative and two terms as governor), twined by the people of my native state and that is glory enough for me.

“While I believe that the good in politics outweighs the bad, yet how thorny is the path and how unhappy the pilgrimage to him who dares to do his duty. There are no flowers except a few bouquets snatched from the graves of fallen foes; there is no happiness except the transient thrill of cruel triumph, which passes like a shadow across the heart.

“Every honest man who runs for office is a candidate for trouble, for the fruits of political victory turn to ashes on the lips. To me, there is nothing in this world so pathetic as a candidate. He is like a mariner without a compass, drifting on the tempest-tossed waves of uncertainty, between the smiling cliffs of hope and the frowning crags of fear. He is a walking petition and a living prayer; he is the packhorse of public sentiment; he is the dromedary of politics.

“I am no longer a candidate. Never again will I be inaugurated into public office. The ark of my humble public career now rests on the Ararat of public life and I stand on its peaceful summit and look down on the receding flood of politics. The dove of my destiny has brought me an olive branch from happier fields and I go hence to labor and to love.

“I take with me a heart full of gratitude and a soul full of precious memories – gratitude to the people for their unwavering confidence in me – precious memories of my friends who have been kind and true. The record I have made is an open book to all. I am willing to live by that record. For whatever mistakes I may have committed, I have kept steadily in view the honor of the State and the happiness of the people.”

“Our Bob” made good on his retirement promise from 1899 until 1907, but changed his mind and was elected a United States Senator from Tennessee. The distinguished Happy Valley native sadly passed away in 1911 while still serving his first term. Brother Alf became governor in 1920.