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VOL. 45 | NO. 33 | Friday, August 13, 2021

Judge, historian Haywood a little strange, even for his era

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Some once-prominent historical figures are being eased into the background now, judged by contemporary standards as having been on the wrong side of history.

Think Nathan Bedford Forrest, for one, whose slave-trading, Civil War-crime and Klan bona fides have led to removing his bust from the Tennessee Capitol and relocating his remains from a Memphis park.

I’m good with that.

In contrast, there’s a move to raise the profile of another historical figure: Judge John Haywood of Nashville.

The effort involves, among other groups, the Tennessee Bar Association and the Tennessee Historical Society. The aim is to relocate Haywood’s remains from a little-noticed site off Nolensville Road in Tusculum (named for his old farm) to more prominent digs in the City Cemetery of Nashville.

“Judge John Haywood is considered by many to be the architect of both Tennessee jurisprudence and history,” the court petition seeking the move asserts.

“Upon moving to Tennessee in the early 1800s, he practiced law, established the first law school in the Southwest, and was a judge on the Tennessee Supreme Court of Errors and Appeals (now the Tennessee Supreme). ... Haywood County, Tennessee, bears his name.”

As does Haywood Lane, I assume. All of which is fine, but, as I have come to know, also only scratches the surface of Haywood’s role not just in Tennessee’s history, but the South’s.

To put it in today’s parlance, Haywood, who was born in 1762 and died in 1826, was an influencer beyond even his own time.

One writer/historian who has studied Haywood’s life extensively, Chase Wallace, calls him “an overlooked Tennessee historian and judge who provided foundational historical and legal arguments for the Confederate nation.”

Haywood’s conclusions in his Southern history book, “The Christian Advocate,” also helped justify, in Andrew Jackson’s mind, the Indian Removal Act, Wallace told me in email responses to questions.

Wallace says Haywood came to believe that Southern Indians, the Cherokee in particular, “were the armies of Gog and Magog mentioned in the Book of Revelation,” whose ancestors had once massacred a mysterious, slaveholding, mound-building civilization (probably Nordic, Haywood thought) in the South.

“This demonic army was – now, in his own time – waiting on the frontier to annihilate emerging plantations in the young states of Mississippi and Alabama,” Wallace says.

It was Haywood’s legal interpolation of this belief, Wallace adds, that provided the model for property laws that ultimately justified “the existence of a theocratic nation-state rooted in a mix of white supremacy and Christianity.”

It’s the sort of thing that Wallace, in his Ph.D. dissertation on Haywood for the College of William & Mary in 2016, called “the dark work of John Haywood.”

But Wallace, an Alabama native living now in Massachusetts who is working on a novel closely associated with his dissertation research, says he believes Haywood’s resting place deserves prominence.

I also asked Tom Kanon, a former archivist for the Tennessee State Library and Archives, for his assessment of Haywood’s standing.

In Haywood’s role as a sort of amateur “antiquarian historian,” Kanon says, he conducted one-on-one interviews with Middle Tennessee founders, including Timothy Demonbreun and Kasper Mansker, for his histories of the state.

What Haywood didn’t do was talk to anyone who wasn’t white or male.

“In short, Haywood was a product of the time in which he lived,” Kanon says. “Haywood’s ‘history’ portrayed (white) Tennesseans as victims of Native American aggression; and who took matters into their own hands to remove Indigenous peoples in order to ‘advance’ civilization.

“Unfortunately, that one-dimensional portrait would be the basis for Tennessee history for the next 150 years.”

Aside from his prominence as a jurist and chronicler of early Tennessee, Haywood also had his quirky side. He was fascinated by the occult, Wallace notes, a fascination in which “he was far from alone.”

“He believed in witches, saw ghosts, felt demons with a texture and intensity that I haven’t found among his post-Enlightenment, 19th-century Christian or spiritualist contemporaries.”

It will be interesting to see if any opposition to moving his grave arises. It sure wouldn’t surprise me.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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