- Life as It Is or Matters and Things in General Containing amongst Other Things, Historical Sketches of the Exploration and First Settlement of the State of Tennessee
In the preface of his self-published work Life as It Is, lawyer, newspaper publisher, and politician J. W. M. Breazeale declares the “object” of his book “is to amuse, instruct, and improve the human mind” through the recounting of “the history of the patriarchs of Tennessee (5).” Breazeale’s work provides readers with an unusual amalgam of Tennessee history, descriptions of the natural world, political commentary, and pointed moral criticism.
Published in 1842, Life as It Is is loosely divided into five parts. From the settlement of the upper Tennessee Valley in the 1760s through the creation of the state of Tennessee in 1796, the first twelve chapters offer a narrative history of Tennessee with a particular focus on Indian-white conflict, politics, and economic development. Those familiar with early Tennessee histories will immediately recognize the organization and triumphalist tenor of the narrative. The region’s Indians (Overhill and Chickamauga Cherokee) are depicted as savages and the region’s white settlers are repeatedly described as “brave,” “virtuous,” “economical,” and “self-reliant” (11–14). From the 1780 Battle of King’s Mountain to the fall of the state of Franklin (1784–1788), the author recounts, often romantically, many of the seminal events in Tennessee’s early history, omitting less savory events such as Indian Removal.
The second portion of Breazeale’s work offers a sweeping survey of Tennessee’s natural landscape. The author reverently describes many of the region’s “natural curiosities” and includes his own understanding of the region’s native people’s sacred relationship to many of these environmental features (127).
The third section of Life as It Is recounts one of the most notoriously violent episodes in early Tennessee history. In a single chapter, Breazeale narrates the bloody exploits of homicidal brothers Micajah and Wiley Harp. From 1797 through 1803, the Harp Brothers robbed, murdered, and terrorized the residents of East Tennessee. The author’s graphic descriptions [End Page 101] of these events and failure of Tennessee authorities to apprehend the Harp Brothers provide a window into the dynamics of crime and punishment in the early Tennessee backcountry.
The most revealing portion of Breazeale’s book is his commentary and critique of antebellum politics in eastern Tennessee. In two biting chapters on electioneering, the author argues that contemporary politicians are no longer drawn from the ranks of the educated and philanthropically-motivated. Instead, Breazeale believes his political peers seek only power, offer platforms devoid of relevant political issues, and run campaigns that are essentially popularity contests. The author’s “Satirical Burlesque on the Practice of Electioneering” offers a humorous glimpse into the world of Jacksonian politicking through the speeches and campaigns of several archetypal political demagogues. As Breazeale warns that this style of electioneering could topple the American Republic, he exposes the myriad of political issues that dominated antebellum Tennessee politics.
The final chapters of Life as It Is are assorted collections of random judicial anecdotes, descriptions of “Tennessee antiquities” (i.e., Adena Mounds and rock houses), religious history, and nostalgia for the “good old” days on the Tennessee frontier (252).
Life as It Is is accompanied by a foreword by historian Durwood Dunn and an excellent introduction from Jonathan Adkins. Adkins’s essay skillfully places Breazeale and his book into the political and historical context of Jacksonian America and rapidly transforming antebellum Tennessee. Dunn and Adkins have rescued Breazeale’s work from literary obscurity and have ensured that scholars will continue to read Life as It Is alongside the works of better-known early Tennessee historians such as J. G. M. Ramsey and John Haywood. While I disagree with Dunn’s assertion that Breazeale’s work is “far more valuable [for historians] than J. G. M. Ramsey’s 1853 Annals of...