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Alf and Bob had fun on the campaign trail

Robert Houk • Apr 29, 2018 at 8:45 AM

I don’t know about you, but the rancor and negativity of political campaigns these days make me wish candidates would return to the civility of the 1886 race for Tennessee governor.

That contest featured two brothers from the beautiful Happy Valley community of Carter County, who shared a buggy as they crossed the state to speak before record crowds. Bob Taylor, a Democrat, would go on to beat his Republican brother, Alf Taylor, in what became known as “The War of the Roses.”

The campaign got its name from a remark Bob — known affectionately by both his family and supporters as “Our Bob” — made during a stump speech in Madisonville.

Bob said he and his competitor were ‘roses from the same garden,’ ” Alf, James and Hugh Taylor recalled in their 1913 book, “The Life and Career of Sen. Robert Love Taylor (Our Bob).”

(I purchased a dusty first edition of this historical treasure in a rare book store in downtown Elizabethton more than a decade ago. It was the best money I have ever spent in a used book store.)

Bob suggested that he was a white rose and his brother was best represented by a red rose. The next day, the two left Monroe County to campaign in Middle and West Tennessee. Along the way, a woman presented each of the brothers with a bouquet of their respective roses.

“Now I want you boys to take these flowers for the sake of your mother,” Bob’s brothers wrote in their book. “I know she must be proud to have sons who can be politicians and still be brothers.”

I wonder how many mothers today are truly proud to have a child go into politics?

Bob’s siblings remembered their brother as a gifted debater whose skills were “recognized throughout the state.” That did not stop Bob from using pranks to get the best of his brother.

One legendary example came when Bob found the notes for his brother’s next speech and decided to make Alf’s words his own at that night’s campaign rally.

Alf was conferring with supporters, while waiting for his turn to speak, when he discovered his brother’s treachery.

“Great Scott,” Alf recalls in his book. “Listen! He has quoted the text of my speech word for word.”

Alf got revenge a few days later when he spoke to a crowd of “Our Bob” supporters who had mistaken him for his brother. The well-wishers had hoped Bob would provide them with a “little nip” to strengthen their resolve.

Alf climbed atop a table in his hotel room, and with the crowd still believing him to be Bob, proclaimed himself to be a “temperance man.” The Republican told them he would not be responsible for putting “an enemy in their mouths” to steal their wits.

“Before I would be instrumental in polluting your lips with a single drop of the hellish stuff you call for, even though it bore the brand of ‘good old Lincoln County,’ I would surrender my nomination, give up the race entirely and allow Alf Taylor to be elected governor of the Volunteer State,” Alf told the stunned crowd.

With that grim announcement, Bob’s thirsty supporters dispersed rather quickly.

It would be Bob who would get the last laugh in the campaign when he was elected that November to the first of his three terms as governor. He was nearing the end of his first term in the U.S. Senate when he died in 1912.

Alf would finally be elected governor in 1920, eight years after the death of his beloved brother and one-time political opponent.

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