Tennessee Legal History: Buying and Selling Public Office

The Illinois governor's alleged offer to sell President Obama's former Senate seat to the highest bidder has outraged citizens all over the country. We would hope such a scandal is a rare event.

Actually it is not. During the period of reconstruction following the Civil War the buying and selling of political offices was rampant in the South. One of the most outrageous cases occurred in Tennessee in 1873.

The controversy began when Gov. John Calvin Brown appointed a Mr. John C. Burch as the comptroller of the Treasury because of a vacancy in that office. There was an allegation that Mr. Burch acquired his appointment by soliciting the resignation of the previous comptroller, one W. W. Hobbs.[1] The story was that Burch had paid Hobbs a sum of money to leave the office so Burch could secure the lucrative appointment.

The Tennessee legislature appointed a special committee to look into the matter. The investigation, while clearing both the governor and Burch, revealed a sordid tale of the buying and selling of political office.

It seems that in 1873 there was an election by the legislature for the office of comptroller. One of the candidates for that office, the said Mr. W. W. Hobbs, made an agreement with a Mr. House, one of his opponents, that whoever of the two received the fewer votes on the second ballot would withdraw in favor of the other and that the successful candidate would pay the other's "expenses." In furtherance of this agreement Mr. House withdrew in favor of Mr. Hobbs, and Hobbs was subsequently elected by the legislature as the comptroller.

Following his selection Mr. Hobbs went to his home in Waverly because of his health. A few days thereafter Mr. House, the former candidate, borrowed $1,500 from a William Morrow who, I believe, was the treasurer for the Tennessee Hospital for the Insane. House executed a promissory note to Morrow advising Morrow that he (House) was to be Mr. Hobbs' clerk in the comptroller's office and that Hobbs would pay the note when Hobbs returned from Waverly.

Shortly thereafter Mr. House visited Mr. Hobbs in Waverly and Hobbs agreed to make Mr. House his clerk with a salary equal to one-half of the salary of the comptroller. When Hobbs returned to Nashville, Mr. Morrow called upon him to pay the note, but Hobbs informed him that he had never authorized House to borrow said money and that he did not owe House anything and that he would not pay the note. Upon this, Morrow threatened to indict House for obtaining money under false pretenses and put the note in the hands of an attorney for collection.

About this time Hobbs concluded that House should not be his clerk. House became very angry with Hobbs and charged Hobbs with violating his "contract" and threatened Hobbs with a legislative investigation into the manner of his election. Hobbs, "feeling some sense of obligation to House, and dreading the effects of his anger," compromised with House by paying the $1,500 note to Morrow and a further payment of $1,500 to House. Thus, Hobbs paid twice the price for his office.

Free of both House and Morrow, Hobbs then entered into his office as comptroller on January, 1873. Since it was not beneath Hobbs to buy his office, he was not above selling it either. Hobbs resigned on May 1, 1873 at the request of some bond speculators who wanted their own man in office. No fool, Hobbs charged the speculators $10,000, making a profit of $7,000.

While all of this was going on Gov. Brown, seeing the "failing health" of Mr. Hobbs, decided that Mr. Burch would be a fine comptroller and, upon Mr. Hobbs' resignation, Mr. Burch was then appointed to the position by Gov. Brown.

When these facts came to light the immediate conclusion was that Burch had acquired his position through the purchase of the office. At any rate, the legislative inquiry "cleared" both Governor Brown and Mr. Burch of any complicity in this scandal. From what I can gather, Burch got in before the man, chosen by the speculators, could be appointed.

A final report to the legislature was submitted by the special investigative committee on Jan. 26, 1875. The General Assembly then passed statutes dealing with this whole matter, which were subsequently enacted as Chapter 34 of the Public Acts of 1875, making the buying and selling of offices illegal and a criminal offense. This law is still on the books today as Tenn. Code Ann. Section 39-16-105.

Note

1. Hobbs was born in Hickman County in 1831, was a farmer, and served as the chairman and, later, clerk of the Humphreys County Court. He joined the 50th Tennessee Infantry Regiment in 1861 until the surrender of Fort Donelson. He was then with the 10th Tennessee Cavalry Regiment (at times, part of Forrest's command), where he attained the rank of Captain. He was wounded by grape shot that shattered his right arm. After the war he returned home and later served as the clerk of the Humphreys County Court until his election as comptroller. The State Archives also has a small photograph of Hobbs dated 1884. Hobbs was variously known as W.W. Hobbs, William W. Hobbs, but later was referred to as "Captain" as was the custom in those days to refer to former officers by their rank in the Confederate service.


David Raybin DAVID RAYBIN is a member of the Nashville firm of Hollins, Wagster, Yarbrough, Weatherly & Raybin. He is the author of Tennessee Criminal Practice and Procedure (West 1984). Raybin was twice awarded the Tennessee Bar Association Justice Henry Award for Outstanding Legal Writing. He may be reached via the addresses available on the Web site www.hwylaw.com