One of the most conspicuous and honorable names in Tennessee history is that of the late H. Clay Evans of Chattanooga. “The greatest republican of the south” is the descriptive phrase which has often been applied to him and which he well merited. His greatness, however, was not confined to republicanism or politics, but was of wide range and infinite variety. As a public official, a diplomat, an educator, a manufacturer, a financier, an executive, or as a plain, home-loving business man, his activities were inspired by a fine courage, strong convictions, indomitable industry and unswerving loyalty to principle. He was also a man of kindly nature, with great capacity for friendship, and so he had, as he deserved to have, many friends. It is true that he had enemies, for he lived and moved in a time of bitter partisan politics, but as General Bragg said of Grover Cleveland, “We love him for the enemies he has made” — and for many other reasons, among them for the friends he made. H. Clay Evans was a man who was wise in counsel, prompt and forceful in action, and in all a notable executive. The unrelenting foe of humbug and pretense, and of that which was unworthy or base, his great ambition was to make right and truth prevail. His integrity was intellectual as well as moral, and by it his whole nature and all his actions and decisions were influenced and controlled. He was a good man, a true friend and a faithful and gallant soldier in the great and never-ending battle for righteousness. He accepted the high honors which came to him with becoming modesty and he accepted defeat as a gentleman should. However, when defeat was tinged with fraud and dishonesty, he retaliated with every force he commanded and with such vigor as to compel the wholesome respect of his most prejudiced enemies.
H. Clay Evans came to Chattanooga at a time when the village had literally been ground underfoot by two opposing armies. The ravages of the war between the states had left little except rows of straggling houses and buildings bordering torn and almost impassable streets. In this gloomy outlook, however, he visualized a greater Chattanooga; he had faith in the ultimate development of the city. After his resultant decision to make this his home he kept this faith by exerting every possible effort to bring about this growth. He came to Chattanooga in 1864, and with the exception of the few years he spent on the Texas border, as a public official in Washington, and as a diplomat in London, he resided here until his death.
Henry Clay Evans was born in Juniata county, Pennsylvania, June 18, 1843, and was the son of Jesse B. and Anna (Single) Evans. Jesse B. Evans was a farmer by occupation and in 1848 removed with his family to Lafayette county, Wisconsin. His death occurred in Montana in 1869, where he was temporarily making his home.
In the public schools of Wisconsin, H. Clay Evans received his boyhood education. The war broke out when he was just completing his schooling. He enlisted as a private in Company A, Forty-first Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. In October, 1864, he was assigned to a clerkship in the United States army and was stationed in Chattanooga under Major Thomas J. Carlisle, chief of the Quartermaster Corps. From here he was ordered to Texas and on the southern border he served two years. He then returned to Chattanooga, which he had determined upon as his future home, and entered upon the constructive career which was to terminate only with his death, over a half century labor.
Upon his return to Chattanooga, in 1870, Mr. Evans inaugurated his career as a manufacturer by becoming identified with the Wasson Car Works, which afterward became the Chattanooga Car & Foundry Company. For two years he controlled the affairs of this company, then became connected with the Roane Iron Company, and filled successively the positions of superintendent, secretary, treasurer, vice president and general manager. He remained with this company for a period of ten years. From 1884 to 1885 Mr. Evans was cashier of the First National Bank and in this institution was closely associated with T. G. Montague, who had succeeded W. P. Rathburn as president. After a year in the capacity of bank cashier Mr. Evans resigned, once more to resume his connection with the Chattanooga Car & Foundry Company. He maintained his interest in this company until a decade or so before his death, when, upon returning from England and desiring to take life more leisurely, he finally sold the property which he had developed, to the Lucey Manufacturing Company. As a manufacturer he was one of the most successful of a group which included industrial giants. The extensive manufacturing district of the present day, Chattanooga is, in a sense, a monument to the genius of such men as Mr. Evans. “Without their early struggles, ideals and unbounded faith, such a satisfactory industrial condition could not have been realized. Virtually all of them, among them such associates of Mr. Evans as Chamberlain, Isbester, Giles, Herron and Llewellyn, have passed from earthly scenes, but their works live. Mr. Evans gave his attention to many other financial investments and during the later years of his life gave particular attention to his duties as chairman of the board of directors of the American Trust & Banking Company, of which he was one of the original incorporators. This gave him the opportunity to keep in close relation with local affairs, with none of the arduous duties which he had borne for so many years previously.
To return to the account of Mr. Evans‘ political life, it may be said that he began taking an active interest in public life very soon after his return to Chattanooga in 1870. As early as 1872 he was elected one of the city school commissioners and assisted in organizing the public school system of Chattanooga. In 1873 he was elected alderman from his own ward, the fourth. He served a total of five terms in the city council. He was twice elected mayor of Chattanooga, the first time in 1881, and it was during his incumbency that he inaugurated the custom of planting shade trees in the streets of the city. When Chattanooga adopted the commission form of government Mr. Evans was chosen, in April, 1911, one of the five commissioners. As president of the board of commissioners he subsequently gave of his efforts and influence to many phases of civic and educational growth. While holding public office in Chattanooga, Mr. Evans conducted his work only with the interests of the community at heart. Personal gain or petty politics never inspired his actions. Those who were closely associated with him knew that he welcomed cooperation from every citizen of the community, without regard for partisan politics. Withal he was known and will be remembered as a clean, high-minded and conscientious public servant.
In the year 1888 Mr. Evans became the republican nominee to represent his district in congress. His democratic opponent was Creed F. Bates. Mr. Evans was elected, although his district was nominally democratic, by an overwhelming majority. This is just one indication of the esteem in which he was held by the citizens. In the succeeding congress, the fifty-first, he won the reputation of being the most able republican who ever came out of the south to the floor of the house. He clung to the principles of his party with the utmost fidelity and it was this intense loyalty to his political contemporaries which eventually wrought against him in his contest for reelection. The celebrated Lodge “force bill” is one of the high lights of congressional history. Mr. Evans did not believe in the spirit of this bill, but in harmony with the dictates of his party and in contradiction to his personal judgment, he voted with the ayes. The democrats had bitterly opposed this bill and when Mr. Evans became a candidate to succeed himself they opened their hostile campaign with his affirmative vote as their most effective weapon. The democratic candidate, H. C. Snodgrass, was accordingly carried through at the ensuing election.
Despite his defeat at the polls in his home district Mr. Evans was destined for further public honors. His ability was such that it could not be cast aside and he was soon recognized by signal honor from the administration. In 1893 he was chosen by President Harrison to be first assistant postmaster-general. The late John Wanamaker of Philadelphia, noted merchant, was the postmaster-general. That Mr. Evans was successful in his new position has been indicated in many ways, not the least of which has been the many published accounts in the press of the country. Of pertinent interest was the brief statement of the Hon. John B. Brownlow in the course of a newspaper account. He wrote: “For twenty-four years I was in the general post office at Washington. During that time I became familiar with the history of the department from the days of Benjamin Franklin, its first head, and I assert that the most efficient first assistant postmaster-general the department ever had was that carpet-bagger, the Hon. H. Clay Evans. During the few months he held office he greatly improved the mail service and reduced expenses. * * * His record in Washington was a credit to Chattanooga and to Tennessee.”
The most eventful occurrence in the life of H. Clay Evans, from a political viewpoint, was the gubernatorial campaign of the year 1894. The incidents of this memorable contest well illustrate how the political game has been played at odd and diverse times in the old Volunteer State. Mr. Evans was in that year the choice of the republican party for governor of Tennessee. Running against him on the democratic ticket was Judge Peter Turney, an eloquent, able and gifted politician popularly known as the “old commoner of the state” and “Tennessee’s grand old democrat.” A. L. Mims was also a candidate on an independent ticket. The election was held on the 6th of November, after a campaign of unusual vigor and intensity. The vote reported by the committee of tellers appointed by the legislature showed the following count: Evans, one hundred and five thousand one hundred and four; Turney, one hundred and four thousand three hundred and fifty-six; Mims, twenty-three thousand and eighty-eight; scattering, thirty-eight. This gave Mr. Evans a bona fide plurality of seven hundred and forty-eight votes, carrying with it the honor of being the choice of the people for the next governor of the state. Then came the aftermath. Judge Turney and his democratic adherents immediately contested the election and declared that “illegal and fraudulent ballots” had been cast in sufficient number for Evans to make his plurality on the face of the returns a fraudulent one. The forty-ninth general assembly, sitting in joint session, heard this charge of the defeated contestant, also his claim that a recount of the votes in the ninety-six counties of the state gave a plurality to the democratic candidate instead of the republican. The result was that a democratic legislature, prejudiced and, to use the most charitable term, tyrannical, declared Judge Turney elected, thus depriving Mr. Evans of the honor which he had fairly won at the polls. Mr. Evans and his supporters fought the machinations of the democratic forces, but their fight was a losing one. The decision of the legislature is one of the most arbitrary and unsubstantiated of any in the legislative history of the country. Tennessee became a seething cauldron of political ferment. All the rancor of the most bitter political feud was stirred up. Many of the leading democrats and democratic newspapers of the state who had championed Turney in the pre-election campaign now aligned themselves on the side of Mr. Evans: among these papers were the Nashville Banner and the Chattanooga Times. Another notable protest against the action of the legislature was made by about fifteen hundred democrats at Nashville, in a meeting presided over by John A. Pitts. However much Mr. Evans must have suffered from the disappointment of losing the governorship or the unfair and cowardly attacks of his opponents, he did not bear malice or animosity. Retaliation of this nature has been reserved for lesser men. He was a good loser and like the true sportsman that he was he emerged from the fight with ambition unimpaired.
The interest of the whole country was aroused by the gubernatorial contest in Tennessee and the name of H. Clay Evans became nationally known. In 1895 the republican party was casting about for suitable candidates to lead the ticket in the coming presidential campaign of 1896. McKinley was then serving as governor of Ohio and was the most prominently mentioned man for President. The name of H. Clay Evans was soon presented for the vice presidency, the first newspaper so to honor him having been the Lawrence Union. The deprivation of the governorship had won for Mr. Evans many friends and sympathizers over the country and the lead of the Union was soon followed by others. At the St. Louis convention in June, 1896, on the morning of the day the vice president was to be chosen, the Globe-Democrat took a straw vote of the delegates and the result showed two hundred and sixty-two for Evans, sixty for Hobart and twelve for Bulkely. When the balloting began the first state called for was Alabama and the delegates from this commonwealth divided their votes between Evans and Hobart. This course was followed by the other southern states and the result was that Hobart was chosen. Mr. Evans, however, drew an excellent vote, over three hundred of the votes having been from the northern states. Mr. Evans himself was twice a delegate and once a delegate-at-large from the state of Tennessee to the republican national conventions. At the convention of 1900 he was a member of the committee which drafted the party platform.
In recognition of meritorious service to the party and in appreciation of his eminent ability, President McKinley appointed Mr. Evans commissioner of pensions in 1897 and in this office the latter remained until 1902. As he had done when in the post office department, Mr. Evans gave five years of service here which has never been surpassed in the history of the pension department. He kept the pension roll free from corruption and dishonesty and in so doing he naturally incurred the enmity of those pension schemers and kindred governmental parasites who lived upon what they could obtain by dishonest means. This class of officeholder had no sympathy with a straight-forward administration and Mr. Evans in consequence became the especial target of their abuse, which assumed large proportions.
Mr. Evans retained his post as commissioner of pensions until the year 1902. In May of that year President Roosevelt appointed him consul-general in London for Great Britain and in this position Mr. Evans terminated his career as a national officeholder. As consul-general in London he more than upheld the traditions of the high position accorded him and gave to his incumbency a dignity, tactful diplomacy and intelligent direction of outstanding merit. The numerous duties of his position were performed by him in a manner which drew the universal commendation of his superiors. Socially, and at the court of King Edward VII, he made a distinct impression by the weight of his pleasing personality and gentlemanly conduct, which was enhanced by the graciousness and culture of his wife, who was ever his constant helpmate and inspiration. Mr. Evans held this diplomatic position until 1905, when he returned to America and Chattanooga. Public life knew him no more except for the period he served as commissioner of education and health.
In his home and family Mr. Evans had his richest possession. H. Clay Evans and his wife lived to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of their marriage. Mr. Evans was married February 18, 1869, to Miss Adelaide Parthenia Durand of Westfield, New York. She was the daughter of Fiske and Nancy (Forsythe) Durand and, as the name indicates, was of French descent. To Mr. and Mrs. Evans three children were born, namely: Henry Clay, Jr., Nelle and Anita Clay. Henry Clay Evans, Jr., who died in July, 1905, was a captain in the United States army during the Spanish-American war. He married Miss Branch Peterson of Jonesboro, Arkansas, and was the father of one daughter, Adelaide Durand Evans, now residing in Jonesboro; Nelle Evans is the wife of Dr. Joseph W. Johnson of Chattanooga and the mother of three boys, Joseph Wilson, Jr., Henry Clay Evans and David Foote Sellers; Anita Evans is the wife of Captain David Foote Sellers, U. S. N.
The death of H. Clay Evans occurred on the 12th of December in the year 1921, and on June 19, 1922, just a few brief weeks later, his beloved wife joined him in rest. The passing of H. Clay Evans came as a personal bereavement to thousands who knew him and was one of peculiarly poignant nature. Having retired the preceding evening in apparent health, his lifeless body was discovered the following morning. Granting the inevitability of death, the nature of his departure, without suffering or pain, was as a befitting close to such a life of usefulness and accomplishment. From the pen of a man who knew him intimately came the following tribute, which is here preserved as a true summing up of his character and work:
“The Hon. H. Clay Evans was the most distinguished private citizen in Tennessee — in fact, in the south. He was pure and clean in his public and private life, knowing no tricks and having no faith in men who practiced them. As a member of congress he took front rank from the day he entered the capitol and took the oath. As United States commissioner of pensions he at once attracted national attention because of his clear insight into the pension law and his wonderful courage in administering the law. As United States consul-general to London he ranked with the highest and ablest men our country had sent to Great Britain, either as ambassadors or consuls. As first assistant in the postmaster-general’s office he was so efficient and so prompt and unerring as an executive in that great department that he was asked to stay longer after he had served several months under the Cleveland administration.
“In private life Mr. Evans was a most charming and lovable personality. He had no enemies to punish or criticise, but found great pleasure in recounting delightful incidents of the past with old friends, many of them gone, some of them here yet. He enjoyed the companionship of younger men and to them gave the benefit of a ripe experience in a long, useful and active life.
“We shall not see his like again in this generation. Public-spirited, unselfish, with a certain, fixed and well-supported opinion on all questions, he expressed that opinion fearlessly and with a rugged force that bespoke the honesty of the man. In the last years of his great, splendid life he was happy as he envisaged the more than half a century of his activity, in reminiscence, and reflected that through all those years, in many of which there was political bitterness, he had not done a thing or said a thing in which the friends of the present day found cause for condemnation. There was hardly a man in the nation, democrat or republican, sixty years of age and of any note, with whom Mr. Evans was not on the closest terms of personal friendship.
“Chattanooga has lost her most beloved citizen, the state her most distinguished son, and now when all that is mortal of the Hon. Henry Clay Evans has been carried to its last resting place we may all well say, ‘We shall not see his like again in our time.’ “