The term Bourbon Triumvirate refers to Georgia's three most powerful and prominent politicians of the post-Reconstruction era: Joseph E. Brown, Alfred H. Colquitt, and John B. Gordon. This trio practically held a lock on the state's U.S. Senate seats and governor's office from 1872 to 1890: Brown as senator from 1880 until 1890; Colquitt as governor from 1876 through 1882, and as senator from 1883 until 1894; and Gordon as senator from 1872 until 1880, governor from 1886 until 1890, and senator again from 1891 until 1897. The political careers of all three men benefited from their service during the Civil War (1861-65); Brown had served as the governor of Confederate Georgia, and Colquitt and Gordon had both risen to the rank of major general in the Confederate army by the war's end.
Political and Economic Interests
All three men had extensive interests in the railroad and coal-mining industries, among other commercial pursuits. All three championed white supremacy; a frugal state government that demanded little of taxpayers, and accordingly provided few services; and the maintenance of subservient labor forces on farms and in factories. Gordon and especially Brown both made use of convict labor in their industrial enterprises.
The "Atlanta Ring"
While Brown, Colquitt, and Gordon shared many economic and political interests and beliefs, they also differed on many points, and historians have since questioned the validity of the epithet "Bourbon Triumvirate."
More aptly, the trio could be viewed as the core of the larger Atlanta Ring, which also included Atlanta Constitution editors Evan Howell and Henry W. Grady. These two preeminent journalists (particularly the latter) played important roles in the trio's political machinations, most notably in the suspicious series of events involving Gordon's sudden resignation from the U.S. Senate and his replacement by Brown in 1880, as well as Gordon's somewhat belated but ultimately successful entry into the 1886 governor's race. In this contest, Grady masterfully exploited Gordon's Civil War legacy to help him derail the seemingly unstoppable campaign of Augustus O. Bacon of Macon, a leading opponent of the Atlanta Ring who later became a U.S. senator himself.
Demise of the Triumvirate
The rise of the Farmers' Alliance to a position of strength within the Democratic Party in 1890 essentially ended the era of the Bourbon Triumvirate, as did the passage of time. Brown and Colquitt both died in 1894, and Gordon retired from politics after completing his last term in the U.S. Senate in 1897. Never before and never since, however, has a trio of men collectively exercised such dominance over state politics, even if the extent to which they did so as a collective unit was exaggerated in the minds of the press and the public.
Harold E. Davis, Henry Grady's New South: Atlanta, a Brave and Beautiful City (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990).
Judson C. Ward Jr., "Georgia under the Bourbon Democrats, 1872-1890" (Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1947).
Lewis Nicholas Wynne, The Continuity of Cotton: Planter Politics in Georgia, 1865-1892 (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1986).
Matthew Hild, University of West Georgia
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