Legislative Update from State Senator Joey Hensley December 18, 2019

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   As the Thanksgiving holiday is ushered out and the Christmas season begins, let me take this opportunity to invite you all to our state’s capitol during this special season. Tennessee’s Capitol building is a fascinating and historic site all year long, but is especially beautiful during the Christmas season.

   I have always been amazed at the history this building holds. Our Tennessee Capitol is the oldest working capitol building in the United States. The building is not only architecturally attractive and interesting, but is filled with a rich sense of Tennessee history. 

   During Christmas, a forty foot Tennessee pine tree will be featured in front of the Capitol Building, which will be decorated for the season. Green wreaths and other greenery will adorn the outside of the building also. This building was completed in 1859, nine years after the first cornerstone was laid. The Capitol resembles the Erectheum in Athens and is made of limestone.

   Inside the building, during the Christmas season every floor will feature wreaths and greenery.  The first floor will be banked with poinsettias. A big Christmas tree with ornaments from the many tourist attractions across the state will be in the center of this main floor of the Capitol.  The Governor’s office, which is also on the main floor, will feature a Christmas tree too.  All the Christmas decorations will be in keeping with the integrity of the building.

   The Governor’s office contains beautiful murals painted in 1938 when the Capitol was remodeled. The scenes depict important moments and influences in Tennessee history including scenes from the Cherokee Indians, the Wautauga Association, the State of Franklin and of the agriculture and commerce sections from our state’s motto. The interior of the Capitol features marble taken from our area of the state. 

   Ceiling frescoes are also one of the most remarkable features of our Capitol. Those frescoes include representations of “Westward Expansion,” an American eagle surrounded by 31 states, “Lady Justice,” our state seal, “Liberty,” and muses of Literature, Sculpture, Music and Painting. Up and down the halls of the main floor are the portraits of our Tennessee governors.

   I am always pleased when school children come to visit the Capitol. I have found that two aspects of this building capture their attention. The first is the fact that William Strickland, the architect of the Capitol who died before the building was finished is entombed there. He is not alone. Also entombed on the other side of the Capitol is Samuel Morgan, Chairman of the Capitol Building Commission when the Capitol was erected. 

   The second fact that captures the attention of the school children is the bullet mark on the grand staircase to the House and Senate Chambers. This scar is from a bullet fired from the stair above during a particularly bitter fight in the Legislature over the ratification of the 14th amendment in 1866. This is the amendment that gave the right to vote to African Americans.  The vote was opposed by the Confederate-sympathizers in the General Assembly who did not have enough votes to block passage of the amendment. They attempted to flee armed guards so there would not be a quorum and an unwilling guard shot disabused them of that strategy. The amendment subsequently passed.

   I cannot help but think of the historic significance of the actions taken in these House Chambers, as we were recently reminded upon the 99th Anniversary this year of the ratification of the 19th amendment that gave women the right to vote. In a close House vote, the suffrage amendment won passage when an East Tennessee legislator, Harry Burn, switched sides after receiving a telegram from his mother encouraging him to support ratification. Tennessee thereby became the pivotal state that put the Nineteenth Amendment over the top.

   Other significant sites in this building include the recently renovated Supreme Court Chambers, the Victorian library with a staircase featuring “hounds of knowledge,” the monumental gasoliers converted from gas to electricity at the turn of the century, and the Ron Ramsey tunnel connecting our legislative offices to the capitol.

   I cannot help but stand in awe of the hours of labor and resources entailed in the construction of this Capitol Building and the grounds. This building belongs to the people and is evidence of our Tennessee spirit. I hope that each one of our citizens will visit it in the near future. Again, I would like to extend a personal invitation to each person to visit our legislative office on the 7th Floor of the Cordell Hull Building in Suite 746. We are always happy to see the “folks from home.”