Leonidas C. Houk

Leonidas Campbell Houk (June 8, 1836 – May 25, 1891) was an American politician and a member of the United States House of Representatives for the 2nd congressional district of Tennessee. Between 1878 and 1891, Houk was elected to seven consecutive terms in the House, during which time he helped solidify the Republican congressional dominance in East Tennessee that remains to the present day.[2] Houk fought for the Union Army during the Civil War, and rose to the rank of colonel within a few months.[3] Largely self-trained as a lawyer, Houk served as a state circuit court judge from 1866 to 1869.[1]

Leonidas Campbell Houk
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Tennessee's 2nd district
In office
March 4, 1879 – May 25, 1891
Preceded byJacob Montgomery Thornburgh
Succeeded byJohn C. Houk
Personal details
Born(1836-06-08)June 8, 1836
Boyds Creek, Tennessee, U.S.
DiedMay 25, 1891(1891-05-25) (aged 54)[1]
Knoxville, Tennessee, U.S.
Resting placeOld Gray Cemetery
Knoxville, Tennessee
Political partyRepublican
Spouse(s)Elizabeth Smith
Mary Belle Von Rosen[1]
ProfessionPolitician, Lawyer


Early lifeEdit

Houk was born near Boyds Creek, Tennessee in Sevier County on June 8, 1836. He lost his father at a young age, and grew up in poverty.[3] Although he attended local schools for less than three months, he managed to educate himself by reading books.[4] He eventually learned the trade of cabinet-making, and worked in this trade for several years in Clinton, Tennessee.[3]

In 1853, Houk was charged in Maryville with shooting a gun near a public road.[3] At his trial, Knoxville lawyer Oliver Perry Temple (1820–1907), who happened to be in the courtroom, arose and spoke on Houk's behalf, and convinced the judge to grant Houk leniency. As a result of this incident, Houk became interested in law, and began making regular stops by Temple's Gay Street office to borrow books on law and legal theory.[3] In 1859, Houk was admitted to the bar, and commenced practice in Clinton.[1]

Civil WarEdit

Like most rural East Tennesseans, Houk supported the Union during the Civil War.[3] In 1861, Houk engaged prominent secessionist Henry S. Foote in a debate in Clinton, and in June of that year he represented Anderson County at the East Tennessee Convention, which sought to create a separate, Union-aligned state in East Tennessee.[3] In August 1861, Houk travelled to Kentucky, where he enlisted in the Union Army as a private.[5]

On February 5, 1862, Houk was named colonel of the Third Tennessee Volunteer Infantry. In August of that year, Houk's regiment was vastly outnumbered and nearly surrounded by Confederate forces at London, Kentucky. Rather than surrender, Houk led his men on a brutal retreat over back roads and mountain passes to safety.[5] As a result of this retreat, his health deteriorated, and he was forced to retire from the army on April 23, 1863.[5] He spent the remainder of the war writing articles in support of the Union.[4] He defended the Emancipation Proclamation,[5] and served as a presidential elector for the Republican ticket in 1864.[1]

Postwar activitiesEdit

Houk first ran for the 2nd District's congressional seat in 1865, but lost to Horace Maynard.[5] In March 1866, however, he was elected circuit court judge of Tennessee's 17th judicial district. At first, Houk supported the policies of Radical Republican governor William G. Brownlow, including a bill that disfranchised former Confederate officers, and a bill giving African-Americans in the state the right to vote.[5] However, after a particularly bitter defeat against Maynard (a Brownlow ally) for the Republican nomination during the congressional election of 1868, Houk began distancing himself from the Brownlow regime.[5]

Houk resigned from the bench in 1869 and moved to Knoxville, where he formed a successful law firm with Henry R. Gibson.[3] In 1872, he was elected to the Tennessee state legislature, but served just one term. He again sought his party's nomination for Congress in 1874 against Jacob Thornburgh (Maynard had been gerrymandered out of the district in 1872), but withdrew after another particularly divisive campaign.[5]

The Houk MachineEdit

After Thornburgh retired in 1878, Houk finally gained the Republican nomination for Congress, narrowly defeating Knoxville Chronicle editor William Rule, and was elected to the Forty-sixth Congress later that year.[5] Sensing that East Tennesseans were weary of national issues, Houk focused on local concerns, namely veterans' issues and the demand for federal government seed. He was chairman of the House Committee on War Claims during the Forty-seventh congress,[6] and went to great lengths to get compensation for East Tennessee Unionists who suffered property damage during the war.[5]

In 1881, Houk thwarted Rule's attempt to become Knoxville's postmaster, and instead helped his old mentor Oliver P. Temple get the appointment.[5] An enraged Rule ran against Houk for the Republican nomination, and after a hostile campaign, both claimed the nomination and ran against one another in the general election. Houk won handily, and afterward ran virtually unopposed for four subsequent terms.[5] During this period, he went to considerable lengths to broaden the party's reach beyond its radical roots. With Brownlow and the party's older leaders dead or retired, Houk became the leader of Tennessee's Republicans, and thus controlled the party's presidential patronage.[5][7]

By the late-1880s, Houk had formed an unspoken alliance with the state's Democrats (who now dominated state politics) in which he traded federal influence during Republican presidencies for a say in state affairs.[7] In 1888, however, Henry Clay Evans, who disliked what he perceived as Houk's subservience to state Democrats, captured the 3rd District's House seat, and immediately began fighting with Houk over distribution of patronage.[7] Although the 3rd District was gerrymandered to ensure Evans's defeat in 1890, he and Houk continued bickering over patronage and political appointments, and after Houk's death, his son, John C. Houk, struggled with Evans for several years for control of the state Republican Party.[5][7]


On May 24, 1891, Houk accidentally drank a bottle of arsenic solution at DePue's drug store in Knoxville, and died the following day.[8] He was interred in Old Gray Cemetery. Houk's son, John Chiles Houk, succeeded him as the 2nd District's congressman. He held the seat until 1895, and continued to play a role in East Tennessee politics into the 20th century.[7]

Houk's broadening of the Republican platform solidified Republican control of East Tennessee's 1st and 2nd congressional districts.[2] As of 2012, no Democrat has been elected to Congress in either district since Houk's day.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e East Tennessee Historical Society, Mary Rothrock (ed.), The French Broad-Holston Country: A History of Knox County, Tennessee (Knoxville, Tenn.: East Tennessee Historical Society, 1972), pp. 429-430.
  2. ^ a b Richard Drake, A History of Appalachia (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), pp. 155-156.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Oliver P. Temple, Notable Men of Tennessee, From 1833 to 1875, Their Times and Their Contemporaries (New York: Cosmopolitan Press, 1912), pp. 128-136.
  4. ^ a b Leonard Schlup, Leonidas Campbell Houk. Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, 2002. Retrieved: 28 October 2010.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Gordon B. McKinney, "The Rise of the Houk Machine in East Tennessee," East Tennessee Historical Society Publications, Vol. 45 (1973), pp. 61-78.
  6. ^ Leonidas C. Houk. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Retrieved: 28 October 2010.
  7. ^ a b c d e Phillip Langsdon, Tennessee: A Political History (Franklin, Tenn.: Hillsboro Press, 2000), pp. 219-220.
  8. ^ Jack Neely, "Detour de Knoxville. Metro Pulse, 28 May 2008. Accessed at the Internet Archive, 2 October 2015.

External linksEdit

  • United States Congress. "Leonidas C. Houk (id: H000818)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
  • Leonidas Campbell Houk entry at The Political Graveyard
  • Leonidas C. Houk at Find a Grave
U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Tennessee's 2nd congressional district

March 4, 1879 – May 25, 1891
Succeeded by