Monday, November 2, 2009

Podcast Appalachia 10: The "Lost" State of Franklin


Hello and welcome to Podcast Appalachia. I’m John Norris Brown.

First, it’s great to be back with you after a sixteen-month hiatus. As many of you know, I was living overseas and just did not have very much free time. However, I really missed producing this podcast and am very happy to be doing it again. Researching this episode was very relaxing for me, and I can’t wait to do more in the future. I’m grateful that you’re still listening, and hope you’ll accept my apology for my neglect.

With that said, let’s get on with Appalachia. Today we’ll discuss the “lost” State of Franklin.

The “lost” State of Franklin was an unrecognized territory that sought statehood just after the War for Independence. Comprised of what is today Upper East Tennessee and the easternmost counties of Tennessee, but what was then part of North Carolina, the “state” existed for only four years. In spite of its failure, the Lost State of Franklin would capture the imaginations of generations of Americans.

In the mid to late 1700s, settlers in the region that would become the State of Franklin had always felt isolated in their new territory. Fairly or unfairly, they also felt their needs were being ignored by their state government in North Carolina.

Like any good mountaineers, they decided to take matters into their own hands. In 1772 they formed the Watauga Association, the first attempt at self-government in the area. The Watauga Association was something of a forerunner to the State of Franklin and became notable for declaring itself independent of British rule prior to the Declaration of Independence.

Over the next few years, these feelings of isolation and grievances against the North Carolina government would only grow more intense. So once again, the early settlers decided to assert their rights. In Jonesborough in 1784 the independent State of Frankland was declared, and a provisional constitution, which actually was only a slightly modified North Carolina constitution, was adopted.

The new state decided on the name Frankland because it meant “free land.” It wasn’t until later that it adopted the better remembered name of Franklin, after Benjamin Franklin. Why the name was changed remains unclear, though perhaps it was to flatter Franklin and help the new state receive recognition from the federal government.

In asserting their rights, the founders of the State of Frankland used rhetoric from the War for Indpendence. Franklinites argued that they had the right of self-determination and should be able to create their own government, one that would rest on the consent of the governed and be more accountable to the people of the region. Like the American revolutionaries, they and their defenders argue they were simply trying to protect their natural rights.

Over the years, these romantic ideals have been challenged by historians. Kevin Barksdale, for example, contends that the state of Franklin was really an effort by the ruling class of the Tennessee Valley to preserve their power. According to him, Franklinites believed statehood would accomplish three things: Allow for more aggressive policy toward Native Americans, allow regional taxes to be used for improvements, and grant the ruling classes more political influence than existed under the North Carolina government.

Another historical fact that is sometimes forgotten is that the State of Franklin did not enjoy universal support among the early settlers. On the contrary, the state was very polarizing, and forced Tennessee Valley residents, who had been largely united by the War for Independence, to choose sides.

Some chose to support the State of Franklin while others decided to oppose it. The leader of the opposition was a man named John Tipton, who would become a thorn in the side of the Franklinites. Over the next few years he and his supporters, called Tiptonites, would do everything in their power to defeat the Franklinites.

Nevertheless, the prospects for Franklin looked promising at first. At a meeting in Greeneville in November of 1785, a new constitution was proposed. Though details are sketchy, it was most likely authored by Virginians Arthur Campbell, and Reverends William Graham and Samuel Houston, a relative of the latter Sam Houston.

This constitution was notable for being very progressive for its time. It allowed for universal male suffrage with no property requirement, as was required in most states of the time, proportional representation, a unicameral legislature, the election of all government officials, term limits, freedom of the press, fair treatment under the law, and the right to assembly.

The constitution was also ahead of its time in that it gave special attention to education. It called for the establishment of both grammar schools and a state university, something many other states would not do for several more decades.

Since two of its likely authors were ministers, the constitution was also very protestant influenced. It banned atheists and those who disbelieved in the Bible from running for office. In addition, gamblers, drunks, and those of “immoral character” were prohibited from holding office. Thus it mixed Enlightenment principals with the Protestant Reformation.

Called the “Frankland Document,” the proposed constitution was widely circulated, and was published in Pennsylvania. It was read by the Founding Fathers and may have influenced certain parts of the U.S. Constitution.

Had this new constitution been adopted, perhaps the State of Franklin would have survived. However, on that day in Greeneville the new constitution was rejected by a vote of 24-19. The reasons for this rejection remain unclear due to lack of documents, but some have suggested its failure might have been caused by the fact that it was written by Virginians, who were seen as outsiders in the Valley. Or perhaps it was too clerical in nature. Or maybe it was too democratic, and the ruling elite believed it gave too much power to the masses. Of course, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know the true reason.

In any event, the rejection of the proposed constitution further divided the residents of the valley. Instead of being simply a division between those who supported and those who opposed the State of Franklin, now the Franklinites were divided among those who supported the constitution and those who opposed it. This division proved very costly to the future prospects of the state, and led to some Franklinites changing sides and joining the Tiptonites.

In 1785 the State of Franklin elected its first and only governor, a local leader and Revolutionary War veteran named John Sevier. Though Sevier had initially opposed the creation of the state, he was wooed by the Franklinites until he offered his support. Sevier was a very popular figure in the area, and his support was deemed crucial if Franklin were to succeed. His election created two separate governments in the valley, one for Franklin and one for North Carolina, and ultimately led to a small civil war.

Even with Sevier on board, however, divisions remained. John Tipton continued to oppose Franklin, and he continued to gain new supporters.

Early in his administration, John Sevier wrote governor Alexander Martin of North Carolina a cordial letter. In the letter it was obvious Sevier wanted to avoid bloodshed and desired an amicable split from the state. Martin, however, was having none of it. He was not at all receptive to the rebels and disputed every justification for the new state’s existence. Martin’s hardline stance was supported by John Tipton, who stepped up his opposition to Sevier by writing Martin a letter of his own, pledging his allegiance to North Carolina.

Desperate to receive recognition, the Franklinites took their case to Philadelphia. Statehood for Franklin was considered there, with Washington, Madison and Benjamin Franklin himself, among others, mulling the situation. Patrick Henry, the governor of Virginia, was strongly opposed.

Ultimately, the Franklinites came close, but fell just short of the endorsement they needed: A motion to admit Franklin as the fourteenth state failed by a single vote in Philadelphia. This vote, along with the anti-Franklinites led by John Tipton, further damaged the prospects for statehood.

Still, John Sevier and the Franklinites continued their efforts. The new governor of North Carolina, Richard Caswell, was far less confrontational than his predecessor and a friend of Sevier, leading some to believe he could be convinced to grant Franklin its independence.

This belief proved to be wishful thinking. Caswell was more moderate than his predecessor, and like Sevier, he was committed to avoiding bloodshed. But he was also a savvy politician and implemented a new “divide and conquer” strategy for dealing with the Franklinites. He offered pardons to all former Franklinites. He also continued to insist on elections being held in Franklin for North Carolina offices. This undermined the new state’s authority and created dual governments: each Franklin county now had a Franklin sheriff and a North Carolina sheriff, two sets of legislators running at the same time, and two courts.

Though Franklinites continued to lobby North Carolina for recognition, these efforts were roundly rejected. Regardless of his personal affection for Sevier, Caswell was not going to grant the rebels their independence.

After failing to secure recognition from North Carolina and the federal government, the situation looked futile. Even in the valley, support for the state of Franklin waned. Many Franklinites realigned with North Carolina; only a few diehard supporters remained.

All hope of federal recognition ended with the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. Article IV, section 3 states that no new state can be formed from an old state without the consent of the old state and Congress. This was added as a result of the situation of the State of Franklin, considered by many signers to be an anti-model. Since getting consent from North Carolina was virtually impossible, most Franklinites packed it in.

There was, however, one more strategy being pursued, and this remains probably the most controversial parts of Franklin history. Some Franklinites, seeing federal recognition implausible, sought a union with the Empire of Spain. It’s not clear how serious the so-called “Spanish Conspiracy” was, but it was pursued late in the short life of the State of Franklin.

A union between Franklin and Spain was pursued by Dr. James White, a former North Carolina congressman and associate of John Sevier. Through him and Sevier’s son James, talks were entered into with the Spanish ambassador in New York City concerning the possibility of Franklin joining Spain. Ultimately, these talks did not progress very far and fell completely apart by 1788, though White continued to pursue them even as Franklinite leaders defected back to North Carolina.

Historians continue to debate the motives of the “Spanish Conspiracy,” with some contending it was merely a ploy to gain leverage and possibly recognition from the U.S. government. Others believe it was a last ditch effort to maintain control by the ruling elite in the Tennessee valley. Regardless, these talks were not successful and could not save the State of Franklin.

The final battle of the short life of Franklin occurred in late February, 1788. Called “The Battle of the State of Franklin,” it was fought during a snowstorm on John Tipton’s property.

At that time, Tipton was serving as Colonel and clerk of Washington County. Motivated by a desire for revenge, he ordered the sheriff to seize Sevier’s property for unpaid taxes to North Carolina. A number of Sevier’s belongings were taken, among them slaves.

When Sevier heard of this, he was enraged and immediately sent the Franklin militia to the Tipton farm to reclaim his property. A siege ensued. Though outnumbered, the Tiptonites refused to surrender, and ultimately were reinforced by more Tiptonites from outside the farm, forcing the Franklinites to retreat.

This was a humiliating defeat for the Franklinites and John Sevier. Two men were killed, but the greatest casualty may have been the State of Franklin itself.

John Sevier’s term as governor ended on March 1, 1788, and he did not seek reelection. No other candidate could be found to run for governor as support for the state had largely vanished. With little public support and no one willing to run for governor, the State of Franklin came to an abrupt end.

The drama did not end there, however. Viewed as a traitor by many North Carolinians, it was unknown as to what would become of John Sevier. Fearing prosecution, he went into hiding. His archrival John Tipton, and the new governor of North Carolina, Samuel Johnston, took no pity on him and pursued him for treason.

Sevier was arrested in October 1788, but did not remain in captivity for long. The sheriff charged with supervising him was actually an old friend from the War for Independence, and quickly released Sevier. He was later pardoned by the state of North Carolina.

A year later, in 1789, North Carolina ceded its western lands to the federal government, which created the Territory South of the River Ohio in 1790. It was from this land that Tennessee peacefully gained statehood in 1796. John Sevier was elected the first governor of Tennessee.

In spite of its failure, the State of Franklin would live on in legend. There were even efforts to recreate the stillborn state during the nineteenth century. In 1842, counties in East Tennessee attempted to break away from Tennessee and reform Franklin, but these efforts failed.

In 1861, Union loyalists in East Tennessee once again attempted to secede from Tennessee so as to remain with the Union, but the state of Tennessee refused to grant permission, and once again the efforts were unsuccessful.

Today the State of Franklin lives on only in our imaginations, providing one of the more intriguing “What Ifs?” of American history.

The sources for this episode were The Encyclopedia of Appalachia, edited by Rudy Abramson and Judy Haskell and The Lost State of Franklin: America’s First Secession by Kevin T. Barksdale.

That’s it for today. As always, thanks to the 1937 Flood for allowing me to use their music, and thank you for listening. As always, a transcript of this and previous episodes of this podcast is available at If you want to get in touch with me, please do so. My e-mail address is Also, please feel free to suggest topics for future episodes. I hope you have a nice day, and we will speak again soon.

1 comment:

State and Lake said...

I've very much enjoyed reading the transcripts of your podcasts--have you thought of doing a podcast on the legal system in small-town Appalachia around 1910? Or know where I could find some information regarding that?