Skip to comments.The First Free State Project
Posted on 12/28/2004 10:16:18 AM PST by neverdem
The brief, tumultuous history of Franklin.
Never heard of the state of Franklin? Its existence was brief, from 1784 to about 1788, though as with such still-existing post-Revolution states as Maine and Vermont, self-rule had been the norm there for years beforehand. In 1769 Virginians began settling the Watauga River in what is now the northeastern tip of Tennessee. Three years later the Articles of the Watauga Association bound these settlements together for mutual defense and negotiation with the surrounding Cherokee. When a survey revealed Watauga Association lands to be within North Carolinas claim west of the Appalachian Mountains, the settlers petitioned to join the state, pledging to assist in the Revolutionary effort.
Republicanism was all the rage in the dusty days after the war. Citizens who werent gentry demanded the titles Mr. and Mrs., servants refused to address their employers as superiors, and independence, both as a person and as a people, was seen as the highest virtue. The inhabitants of North Carolinas western Greene, Sullivan, and Washington counties (the last having been created expressly out of Watauga Association lands) craved self-government.
Settlers refused to pay taxes when North Carolina failed to build roads or appoint judges and militia to protect them from hostile Indians. Their land was taxed at the same rate as that east of the Blue Ridge, they complained, even though it was valued only a quarter as much. Yet it was impossible for the bankrupt state to build infrastructure without tax money, which couldnt be collected in the western counties where shooting tax collectors was seen as simple Christian charity. Meanwhile, the settlers were building on lands promised to the Cherokee and Choctaw in their treaties with North Carolina. These incursions sparked Indian attacks.
North Carolina had other money problems. Article 8 of the pre-constitutional Articles of Confederation specified that each of the 13 states would pick up the war tab by paying a tax proportional to an assessment on its land-essentially, a real estate tax on the states. The bad news for North Carolinians was that not only were they broke, they also had a lot of land (their claim stretched to the Mississippi River) and hence a higher tax bill. In response, the North Carolina delegates to Philadelphia wanted to cede the states western counties to Congress, thereby reducing their assessment.
The North Carolina legislature was waryit knew and resented the discontent of the states western citizensbut passed a bill in May 1784 giving away the truculent western counties, though stipulating that they would remain part of the state if Congress declined to accept them. Not only would this maneuver lower the states tax assessment, it would rid it of the troublesome westerners without giving them the victory of independence. But this game of hot potato infuriated the westerners. Delegates from the counties met at a Jonesborough convention in August and said, essentially, Screw them. Were our own state.
North Carolina responded in October by repealing the cession act. In December the western delegates met again to reaffirm their independence. John Sevier, a chief proponent of separate statehood and an indefatigable Indian fighter, was elected governor. The new state was named Franklin. Its namesake, Benjamin Franklin, was invited to move to the area from Philadelphia. He declined, but his epistolary advice was sought throughout the states lifetime.
The mother states mood toward Franklin vacillated between wrath and reconciliation. The North Carolina legislature wanted to send in troops, but cooler heads knew a campaign against former Revolutionary guerrillas would be messy. Letters flew back and forth. Meanwhile, Sevier negotiated fresh treaties with the Cherokee, and the Franklin legislature granted new settlers a tax-free grace period of two years to encourage immigration.
In May and June 1785, Franklin petitioned Congress to accept North Carolinas cessionignoring the revocationand to admit Franklin to the Union. Congress agreed that a cession, once offered, couldnt be taken back, but Franklin failed to achieve the two-thirds majority (nine states) needed under the Articles of Confederation to pass any law. All of the Southern states except Georgia voted against admittance; they had vast land claims themselves and worried that the division between North Carolina and Franklin (and, more amicably, between Virginia and its Kentucky District) would encourage additional breakaway states, to their detriment. Massachusetts and Delaware abstained, believing the issue merited further discussion.
That Franklin won the support it did was a victory in itself, and during the following years its government set about shoring up relations with the other states, though attempts at rapprochement were met coolly by North Carolina. Courts were established in Franklin, new counties added, coins minted. The new state adopted a constitution modeled on that of its parent.
The Franklin government had a difficult time preventing newcomers from squatting on Indian land, and by the fall of 1787 an all-out Indian war was imminent. Davidson County, one of the fastest-growing areas of the frontier, originally refused to join the Franklin cause, since the areas remoteness precluded bother from North Carolina tax collectors and (more important) its land grants were issued from across the mountains. Then Indian raids intensified. Col. James Robertson, founder of the city of Nashville (in Davidson County), sent out an SOS. North Carolina hesitated, but Franklin didnt: Sevier led 2,000 men westward through the woods to Nashville, and the show of force was enough to disband the Indians without a fight. Disillusioned with the North Carolina government, Davidson County threw in with Franklin.
A brief insurrection in February 1788 by North Carolina loyalist Col. John Tipton, pitting settler against settler, inspired the Indians to strike. By March, the wilderness was on fire, and the situation was so grim that the North Carolina militia marched forth to battle alongside the Franklinmen.
The Americans prevailed, but the war exhausted Franklin and the other frontier colonies. In June 1789, the new federal Constitution was ratified and North Carolinawhether from the esprit de corps of fighting beside the rebels or from a desire to wash its hands of Indian troublesstopped blocking the cession of its western lands. Franklin, Nashville, and the surrounding areas became a U.S. territory, and in 1796 what was once North Carolina between the Mississippi and the Appalachians became the state of Tennessee. John Sevier was elected its first governor.
Jackson Kuhl writes about archaeology, history, and travel.
Happy New Year History Ping!
Thanks for this, going back to read it now. I have ancestors who show their place of birth as "the State of Franklin". I've read before that heir constitution stated that no lawyers, doctors or preachers (I think that was the 3)could hold legislative office. Not a bad idea.
Wow! I was a history major, but had never heard about this. GREAT piece of information. I'm going to try to find more information about the "State of Franklin." Thanks for posting this!
Thanks! Bump for later read
I had never heard of it before last year either. I got a bunch of geneology material and 2 ancestors had their place of birth listed as the State of Franklin.
Fascinating. Thanks for this look back.
Bet you did a double take at first! Same thing happened to me when I was doing some legal research in Kentucky and ran across "Beckham County". We have 120 counties in Kentucky, none of them named Beckham. Turns out the county existed for something like 60 days in the early 1900's. The counties it was carved from were not happy about it though, and found a loophole that caused it to revert to the way it was prior to Beckham County existing. It did last long enough to have at least one court case published though!
To this day, Tennesee remains one of only nine freedom-loving states with no state income tax.
The spirit of liberty is alive in them thar' hills!
Thought this article might be of interest to you.
Correct me if I am wrong...
But wasn't there a bunch of folks who are trying to do the same thing today by moving to New Hampshire and taking over shop in the State government to inact a kind of "Free State" project as well???
I remember seeing that a couple of years ago, and heard they started getting everyone there from all over to implement this deal...
BTW, this original story posted makes for a great read...
The hope is to get 20,000 folks to move to New Hampshire tipping the state to the right. Their pubbie governor just lost to a dem in November.
I understand your family, they sound alot like mine. We could be related!
Here's an interesting site on the subject. I found one of my ancestors as a signer for the State of Franklin petition.
Great stuff - thanks.
This love of freedom and independence, above all else, is what is missing from our country today.
Believe I found one of mine as well. Family is originally from that neck of the woods. Thanks for the link!!
During the period of the Constitutional Convention, several frontier areas were demanding statehood: Vermont, "Westsylvania"; the state of "Franklin" in eastern Tennessee; and Kentucky.
I always found the State of Franklin fascinating as it was an expression of popular sovereignty self government spontaneously springing from compact. This was a huge issue during the Civil War and settlement of the West. These were principles to which the Founders supposedly aspired, but when it came down to the rubber meeting the road, the United States opted for a colonial/territorial system instead, very similar to the one by which England had governed them. The various land ordinances governing the organized territories provided for a Governor, three Judges and a Secretary appointed by Congress. A legislative Assembly shall be elected and from that, a Legislative Council nominated and appointed by Congress.
Acceptance of new States was always controlled by whether and how the land was organized into a Territory. This prevented folks from forming critical self governing mass which would require Congress to consider statehood.
Years ago, I did considerable research into how the second class standing of Western public land States came into being and learned a great deal. For instance, James Madison had included provisions for equality in the first draft of the new Constitution: "If admission be consented to, new states shall be admitted on the same terms with the original states." A faction lead by Governor Morris of New York and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts advocated a plan to limit the number of new states so that they would never outnumber the older states or to admit new states on a less than equal basis. Madison insisted that "the Western States neither would nor ought to submit to a union which degraded them from an equal rank with the other States." (See
2 Madison, "Journal of the Debates in the Convention which Framed the Constitution, 274 - Hunt's ed. 1908.) A compromise resulted in the neutral statement: "New states may be admitted by Congress into this Union."
The following are background notes that I have on the State of Franklin, mostly from Ray Billingtons Westward Expansion, A History of the American Frontier, 1967:
Stephen Holston, a hunter built a cabin in the Tennessee valley in 1746. A few others followed, but were driven back by Indian raids. In 1758, immigration set in. William Bean, a trader settled in the Watauga River Valley, attracting others in 1769-70. James Robertson brought 16 more families in 1771. John Carter established a trading post west of the Holston River in 1769 and was followed by a handful of settlers South of the Holston. Many Marylanders settled at Shelby's Station. Jacob Brown of North Carolina settled on the Nolichucky River. This made four settlements by 1771: Watauga, Carter's Valley, North-of-Holston, and the Nolichucky. Many came during the next two years from Virginia and Regulators settled from North Carolina. By the close of 1772, several hundred families lived in eastern Tennessee.
The surveys of the Lochaber Treaty Line in 1772 disclosed that three of the four settlements were in Cherokee territory. Carter's Valley and Nolichucky were abandoned, their populations gathering at Watauga, where they prepared to defy Indian Superintendent Stuart. As purchase of lands was forbidden, settlers negotiated a long term lease of two large tracts. The "Wataugans" turned to the task of providing for law and order. "They resorted to a practice usual to frontiersmen whose westward advance temporarily carried them beyond the protection of the law; they called a convention of arms-bearing men to draw up a compact."
All signers of the Articles of Association agreed to obey five commissioners who were given both legislative and judicial powers; they were to keep order, enlist a militia, record deeds for land sales, issue marriage licenses, and try offenders. "It was an ordinary squatters agreement stemming from necessity and rooted in Presbyterian religious beliefs which emphasized the original compact between God and man."
In North Carolina, Tidewater planters controlled the legislature and local western government through governor appointed law-making justices of county courts and law-enforcing sheriffs. A poll tax was levied on rich and poor and corrupt tax collectors made things unbearable. They demanded payment in specie and when it was not immediately forthcoming, hurried off to sell the farm for taxes in arrears to a speculator. The farmer could lose everything in court fighting.
In 1768, the frontiersmen formed an extralegal body they called "The Regulation," binding themselves by compact to pay no taxes until they were satisfied the money was legally collected and used. At first they only requested to meet with the proper officials to present their grievances. Then they were labeled insurrectionists by the governor William Tyron and protest turned to rebellion. Rioting about Hillsboro grew until in 1770, the governor issued warrants for arrest of the Regulators and ordered troops to enforce them.
In 1771, Tyron at the head of the provincial army was met by two thousand Regulators. The Battle of Alamance cost each side nine men killed and a number wounded. The Regulators dispersed. Leaders who were not captured or killed fled the colony.
In South Carolina, frontier grievances were high taxes, corrupt officials, under-representation in the legislature, oversized counties, a complete lack of courts in the interior and the assembly's refusal to erect any new counties until the inhabitants agreed to support the Anglican church. In 1767, settlers on the upper Pedee and Congareeb rivers organized groups of vigilantes to protect their property and punish criminals, calling themselves Regulators. They were denounced as traitors and the militia was called out against them. Scattered fighting went on in 1768-9. Then the two forces met in battle on the Saluda River. The troops were withdrawn and the legislature passed a circuit court bill. The Regulators dissolved.
In 1784, North Carolina made a limited cession to the United States. The cession was soon rescinded over difficulties regarding frontier self-determination and the "State of Franklin" and was not retendered until 1789. By that time, North Carolina had almost no land left in Tennessee to dispose of and ceded what amounted to only political jurisdiction. This was accepted by Congress in 1790, when it was organized as the "Territory Southwest of the Ohio River." It became the State of Tennessee in 1796.
In doing genealogy on my hubby's family, I found where one of my husband's ancestors, Jesse A. Bounds, signed a petition or declaration or something -- pertaining to the establishment of the State of Franklin. When the endeavor fell through, Jesse Bounds settled in Knox Co TN, where he died in 1804.
Outstanding history lesson! Happy New Year!