The First Free State Project

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 Carolina's 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 weren't 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 Carolina's 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 couldn't 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 state's western counties to Congress, thereby reducing their assessment.

The North Carolina legislature was wary–it knew and resented the discontent of the state's western citizens–but 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 state's 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. We're 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 state's lifetime.

The mother state's 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 Carolina's cession–ignoring the revocation–and to admit Franklin to the Union. Congress agreed that a cession, once offered, couldn't 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 area's 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 didn't: 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 Carolina–whether from the esprit de corps of fighting beside the rebels or from a desire to wash its hands of Indian troubles–stopped 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.?