Knoxville historian Jack Neely revisits a venerable frontier tradition—conspiracy to commit treason. Here in East Tennessee, two of our founders flirted with European powers on separate occasions, one of whom did so while participating in an illegal statehood movement.
It’s surprising how tenuous allegiances on the Revolutionary-era frontier could be. Neely speculates that in the case of Tennesseans John Sevier and William Blount, it might have been a generational thing. “They were too young to have earned a place in the pantheon of the founders of a nation,” he writes. “But they were too old to have grown up—as we did—revering our Founding Fathers as Immortals, something a little beyond merely human.”
I think Neely’s piece is the first one I’ve read that tries to find some link between the early separatist schemes in American history. The fact that these guys came into their own at a time when the federal government was still congealing is very suggestive. Sending out feelers to a foreign power probably didn’t have the psychological ramifications that it does now, when U.S. sovereignty is more of a given.
In the case of the Blount and Wilkinson conspiracies, most accounts that I’ve read stress the agency of particularly ambitious and unscrupulous actors who were looking out for number one. The best and most thorough study of the Franklin movement also emphasizes the leadership of regional elites and land-hungry men of means. Many of these schemers no doubt acted out of motives that were (to put it charitably) something other than altruistic, but I think the support and approval they received from large numbers of frontier inhabitants is important, and we shouldn’t overlook it.
The leading Franklinites may have been ambitious bigwigs, but to your run-of-the-mill frontiersman the Franklin movement still offered possible solutions to the problems of distant and unresponsive state and federal governments and threats to the ability to navigate the Mississippi. And even Blount, acting on his own behalf rather than as part of a larger protest, remained wildly popular back in Tennessee, which indicates that these Revolutionary-era plots may have been more attuned to the needs and beliefs of frontier inhabitants than we might assume by looking at their sometimes self-interested architects.
We still don’t know enough—or at least I don’t know enough—about the common frontiersman of the late eighteenth century. He’s an elusive figure, but I suspect that we’d all be surprised at how much of his worldview we could recover.