Tag Archives: William Blount

Looking for a substantial research project?

Then consider writing a biography of an early national figure, particularly one from Tennessee.  Mark Cheatham is probably correct in guessing that “many graduate students who might be interested in writing biographies as dissertations are discouraged by their advisors.”

It’s a shame, because there are plenty of prominent early leaders about whom we just don’t know enough.  Both Gordon Belt and myself have lamented the lack of a good biography of John Sevier.  A few hagiographic treatments came out over a century ago, but as far as I can determine, the only scholarly attempt at a life of Sevier was Carl Driver’s, published back in the thirties.

William Blount’s life story would also make for a fascinating read.  A study of his conspiratorial dealings came out not too long ago, but as a member of the Constitutional Convention and governor of the Southwest Territory, Blount deserves a cradle-to-grave account, too.

In part, this dearth of early Tennessee biographies is symptomatic of a more general shortage of scholarship on the Volunteer State’s frontier period.  The good news is that those relatively few recent studies on early Tennessee history have been very good—such as John Finger’s overview of the Volunteer State’s early daysKevin Barksdale’s book on the Lost State of Franklin, and Cynthia Cumfer’s examination of early Tennessee’s three races.

But it’s also symptomatic of the surprising gaps that exist in the field of early American biography.  These gaps become readily apparent when you look at Rev War biography.  One thing that’s always struck me is the lack of a recent, full-scale life of Nathanael Greene, the remarkable general who took command in the South in late 1780 and turned that theater of war on its head, after having served under Washington in the major campaigns in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania.  Few men played a more critical role in the war.

Henry Knox, Washington’s resourceful artillery chief, also needs a full-scale, scholarly biography.  Don Higginbotham wrote a very good life of Daniel Morgan, but another look at the Old Wagoneer wouldn’t hurt, either.  Philip Schuyler and Horatio Gates could also stand intensive biographies.

Let me point out that all these men were general officers, and yet we have more abundant published work on some Civil War colonels than on these guys.  Biographies of British commanders are just as hard to come by, perhaps more so.  In a sense, Rev War historiography has leapfrogged over the old military history and gone straight to the new.

Grad students and young scholars in search of dissertation or book topics need not worry about running out of material.  There are enough dead white guys in search of their Boswells to keep us all busy for a while.

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Early Tennessee leaders behaving badly

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.

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