The State of Franklin, lost and found

Not too long ago I posted about a recently-published book I’d run across, Kevin T. Barksdale’s The Lost State of Franklin: America’s First Secession (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2009).  I’m always excited to see any new work on the Tennessee frontier, and I eagerly looked forward to reading it.

Franklin was a 1780’s separatist movement in what was then western North Carolina and is now eastern Tennessee.  Residents of the Tennessee Valley had, for some time, wanted a government closer to home to be more responsive to their own needs.

In April 1784, North Carolina finally ceded her western lands to the federal government, but by the time westerners actually voted to create an independent state that December, the North Carolina legislature had repealed the cession and reclaimed sovereignty over the lands west of the mountains.  The new state of Franklin was once again a part of its parent, and its adherents were technically insurgents.  The Tennessee frontier, which Barksdale argues had been a haven of political unity up until this time, was now the setting for a nasty political squabble.

This led to the bizarre situation of overlapping Franklin and North Carolina jurisdictions, with competing courts, sheriffs, elections, and tax systems operating in the same area.  North Carolina used a divide-and-conquer strategy to win over the residents of the Tennessee Valley, liberally offering pardons, offices, and freedom from back taxes.  Still, there was rancor and violence between North Carolina loyalists and Franklinites, particularly near the end of the state’s existence.

Barksdale’s view of Franklin’s origins and development is decidedly cynical.  Before the separation, he argues, wealthy elites enjoyed effective control over the region’s economic and political life.  The movement’s main architects tended to be the wealthiest landowners—Barksdale finds that their landholdings were significantly higher than those of the average Tennessee Valley resident or of Franklin opponents.  Separation allowed these elites to consolidate their control, and to promote their goals of better access to markets and protection of land claims—goals their less influential neighbors also shared.

Furthermore, Barksdale argues that the new state was hardly democratic.  When the convention to draw up a frame of government for Franklin met in Greeneville in November 1785, a group of Presbyterian-influenced idealists presented a plan that would have provided for a unicameral legislature, universal suffrage for free males, and widespread education.  The convention instead adopted a modified form of North Carolina’s government, stifling the possibility of political power passing out of the hands of the frontier elite and becoming broadly diffused among average Tennessee Valley residents.

The establishment of Franklin also allowed regional leaders a freer hand in dealing with the Indians than they experienced before.  In 1785 Franklin secured its first Indian treaty at Dumplin Creek, obtaining land set aside by North Carolina for the Cherokee from a cadre of tribal members pliant enough to give in to their demands.  Both the U.S. and North Carolina governments repudiated Franlin’s Indian relations, but they were unable to enforce their own separate agreements with the Indians.  Violence between settlers and Native Americans in the Tennessee Valley eventually led to open warfare that outlasted Franklin itself.  Leading Franklinites also secured an alliance with Georgia to drive out the Creeks who inhabited the fertile Muscle Shoals region, hoping to profit from developing the lands there.

North Carolina’s refusal to accept Franklin, her conciliatory approach to wooing her former citizens, and the new national government’s refusal to acknowledge a state’s creation without the consent of its parent, prompted more and more Franklinites to abandon the movement.  Not even tentative western attempts to secure Spanish support prevented Franklin from collapsing.  In late February 1788, Franklin’s governor, John Sevier, led an armed force to the farm of his arch-opponent John Tipton in order to reclaim property seized for non-payment of North Carolina taxes.  Sevier’s followers drove off one party marching to Tipton’s aid, but when Tiptonite reinforcements arrived, the Franklinites fled.

Following this confrontation, Sevier found himself wanted for treason by a new North Carolina governor less conciliatory than his predecessor.  Sevier was arrested in October and taken to North Carolina for trial; his friends bailed him out of jail in Morganton, and the backcountry hero escaped to Jonesboro, eventually receiving a pardon and enjoying a long career under the governments of North Carolina and eventually Tennessee.  Franklin dissolved, but enjoyed a kind of second life as a rhetorical weapon in debates over Tennessee’s Revolutionary legacy and Appalachian Unionism.

Barksdale’s work is a solid study, clearly written and argued.  It is grounded in secondary scholarship on early Tennessee history and in important primary materials such as the Draper manuscripts.  Furthermore, it makes a real contribution to historiography, since good academic work on the Tennessee frontier is all too scarce.

I do, however, wonder whether Barksdale has been too quick to attribute events to the activities of self-interested elites.  He effectively demonstrates that the region’s wealthiest and most influential citizens were active proponents of Franklin, and that they held many of the new state’s most important offices.  Certainly the creation of an independent western state allowed these men to exercise greater influence than they would have in the bigger pond of North Carolina politics.

But there are other statements in the book that would seem to challenge this explanation.  Barksdale notes that these elites enjoyed broad support from Tennessee Valley yeomen before the separatist movement, and these average inhabitants shared the elites’ desire to improve access to outside markets and to secure themselves from attack.  If the region was indeed unified behind elite leadership, and if yeomen and elites shared many of the same goals, then perhaps the average Tennessee Valley resident was more active in the state’s creation than Barksdale indicates.  It’s possible that the elites led the way simply because they had the influence to do so, and that records of their activities have survived simply because they were more prominent.

Furthermore, the argument from self-interest leaves open the question of why many Tennessee Valley residents opposed Franklin.  Presumably, these opponents would also have benefited from secure land claims, access to markets, a more responsive state government, and a proactive Indian policy.  This is where Barksdale’s top-down approach falters a bit.  I hasten to add that the motives of rank-and-file frontiersmen may not be recoverable to us, but the consistent focus on the leadership made me wonder whether Barksdale was too hasty in dismissing factors besides elite agency.

These aren’t so much criticisms of the book as they are unresolved questions I had while reading it.  I was glad to see a study like this in print, and I recommend it to everyone interested in the eighteenth century or the southern frontier.  Thanks to Barksdale’s work, we now have a much clearer picture of this brief but fascinating episode in Tennessee history than we’ve ever had before.  The “Lost State of Franklin” didn’t endure, but in terms of scholarship, it isn’t lost anymore.


Filed under Appalachian History, Historiography, Tennessee History

3 responses to “The State of Franklin, lost and found

  1. Sounds like an interesting book. This is one area of U.S. history that I’m not familiar with, even though I’ve visited North Carolina and western Tennessee a few times. Great blog too!

    Thanks for including my blog on your blogroll. Whenever someone does that I like to return the favor. Please let me know if you’d like me to include a link to your blog on my site as well. Thanks again!


  2. I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed this post. Interesting and informative on a subject I know little about.

    When the area was later admitted as a separate state, was the name “Franklin” not used to get North Carolina’s vote or to avoid stirring up old resentments between pro- and anti-Franklin groups?

  3. mlynchhistory


    A link on your blog would be fantastic. Thanks!


    That’s a good question. I’m not aware that anybody suggested using the name “Franklin” during the period leading to Tennessee’s admission, but somebody might have. I don’t think it was because they wanted to avoid offending North Carolina, because there was a delay of several years between North Carolina’s final cession of her western lands and the admission of Tennessee as a state.

    Barksdale does say that the name “Franklin” was revived during the Civil War era when some Appalachian Unionists considered forming their own state.


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