The Lost State of Franklin

The “lost state” of Franklin is today virtually forgotten. But it almost became what would now be our 51st state, and for a short time it was an independent nation.

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John Sevier, the “President” of the “Republic of Franklin”

In 1783, the newly-independent US was still under the Articles of Confederation. Congress was deeply in debt to France and Spain for the help it had recieved during the Revolutionary War, but under the Articles, the federal government did not have the authority to levee taxes, and so had no way to pay its foreign debt.

The state of North Carolina, meanwhile, was having troubles of its own. The state had signed a treaty with the local Native American nations (the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Chikamauga), but now there was disagreement over what the treaty actually provided. According to North Carolina, the state’s borders extended all the way to the Mississippi River; according to the Natives, they had only agreed to allow the settlers who were already there at the time of the treaty to stay, but the tribes still retained ownership of the land. There were already over 5,000 whites living in western North Carolina, including the large village at Fort Nashborough on the Cumberland River (which would later be renamed Nashville) and White’s Fort (later renamed Knoxville). As more settlers moved into the disputed area, a conflict seemed inevitable.

In May 1784, the North Carolina State Legislature decided that it had neither the means nor the money to send militia units all the way to Fort Nashborough to protect the settlers from the increasing number of Cherokee and Chickamauga raids, so they decided to give up their claim to the entire area, and passed an act ceding ownership of the whole of western North Carolina to the US Congress, on the assumption that Congress would sell off the land and use the money to pay its debts. Defending the area against Native attacks (and resolving the legal question of who actually owned the land that the settlers were living on), conveniently enough, would no longer be North Carolina’s problem.

Just a few weeks later, however, things were completely reversed by the state elections. Most of the newly-elected legislators were land speculators who themselves owned tracts of land in the disputed area–not only were they afraid that the Congress would decide that the Natives had legal title to their land, but they were alarmed by the possibility that even if Congress decided that the Natives had deeded away the land by treaty, the federal government might decide to give the land to Spain or France in lieu of its war debts, thus putting a foreign-controlled area on the state’s borders. In a quick vote, the new legislature withdrew its earlier offer and now re-claimed ownership over western North Carolina.

The see-saw of events, quite naturally, led the inhabitants of the disputed area to conclude that North Carolina simply did not want them and would not expend any effort or expense to defend them. So they took matters into their own hands–in August 1784, the three counties in western North Carolina announced that they were seceding from the state and would be forming a new state of their own, to be called “Frankland”. In response, North Carolina sent a militia force under the Revolutionary War hero John Sevier, who had won the Battle of King’s Mountain, to subdue the rebellious counties. Instead, upon arrival, Sevier, who himself owned a large number of tracts in the disputed area, joined the secessionists. “Frankland” organized an assembly to write a new state constitution, which guaranteed freedom of religion, banned doctors, lawyers and clergy from serving in the legislature, and gave voting rights to all male citizens without property qualifications. This constitution was rejected by the public, however, and was replaced with a new one that was mostly a copy of the state constitution of North Carolina. The new “state’s” capitol was established in Jonesborough, Sevier was elected Governor, and in May 1785 a delegation was sent to Congress to petition for Frankland’s admission to the Union as the 14th State.

Under the Articles, it took a two-thirds vote of state legislatures to admit a new state. In an attempt to curry favor, Governor Sevier changed the name of the new state from “Frankland” to “Franklin” and asked statesman Bejnamin Franklin for help. Franklin politely replied that since he had been in Europe all this time, he didn’t know enough about the situation to be of any service. In the end, the new state of “Franklin” received seven votes for admission, but six states, under pressure from North Carolina, noted “no”.

The failure of the statehood effort put “Franklin” into an uncomfortable position, and forced Sevier’s state government to do the only thing it could do–it declared its independence as the Free Republic of Franklin. By the end of 1786, the Republic claimed territory that would later become eight counties, wrote a national constitution, and elected Sevier as President. The “national legislature” appointed a committee to design a flag for the new country (which never completed the task), and plans were made for minting new coinage (in the meantime, American, Spanish and French money was all accepted as legal tender, as well as deerskins, corn, and rum). The State of North Carolina, meanwhile, had established its own parallel government in the territory, including its own courts and tax offices, also based in Jonesborough, and continued to claim sovereignty over the entire area. In response, the “Republic of Franklin” moved its capitol to Greeneville.

The new Republic, however, was virtually broke and had nothing in the way of resources. In desperation, President Sevier now made a fatal move–he began talks with both the Spanish and the French, each of whom had large colonies nearby, with an eye towards gaining military protection and economic aid. This was something that North Carolina could not tolerate, and an arrest warrant was issued charging Sevier with treason. A militia force was dispatched, commanded by local Colonel John Tipton, with orders to arrest Sevier, disband the “Republic”, and return the area to North Carolina’s control. In February 1788, when one of Tipton’s officers seized a farm owned by Sevier and confiscated it, Sevier responded by sending his own militia troops to Tipton’s farm at Johnson City. Two people died in the resulting clash, which became known, melodramatically, as “The Battle of Franklin”.

Within Franklin itself, moreover, dissent and division had now appeared. A sizable part of the population wanted to dissolve the Republic and rejoin North Carolina, as a means of gaining protection against the increasing raids from the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Chikamauga tribes (who were, as they saw it, defending their territory from invaders). In August 1788, Sevier was briefly arrested by North Carolina militia, and was promptly freed by a group of local citizens. But by February 1789 it was all over. Sevier’s “Republic” had completely collapsed and lost all public support. Sevier surrendered and, after swearing an oath of allegience to North Carolina, was given a command in the state militia and fought against the Native tribes. A small group of secessionist holdouts, calling themselves “The Republic of Lesser Franklin”, finally gave up in 1791.

After Sevier’s surrender, the State of North Carolina once again turned over its western counties to Congress, to be organized as part of the “Southwest Territory”. Sevier was elected as Territorial Governor, and in 1796, when the area that had formerly been the “State of Franklin” was admitted to the Union as the State of Tennessee, Sevier became the new state’s first Governor. Col Tipton was elected to the Tennessee State Legislature.

And the “State of Franklin” faded into historical obscurity. Its most enduring legacy is a provision that was written into the new Constitution in 1789, specifically to prevent future headaches of the sort caused by “Frankland’s” secession from North Carolina: “Article IV Section 3: New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new States shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.”

Congress, to be organized as part of the “Southwest Territory”. Sevier was elected as Territorial Governor, and in 1796, when the area that had formerly been the “State of Franklin” was admitted to the Union as the State of Tennessee, Sevier became the new state’s first Governor. Col Tipton was elected to the Tennessee State Legislature.

And the “State of Franklin” faded into historical obscurity. Its most enduring legacy is a provision that was written into the new Constitution in 1789, specifically to prevent future headaches of the sort caused by “Frankland’s” secession from North Carolina: “Article IV Section 3: New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new States shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.”

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