Tennessee became a U.S. state 224 years ago tomorrow. On June 1, 1796, it was granted statehood by Congress, but it was a very close vote. The quest for admission to the Union as the 16th state had been a long and tortuous trek.
In the years before statehood, Tennesseans were governed by North Carolina. However, after the Revolutionary War, North Carolina concluded the distant western counties of Washington, Sullivan, and Greene in East Tennessee, and Davidson, Sumner, and Tennessee in Middle Tennessee, weren’t worth the trouble and expense of maintaining them.
Nor could these far-flung settlers count on the national government for help. Due to the impotent Articles of Confederation, it was a national government in name only. Hence, the westerners’ two main demands -- protection from the Indians and the right to navigate the Mississippi River -- were mostly unheeded in the early 1780s.
Frustrated by the lack of support from North Carolina, East Tennessean leaders formed the breakaway “State of Franklin” in 1784. John Sevier was named governor, and the pseudo- state began acting like a real, though unofficial, government. Fortunately, Sevier proved to be the right man-then, and for the future. Indeed, this fearless Indian fighter and hero of the pivotal Battle of King’s Mountain would come to be called “The Father of Tennessee” and rightly so. His many contributions to Tennessee statehood deserve another whole column, and will get one.
That said, the State of Franklin was fraught with dissension and tension, internal and external.
It ceased to be in 1788. But, like the Phoenix of old, Tennessee arose from its ashes even bigger as the Southwest Territory, so designated by Congress. President George Washington named prominent North Carolina politician and large western land owner William Blount as territorial governor.
A territorial census in 1795 confirmed a population sufficient for Tennessee statehood. A referendum revealed a 3-to-1 majority in favor of joining the Union. Gov. Blount called for a constitutional convention in Knoxville. Delegates there from all the territorial counties wrote a model state constitution and democratic bill of rights. The voters chose John Sevier for governor. The newly elected legislature voted for William Blount and William Cocke as Senators, and Andrew Jackson as Congressman.
Thus, Tennessee leaders did all they could do gain statehood before applying to Congress for admission to the Union. However, since the Southwest Territory was the first Federal territory to seek statehood, Congress was somewhat uncertain and divided on how to proceed.
Nevertheless, Congress narrowly approved the admission of Tennessee as the 16th state of the Union, effective June 1,1796. From western frontier to failed State of Franklin and Southwest Territory to full-fledged statehood, Tennessee has survived and thrived, thanks to dynamic leaders from John Sevier to Bill Lee and others along the way. Now that’s something to celebrate.
Retired Army Col. Thomas B. Vaughn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.