State of Franklin

This is a replica of the Capitol of the state of
Franklin, in Greeneville.

We take for granted that our state is called Tennessee, that it was formed in 1796, and that it was the 16th state admitted to the union. But the story was nearly a whole lot different.

The people who lived in what is now upper east Tennessee originally formed a state called Franklin. In 1784, they elected a governor and a legislature; wrote a constitution; and began going about the business of running their affairs (collecting taxes, holding courts, raising an army as needed against the hostile Native American tribes of the day). Had the state of North Carolina not been bitterly opposed to the formation of the new state, Franklin almost certainly would have been accepted into the union by the Continental Congress. But because of North Carolina’s opposition, the proposal to accept Franklin failed to be approved by Congress. Franklin later ceased to exist, becoming a footnote in history and one of the more vivid examples of the failure of the short-lived American confederation government.

On this virtual tour we will take you to the state of Franklin.

The North Carolina state capitol

When it comes to the American Revolution, your textbook talks about things that happened in places like Boston, Philadelphia, and Yorktown. But it is important to remember that one of the main reasons for the American Revolution was King George III’s order, as stated in the Proclamation of 1763, that the colonists go no further west than the Appalachian Mountains. London being a long way from these mountains, thousands of settlers ignored his demand and moved into what is now upper east Tennessee in the 1770s and 1780s. They also played a huge role in the outcome of the revolution by defeating a British army at the Battle of Kings Mountain.

After the American Revolution, North Carolina
claimed land that went all the way west to the
Mississippi River — but that state couldn’t afford
to defend all that territory.

When the Revolutionary War ended, these settlers needed protection against Native American tribes, and the closest thing to an established government that these settlers had was the government of North Carolina. But — for the same reasons King George III was reluctant to do so — North Carolina didn’t want to incur the expense of sending its militia to defend a bunch of frontier families moving further and further into lands claimed by Native American tribes. In the summer of 1784 the government of North Carolina voted to “give” this land to Congress. Then, after a new election, the North Carolina government rescinded that act and reclaimed this territory.

The settlers west of the mountains weren’t sure what to make of this sequence of events. But they didn’t feel safe, depending entirely on the North Carolina government for their security.

John Sevier

Concerned that the appearance of chaos would lead to hostile Native American attacks, frontier leaders acted quickly to fill the void. On August 23, 1784, about 50 frontier leaders met in Jonesborough and signed a document declaring themselves independent from North Carolina. Within months they had formed a loose government that had set up a court system and a militia, presided over by John Sevier, who had been one of the heroes of the Battle of Kings Mountain four years earlier.

In December the elected representatives held a convention at a church in Jonesborough. There they wrote a constitution (borrowing heavily from the North Carolina constitution), elected Sevier as their governor, and named the state Franklin after America’s elder statesman Benjamin Franklin. William Cocke, one of the authors of the new Constitution, was appointed the rather difficult task of going to Washington and convincing the Continental Congress to admit Franklin as a state.

Now the story takes a strange turn:

Having flirted around with the idea of giving its western lands away only a few months earlier, the government of North Carolina was angry at the western settlers for declaring their independence. In fact, the North Carolina legislature wanted to send troops to punish the rebellious people who lived in the state of Franklin, but North Carolina Governor Alexander Martin, remembering how well these settlers had fought at Kings Mountain, cautioned that “we shall need far more troops than are enlisted in our entire militia.” Instead the North Carolina government issued and published five thousand copies of a “manifesto” that urged the frontiersmen to “return to the embrace of North Carolina.” The residents of the state of Franklin ignored this manifesto.

In the spring of 1785 William Cocke made his presentation to Congress. On behalf of his fellow settlers he asked Congress to admit Franklin as the 14th state. Needing 9 affirmative votes, the state of Franklin got 7 — those being Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Georgia. (States that voted “no” did so mainly because of North Carolina’s opposition.) Cocke was discouraged, but felt Congress would agree at some point in the future.

Undaunted, the government of the state of Franklin kept on — forming a permanent capital (Greeneville) and authorizing the issuance of money (although no coins by the state of Franklin apparently still exist). Originally consisting of three counties, by the end of 1786 Franklin had eight: Greene, Sullivan, Washington, Sevier, Blount, Spencer, Caswell and Wayne.

These counties were formed because the population was growing so fast: in the latterĀ part of 1785 and the first part of 1786, an estimated 10,000 families migrated from North Carolina and Virginia into the state of Franklin (This was about the time that Andrew Jackson moved to Tennessee.) The most extreme example of this growth was White’s Fort, a community started in early 1786 which, by the end of its first year of existence, had more than 2,000 people living there! (Later this community became known as Knoxville.)

Here are some more interesting things about the state of Franklin:

  • This is a good book about the Lost State of Franklin

    * Franklin was originally known as “Frankland.” Apparently Sevier changed the name in an attempt to lure support from Ben Franklin — arguably the most popular American alive at that time. But this happened so fast that many books about the state of Franklin make no mention of its original name.

  • * Paper and coin money never took hold in Franklin. According to one account, the Franklin legislature spelled out a system of exchange using animal skins. The governor of the state of * Franklin got a salary of 1,000 deer skins; the chief justice 500 deer skins; the governor’s secretary 500 raccoon skins; and the treasurer 450 otter skins.
  • Ministers of the gospel and lawyers were both barred from public office under the Franklin constitution.

CLASSROOM ASSIGNMENT: Apparently, the state of Franklin didn’t get around to adopting a flag. Here’s a fun assigment: draw one out, knowing what you know about the history of Franklin.

The Tipton-Haynes Home

In the end, however, the state of Franklin was doomed by events within and outside its borders. To the west, battles with Native Americans were becoming fierce, mainly because so many of the immigrants were settling on land still claimed by tribes (most notably the Cherokee).

There were also people inside the state of Franklin who were loyal to North Carolina. The most important of these was John Tipton, who lived in present-day Johnson City. When the leaders of the state of Franklin began to flirt with the idea of an alliance with Spain (remember — Spain still dominated trade along the Mississippi River), North Carolina sent troops into Franklin, camping out on Tipton’s estate. From February 27-29, 1788, troops loyal to Franklin actually confronted troops loyal to North Carolina; two people died in what is sometimes referred to as the “Battle of the Lost State of Franklin.”

But, in truth, neither North Carolina nor Franklin’s leaders wanted bloodshed, and this brief military engagement marked the end of the state of Franklin. John Sevier turned himself in to North Carolina’s authorities and was immediately restored to his rank of general in the North Carolina militia. Soon he and his fellow frontiersmen were overwhelmed with a series of Indian Wars that took place at many points along the western frontier.

This was the Capitol of Franklin
(before it was torn down)
PHOTO: TN State Library & Archives

After the demise of the state of Franklin, the state of North Carolina decided to honor all property transactions, court decisions and marriages authorized by Franklin — the closest thing to official recognition that the state ever had. Shortly thereafter, North Carolina deeded its western lands over to the federal government.

So what’s left of the state of Franklin? Not much, really. Almost none of the official government records of the state of Franklin have survived (which is why we don’t even know the names of the people who met and declared the state independent in the first place). For years, the log cabin that functioned as its capitol building was left standing. In 1897, it was dismantled and reassembled in Nashville as a part of the Tennessee Centennial celebration. But for some reason the logs never made their way back to Greeneville — which means the capitol of the Lost State of Franklin was, well, lost.

John Sevier’s grave at the Knox County Courthouse

The failed attempt to form the state of Franklin did, however, have an important outcome: it was one of many incidents that proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the government established by the Articles of Confederation did not work. As representatives of the 13 states worked hard on a new Constitution, they addressed the issues of new states in an attempt to make certain that nothing like Franklin could ever happen again. Under the new Constitution, the American government formed two territories out of the frontier — one south of the Ohio River (known as the Southwest Territory) and one north of the Ohio River (known as the Northwest Territory).

Tennessee was one of the states eventually carved out of the Southwest Territory.