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The Commercial Appeal
'Tennessee Plan' Paved Way For State
May 25, 2003
After the Revolutionary War, the new United States was in dire need of funds. The Continental Congress suggested that the states cede their western lands so that they could be sold for the benefit of the nation.
Historian Ted Morgan compares this to "asking someone to leave his estate to a charitable foundation. Obviously, they (the states) preferred to sell those lands to settlers, rather than give them to Congress to sell."
There were already settlers on the western lands of North Carolina, mostly around the Watauga River. They resented the North Carolina government, which they said taxed them at the same rate as the long-settled areas on the coast but provided no services, no defense, no roads.
Morgan says, "Adding insult to injury, one of the North Carolina speakers in the debate over cession called the Watauga settlers 'off- scourings of the Earth, fugitives from justice, and we will be rid of them at any rate.' "
The Wataugans were insulted. According to them, they had won the Revolutionary War by marching over the mountains to fight at the Battle of Kings Mountain. Now, not only did they have no government, they had to endure such slurs.
In August 1784, settlers in three counties of Washington, Sullivan, and Greene held a convention at Jonesboro and declared their independence from North Carolina. In December, they declared themselves a new state, which they named Franklin. They named John Sevier governor and elected an assembly.
The state of Franklin lasted only four years. It was never recognized by either North Carolina or the Continental Congress. No coinage was minted; taxes were paid in skins. When Sevier's term as governor expired, no one was elected to replace him.
There were other settlers farther west on the Cumberland River who were not a part of the state of Franklin. Instead, they were flirting with Spain, which controlled the lower Mississippi, hoping for Spanish protection from Indian raids.
North Carolina finally ratified the Constitution of the United States in 1789 and agreed to the provision ceding the western lands to the federal government. In May 1790, the landthat would become Tennessee was designated "Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio."
Under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, steps to statehood were outlined. As long as the population of a territory consisted of fewer than 5,000 adult males, a federally appointed governor and body of judges would make, execute and apply the laws. When the population reached the magic number, the territory could form a lawmaking body, the General Assembly. When the free population reached 60,000, the territory could be admitted as a state.
The first two states to join the original 13 colonies already met the population guidelines. Vermont became the 14th state in March 1791, and Kentucky became the first frontier state on June 1, 1792.
Tennessee was the first to go through the territorial process. William Blount, a Revolutionary veteran who had served in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, was appointed territorial governor. He established a capital and named it Knoxville, in honor of the Secretary of War. Despite continuing Indian troubles, settlers were pouring into the territory.
The first General Assembly met in August 1794 and elected Dr. James White as their delegate to Congress. The next year, the legislature provided for a census and a poll on the question of statehood. The final count showed a population of 77,262, and a vote favoring statehood 6,504 to 2,562. Settlers in the western counties on the Cumberland argued that statehood would increase taxes; there was also the fear that they would be dominated by the eastern, more settled part of the state.
But when the results were known, Blount called a convention to draft a constitution and plan for statehood, to assemble in Knoxville in January 1796. Debates were spirited, but a constitution was agreed upon in three short weeks. A copy was sent to Philadelphia, and White was instructed to apply immediately for statehood.
Thomas Jefferson called the Tennessee Constitution "the least imperfect and most republican" document. But, although the document proclaimed the sovereignty of the people, the delegates did not refer it to a popular referendum for ratification. According to Robert Corlew's Short History of Tennessee, they believed haste was necessary before the Congress adjourned.
Gov. Blount authorized elections so that the state would be prepared to function. John Sevier, who had previously served as governor of Franklin, was elected governor. James Winchester of Sumner County (later one of the proprietors of Memphis) was elected speaker of the Senate.
Corlew says, "Had Tennesseans applied for admission a year or two earlier, chances are they would have encountered little or no opposition in Congress." But since Tennessee was the first territory to apply, there was uncertainty about how to proceed.
Congress divided along party lines. Jefferson's supporters now called themselves Republicans. Federalists, supporters of Alexander Hamilton, hoped to delay Tennessee's admission until after the election, which they hoped John Adams would win.
They argued that a territory had no right to form itself into a state, only Congress could do that. The Tennessee Constitution was therefore illegal. They also protested that the census was unfair, it referred to "persons" while the Congress used the term "inhabitants."
The count had been taken at a time of great migration through the Cumberland Gap to Kentucky, so it was probably inaccurate.
Republicans James Madison, Albert Gallatin and North Carolina representative Thomas Blount, a brother of William Blount, led the debate favoring Tennessee. They proposed a compromise whereby Tennessee would have one representative in Congress instead of two at first, meaning three electoral votes instead of four. It worked, pacifying the Federalists. Both houses accepted the new state.
A recent study prepared by the University of Puerto Rico on the subject of statehood says, "Several states, beginning with Tennessee in 1796, chose a bold method of obtaining admission to the union. The states which followed Tennessee's initiative undertook a uniform course of action once they made a decision to seek statehood. The 'Tennessee Plan,' as it has come to be known, consists of the following steps:
"1) Unsuccessfully petitioning Congress for admission;
"2) Drafting a state constitution without prior congressional intervention;
"3) Holding state elections for state officers, U.S. senators and representatives;
"4) In some cases, sending the entire congressional delegation to Washington to demand statehood and claim their seats;
"5) Finally, Congress, presented with a fait accompli, has little choice but to admit a new state through the passage of a simple act of admission. . . .
"However, two conditions were imposed:
"1) Tennessee's senators had to stand for re-election, which they did successfully; and
"2) Until the next census, Tennessee was to have one representative, not two.
"The most significant aspect of Tennessee's statehood battle was the swiftness of the process. It was admitted five months from the convening of the constitutional convention and three months after the election of the two United States senators."
President George Washington signed the bill making Tennessee the 16th state on June 1, 1796.
Sources: Robert E. Corlew, A Short History of Tennessee (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981). Ted Morgan, Wilderness at Dawn (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993). Tennessee Blue Book 1995-1996, Bicentennial Edition. "Tennessee Plan Suggests Speedy Path to Statehood," Osceola Sentinel, Osceola, Fla., July 31, 1998