Tennessee’s Drive to Statehood: “You Ain’t in Kentucky Darling”


I have more than hinted, I have nagged ad nasuum, Tennessee’s path to Statehood was dramatically different than Kentucky’s. It is little wonder the two neighboring states wandered down two distinctive political and economic development paths. I argue that the thirteen year path to Tennessee statehood was nothing less than a coup d’etat by a certain William Blount, and a cabal of his land speculation associates that in their drive to statehood formed a loose, hinterland-based trans-Appalachian political machine. The Tennessee policy system that resulted from this circuitous path, borrowing heaving on Tidewater, but resting ultimately as a balancer of rival political economies and cultures, also produced Andrew Jackson. In many ways, that policy system was a one-of-a-kind, not Kentucky, not Deep South, and not Virginia–but in some strange way it integrated all three. Tennessee gives meaning to what defines a “border” state.

The “drive to statehood” story revolves around William Blount–a fellow who, if found in a text or history book, has an asterisk beside his name. He is Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in one person. It was he who constructed his own version of a “battlestar” in the form of America’s first and possibly most powerful rural political machine, composed of folk that are today’s Who’s Who of Early Republic Tennessee politics–a list that includes a President of the United States and several Tennessee governors and senators. That list could under different circumstances, could easily have wound up in jail or debtor’s prison. In my view, William Blount is the Great Founder of the State of Tennessee. As a tactical politician, a survivor, he may have had no equal in the America of the 1790’s. As a land speculator, like most, he died on the threshold of bankruptcy. He also founded one of our fifty states.

About this “coup” thing? The United States as the most democratic nation in the world does not “do” coups (nobody remembers Hawaii’s drive to statehood, and we will ignore Texas or California’s as well).  A coup by capitalist land speculators  sounds so conveniently Marxist that the reader is no doubt expecting a short treatise on dialectical materialism. Well, I am not a Marxist. And the faithful reader will note I have consistently argued that capitalism as an economic system was not yet mature in the 1790’s, and would not be so until the Civil War era. To call Blount and his cohorts “capitalist” is a bit of wishful thinking and a bit ideologically-convenient thinking. No, instead I argue Blount in his quest for land speculation stole Tennessee away from an indifferent mother-state (North Carolina) and set up his own policy system having negotiated a path to statehood that required the assistance of the Washington Administration.

Tennessee’s mother state, North Carolina, was on the edge of being a “failed state” in 1783. Land speculators, led by William Blount, were able to dominate North Carolina’s all-powerful state legislature, secure the necessary votes, to conduct a massive private land grab of Tennessee western lands, and then pass legislation to cede the western counties to the willing Articles of Confederation Congress. Why the votes were there in the North Carolina legislature certainly involved a measure of corruption, but it is much more complex than that, and the reasons take time and words to explain. It will take this and the next two modules to give the reader a feel for the strange trail to Tennessee statehood.

The coup started off in accordance with its original plan (Plan A),  a plan to peel off North Carolina’s western counties, turn them over to the federal government which would admit them as an independent state–and go on from there. But Plan A collapsed when North Carolina’s Tennessee western lands declared themselves as an independent state/nation. Plan B was devised to get back on Plan A’s tract. Once restored Plan A carried Tennessee to statehood in 1796–thanks to the federal government.

This module (1) describes how and why North Carolina’s policy system got captured by Blount; (2) introduces William Blount; and (3) describes Plan A until it went awry in only eighteen months.

The next module moves on to Plan B.


North Carolina Can’t Figure Out What to to with its Western Territories

Looking at the Revolutionary War state of North Carolina it is a wonder we won the war. The state was barely functional, and had its own little civil war on top of a British invasion. Adding fuel to the confusion, the state was a geographical terminus of  several ethnic migrations that piled plenty of new unassimilated residents into its policy processes. The state-level policy system (there were no municipal-level policy system of any serious size) that presided over this near-anarchy, was devised to model Virginia’s Revolutionary War model. It created a super all-powerful state legislature in which the power of the sovereign people was lodged. There was little in the way of checks and balances–or rule of law enforced by a strong judiciary. The governor or chief executive was extra-ordinarily weak, and the electoral franchise was open to all white male residents–whatever that meant–and was volatile, yet directionless. If the state had a purpose it was to keep taxes low, and to expel Loyalists, the British, Indians, or Scots-Irish, though not necessarily in that order.

When the 1783 Peace Treaty was signed, the state policy system lost whatever focus it had–and into that vacuum waltzed the land speculators–who BTW was just about anybody with a buck or two in their pocket. Being the terminus of migrations searching for the 1790 American Dream, North Carolina and its western counties were full of land speculators, and it is hard to make the case the state was stolen from them when they in fact constituted a great majority of its electorate. Almost all of the land speculation was observable at the time, a secret to no one. That is something the reader might consider a bit. His or her impulse in reading what happens is to scream corruption. But the line between land development, land speculation, stealing land from Native Americans and simple corruption was not especially clear to voters, elites, or speculators at that time. It certainly is now, and everybody seems to have crossed that line in hindsight. But it wasn’t in 1783, and that is why Blount’s Plan A (or Plan B) not only found legislative votes, but votes from average North Carolinians seeking their version of the American Dream–deep into what we today call Tennessee.

The American attraction for land during this period was more an obsession than a dream. It drove individuals and families into traveling into hostile territory, hiking vast distances, and uprooting their former life in an effort to begin a new one. One traveler on t:he Wilderness Road in 1796, Moses Austin, described his trip, and the conversations he had with the procession of humanity” he came into contact {I have added quotations and punctuation}

Ask these Pilgrims what they expect when they git to Kentuckey the Answer is Land. “Have you any?” “No, but I expect I can git it.”  “Have you anything to pay for land?” “No”. “Did you ever see the Country?” “No, but everybody says it’s good land, can anything be more”…. Kentuckey is the Promised Land … the Land of Milk and Honey [1a].

In case the reader is wondering, yes! Moses Austin and his son Stephen acquired a land grant from the Spanish Crown in 1820 will in Stephen will in due course “found” present day Austin (Waterloo in 1837) and, less we forget, the Republic of Texas.

Simply put, the 1780’s business/political culture understood and accepted what land speculators were doing was “business as usual”. Most land speculation practices were not precluded by law nor by morals and value system of the day so long as by the end of the day they opened up western lands for their homestead at an affordable price–sort of like today’s Internet. Lest we get too self-righteous, what was done in Tennessee was going on with Robert Morris, Alexander Hamilton and his manufacturing industrial park, and Washington’s development of the new national capital. In a fledgling Early republic, without a well-developed rule of law, land development was a wild and woolly affair that obscured private and public interests in a blurred blending of profit and national interest. Given that land development was the first dominant economic development strategy of American economic development, we will, in telling its tale, also be describing how and why several of our programs, tools, and approaches came into being. Amid the chaos and moral complexity of American land development, American economic development was born.

Enter William Blount–our candidate for the honor being Tennessee’s Founding Father.

Who is William Blount?

Blount was North Carolinian-born. His father hailed from Virginia and amassed a North Carolina plantation (Blount Hall in Pitt County). Blount was one of three brothers, all of whom as a sort of “band of brothers” came to be among the South’s most pervasive and influential family-dynasty. Self-educated William learned from his father that land was the way to achieve wealth and entry to elite status. William’s first land speculation when the lad was only sixteen was with his father. His father, a pale imitation of Robert Morris, sold crops and goods to the anti-Regulator colonial government/expedition–and William and his brother became soldiers in that expedition. As times grew more radical, however, the Blount family gravitated to the Patriot side and sold goods and arms to the Patriots. In 1776 both Dad and William became paymasters and quartermasters in separate North Carolina militia units. In 1777 the units marched north and joined the Continental Army under Washington–participating in his futile defense of Philadelphia against Howe’s invasion. Rising to the occasion William became a paymaster for the Continental Army, and eventually was assigned to General Horatio Gates. When the latter assumed command of the newly-formed southern Continental Army (1780) William returned to the South. Present at the disastrous Battle of Camden, Blount was further discredited when he somehow lost $300,000 of soldier pay in the rout that followed.

In a sign or what’s to come, Blount then left the Continental Army, returned to North Carolina and ran successfully to become a delegate to the lower house of the state legislature (January, 1781). The next year the Legislature elected Blount to be a Delegate to the Articles of Confederation Congress. Active in Articles’ legislation, Blount established a favorable name for himself, so that in 1783, he resigned from the Articles Congress and went directly by appointment to the Steering Committee of the North Carolina House–sort of the Executive branch of the North Carolina state government. From that position in 1783 he launched Plan A, and carried it to fruition in 1784 when he was  formally elected to the Legislature and then to Speaker of the House. At that time he was thirty-three years old–an old man compared to twenty-seven year old Alexander Hamilton.

Blount Devises Plan A

When Blount descended on the North Carolina state legislature in 1783, its policy-making, indeed politics, had essentially imploded, with traditional coastal elites  fleeing from political life, and in their place more populist Scots-Irish and western county political elites replacing them. During the war “western Radicals (i.e. Patriots) were pretty much in change of the state, if anybody was and politically inexperienced they were vulnerable to predatory opportunists in their anti-British and radical democratic initiatives. After 1783, it became worse. Many English/Loyalist/ and Lowland Planter, the traditional elite of North Carolina, simply walked away (a lot left for Canada or Great Britain). After the War, the Patriot faction fragmented into the more powerful anti-Federalist faction and the smaller hard-core Federalist Tribe that we outlined in the first chapter ( BTW South Carolina reversed that power imbalance). Blount, a Patriot-aligned plantation landowner family, saw his opportunities as did others. What was lost almost completely was a sense of overall state interests and  general well-being, and the responsibilities of governance  as each grouping sought out is own without regard for the general good.

It did not help that from this time on dissatisfaction with the Articles of Confederation was increasing at varying rates across the new nation. North Carolina, more comfortable with the weak and decentralized Articles of Confederation, and did not meaningfully participate in the Articles reform debate nor was it sympathetic with the new Constitution that emerged out of that debate. When the time came after 1788,  it took two separate state conventions to finally approve its constitution and further delay before joining the new federal Union. North Carolina was the 12th state (the next to last) to ratify the 1788 Early Republic Constitution–North Carolina did not have a Congressional delegation in the first half of the first U.S. Congressional session. Contrast this with Virginia which was home base to Anti-Federalists, but still had Washington as President and leader of the Federalist Party. Let’s say North Carolina was unenthusiastic about this Early Republic and that Constitution thing. William Blout was a hard-core Federalist and in effect served as the state’s Federalist intermediary in the Washington Administration. Blount’s Plan A and Plan B would play out during this critical period. The reader may be beginning to see complexity in Blount, and his ability to navigate through this bi-polar policy environment.

Rather than wade into a laundry list that in aggregate produced a near-anarchist state policy-making process during this period, our attention is focused simply on those matters and legislation which seriously affected the course of Tennessee development and statehood. So let’s revisit the status of Tennessee’s Settlement-Conquest as it was in 1783.  Nashville was literally fighting for its life engaged in a horrible Cherokee War–Watauga wasn’t in much better shape. In April 1783 the North Carolina legislature formally approved the creation of Davidson County, and annexed Nashville to North Carolina. It had done the same, to the Watauga area, incorporating several counties and towns  (Jonesborough, Greeneville, and Rogersville) in 1776 when Virginia formally took over Kentucky. Early settlement of both Kentucky and Middle Tennessee owed much to Richard Henderson, his Transylvania Land Company, and the cast of characters, (Daniel Boone being one) which, by 1784 had pretty much exhausted itself. Henderson died in 1785. North Carolina had precious little involvement with its western counties previous to 1776.

The status of all Transylvania land claims, and lands that it sold, was ambiguous and frankly “up for grabs” in the legal limbo that existed in the western frontier. The state legislature in 1783-84 simply asserted its legal control, and assumed ownership–but the Cherokee, of course still controlled the land as site-control by whites was problematic, and boundaries, treaty or otherwise, were lines drawn on inaccurate maps. I might add that this is precisely the time that Kentucky, the Boone biography, land rush commenced–which for the most part started in Watauga Tennessee area. This is also the time that Revolutionary War veterans got land titles for their service instead of pay or pensions. Blount and Tennessee land speculators did not create the land rush; it descended upon them, and they saw their opportunities and took them-to coin a future phrase.

William Blount had consciously resigned his position in the Articles of Confederation Congress, returned to the North Carolina House to take advantage of migration and the land rush., and within a year got himself elected the Speaker of the all-powerful House. Perhaps not fully appreciated at the time, Blount had devised a game plan, our Plan A for settlement of the western Tennessee counties. In conjunction with one of his first business associates, Nashville and Watauga pioneer James Robertson , Blount had already amassed large gobs of Middle Tennessee Davidson County by this time. Blount’s brother was a long-term investor in Henderson’s Transylvania Land Company, and as Henderson wandered into other interests, the Blount’s took over from what he left behind. To further extend his Middle Tennessee holdings, Blount cut deals with Middle Tennessee’s land holding dynasty-family, the Donelson’s (remember Rachel). Blount hired the younger Donelson siblings to survey, and purchase, file claims and then sell land in counties adjoining Davidson. [1]

Tennessee Land Grab and the First Cession of Tennessee Territories (1783-1784)

Blount was a principal, if not the principal mover in legislation relevant to Tennessee lands in 1783-4. But the larger North Carolina atmosphere also included several other factors relevant to future Tennessee statehood: (1) the 1783 Treaty of Paris surrendered to the United States millions of east-of-the-Mississippi (River) acreage over which the British had laid claim–land which was unsettled by Europeans, but very much settled by their Native American allies;

(2) trans-Appalachian and western American migrants tended to ignore not only the potential legal claims of Native Americans to this land, but often believed that Native American tribes who had allied with the British during the War lost any claim to that land because as defeated British allies they were also subject to the terms of the Treaty of 1783, and

(3) Virginia had essentially opened up its adjoining Kentucky lands, and left Tennessee-based private land company and  individual homesteaders left holding the proverbial “bag”. Blount, his family more precisely, was one of the investors in Henderson’s Land Company (a state-chartered corporation), and he and people like Robertson and John Sevier were just picking up the pieces in 1783. The 1779-81 Nashville expedition and founding was a purely private venture they funded and carried out. Don’t forget, 1784 was when Daniel Boone’s (a Transylvania Company employee) biography was first published, quickly becoming a best seller prompting a land rush. The timing, certainly in 1784, was right. They were all greedy land speculators to be sure, but they had a long-standing dog in this fight, a fight in which the state of North Carolina had heretofore followed with its reactive partnership–annexation.

The 1783 legislature combined all these factors by asserting that as allies of the British, the war-ending Treaty of Paris turned over Native American lands (with several exceptions for a reservation) to the State. That accounts for the Davidson county annexation legislation. To ensure these ceded lands were taken over by Europeans, state legislation authorized the sale or granting of nearly seven million acres in what would later become Tennessee to veterans and western migrants. This, probably intentionally, was meant to trigger a land sales boom into these areas–which it did. That future land rush would benefit whoever in the next year was able to buy or get title to these land previous to the arrival of the new migrants. Guess what? It was the rich, politically powerful, and state-chartered land corporations (which is redundant) that got there “firstest with the mostest” (a quote from yet another Tennessean). This is going to be economic development at its finest–you can bet on that. No surprise, Blount in the course of the 1783 legislation fabricated an informal empire of politicians, western county elites, and business associates to start surveying and buying the land for sale.

In 1784,we will add a fourth element to Plan A: off-loading the whole shebang onto the federal government (i.e state cede the Tennessee western counties to the Articles of Confederation), and have them (1) foot much of the bill for settlement and its defense against the Cherokee, and (2) legitimize formally, presumably for all time, the various “opportunities” (land claims and land sales filed in the 1783-4 Land Grab legislation).  Blount’s cession legislation attached conditions requiring the Articles acknowledge and legally certify any lands sold up to that point; the seven month land grab, therefore, would be incorporated into the Articles takeover.Takeover of the western counties by the Articles was great news to many in North Carolina–not all as the western counties were skeptical.

The non-Blount element of the North Carolinian state legislature were delighted to abrogate  responsibility over these hotly-contested (by Native Americans) responsibilities, very expensive, and the politically troublesome western counties. Blount was able to muster an eastern and western bar-bell coalition in support of cession. Many in North Carolina’s multiple eastern factions were  sympathetic to fobbing off the protection of the western territories from Native Americans and the building of roads which was inevitable, would be expensive and only increase state debt and taxes–cynically much of the investment capital for the land corporations also came from these sources. ([3]. The legislation passed 52-43.That led to further North Carolina legislation formally ceding its western lands to the Articles of Confederation on June 2, 1784.

Not to worry–in the next year they would overturn that legislation, and after that things really got interesting–and complicated. The connecting thread in all this continues to be William Blount. Having completed the North Carolina part of his game plan in late 1784, Blount quit his North Carolina positions and got himself reelected to the Articles of Confederation Congress so to ensure its approval for Plan A. Interestingly, in 1787 he was elected to serve in both sessions of the Constitutional Convention that created the Early Republic and our Constitution.

The Actual Land Grab

The core land-grab legislation, introduced and sponsored by Willie Blount, the half-brother of William, and a fellow delegate, provided a “bounty”, an amount of land to be offered to Revolutionary War Patriot veterans in lieu of their unpaid obligations. Many states, including Virginia did that, so no big deal. To sell/transfer land to the veterans, the state land offices were reopened–they had been closed since 1781, effectively shutting down western land sales, outside of the Transylvania-controlled area. But the new legislation created a new land sales office in the western territories, by-passing the Transylvania monopoly.

To make these lands affordable, and some would say to help pay off existing state debt, the “cost” of the land was made affordable, and state paper currency was accepted as the medium of exchange. A goodly issuance of state paper currency flowed into the private markets in that year. The diligent reader may hear echos of a similar policy made by the Pennsylvania state legislature in the same time period–described in Chapter 2. Pennsylvania’s Robert Morris was opposing those state initiatives. The Massachusetts Shays Rebellion would follow in 1785–also triggered by land sales to veterans and subsequent mortgage foreclosures. The reader should correctly surmise the 1783 Tennessee Land Grab is only one episode in a mach larger story.

By opening up the land sales office, however, the western land sales was open to all who wished to purchase; veterans, speculators in hordes, and honest-to-goodness homesteaders. Guess who won the race to the claims office? While the process for sale was relatively basic and simple, cost reasonable, and financing readily available through cheap money lent by them who had it (wealthy and those close to the wealthy), it was older and new state-chartered corporations that got a lions’s share. Additional legislation, on behalf of the Henderson Transylvania Company  was also approved to provide a mechanism to transfer any past land they had sold, into a new claim with clear title. In addition his corporation was credited with 200,000 acres to rectify its earlier losses in Kentucky.

The land bonanza started in May 1783, and depending on the source, over the next seven months between four to seven million acres of land were acquired and filed. The cabal of speculators, land agents, surveyors, and their wealthy investors seized the opportunities in western land. The 1783 legislation deferred the formal definition of Indian-owned land (and future reservations) until the next year–proving an opportunity for unmolested white Europeans to swoop in and buy the land previous to its formal demarcation. In 1784, William Blount was empowered to hire the surveyors to complete the formal demarcation of the legislation.

The list of those who benefited is too long, so I call attention to Blount’s associates/allies: James Robertson (a legislative delegate who signed a formal employment contract with Blount to serve as the latter’s land agent in filing and surveying the claims he bought, receiving a fourth of the proceeds–to which Robertson responded by leaving the North Carolina capital and spending the next two years in western Tennessee handling Blount’s and others land claim serving); Stockley Donelson (Charlotte & John’s son–he was still alive at that point) whose 20,000 acres included present-day Chattanooga; James White doing the same as Donelson in areas north of Watauga–buying what would become they city of Knoxville; and Blount’s surveyor William Polk (a Revolutionary War hero and surveyor of Valley Forge) whose Scots-Irish Ascendancy Polk family acquired lands in bulk–facilitating the development of a plantation owned by President James K. Polk’s father (William’s brother)–making the President a first cousin [2].

But these fine folks were only some of the horde that descended on the western land sales office. Several state-chartered land corporations formed and got their share, and Blount himself, like John Adams in Massachusetts, bought quantities of veterans land script personally. Where is the Securities and Exchange Commission when we need it? In real life, that was kinda the question many were asking as the land grab unfolded. What sounded like a good idea in the legislative halls stunk out loud as it unrolled in real life. Since land corporations and wealthy outside investors seemed to gather the most benefit, average Tennessee/western home settlers and their political leadership were turned off–especially since they usually bore the brunt of the intensified Native American attacks precipitated by settler migration into Indian-claimed lands. In late 1784 and 1785 a political and electoral negative reaction followed.

As Blount was leaving North Carolina, however, things got befuddled. The push back and gut reaction against the land grab had generated a constituency willing to revoke it–or at least revoke the Cession Legislation. Moreover, a treaty with Tennessee’s Native Americans had been negotiated by the Articles Congress. The lands included all Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw in both South and North Carolina–including acreage in places such as Watauga and Davidson County. Perceived as somewhat favorable to the Native Americans (limiting the incursions of white land sales, for example), Blount was not the only North Carolinian or western Tennessee settler who was major-league unhappy. Blount arrived in the Articles Congress just after it had approved the legislation, and Blount was blamed, unfairly but who cares, for its passage by most of the too numerous to count North Carolina factions. From Blount’s perspective, a key piece of his land grab plan had been compromised–and his hope Articles management of the statehood and settlement process was shaken. From the Native American perspective, as time went on they referred to the Articles’ treaty sarcastically as “Talking Leaves” which when they didn’t suit the whites, they were ignored and the pages of the treaty would blow away like leaves in the wind. Not a bad metaphor!


A semi-populist coalition of “Radicals” got elected to the North Carolina legislature and took it over in 1785. The 1785 legislature repealed the 1784 Cession Act (which the Articles Congress had not yet considered)–and that was that. The Articles of Confederation never got the chance to formally approve North Carolina’s land cession and Plan A fell apart. The land sales offices were closed and the land grab was shut down–but past land grab sales were filed and recorded. Tennessee-relevant western counties continued as North Carolina counties.

Except, as we shall see in the next module, the State of Franklin had other ideas on the matter. Let the good times roll.

As a last thought, almost all of this occurred previous to Kentucky’s Third State Convention, James Wilkinson’s shenanigans, and before Virginia’s First Enabling Act–i.e Kentucky’s Drive to Statehood was in its earliest phase. By the end of 1785, the two states were already heading down two separate paths to statehood.



[1a] Clement Eaton, a History of the Old South: the Emergence of a Reluctant Nation (3rd ED) (Macmillan Publishing), 1975, pp. 121-2

[1]  Thomas Perkins Abernethy, From Frontier to Plantation in Tennessee: a Study in Frontier Democracy (University of Alabama Press, 1932, 1955, 1967), p. 53

[2] Thomas Perkins Abernethy, From Frontier to Plantation in Tennessee, p. 53

[3]  Thomas Perkins Abernethy, From Frontier to Plantation in Tennessee, p. 55