The State of Franklin: a Nothing-burger, a Land Speculator’s Republic, or an Experiment in Western Democracy? (1784-1789)

Few Americans, and no economic developers, are aware that between 1784 and 1789 a sort of independent nation-state, the State of Franklin, existed on the borders of Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina–and we could toss in South Carolina and Georgia as well. Today the State of Franklin might merit a mention in a history textbook, largely I suspect as an attempt at humor, and also a genuine sense something was going on there–but God knows what. The State of Franklin almost literally got up one day in 1789, after five years in existence, and simply folded up its tent and went away into the paragraphs of history text books. That’s why the State of Franklin is kind of a “nothing-burger”; no one can say how we are better off for its having been around.

Truth be told, there is one effect that the State of Franklin had that mattered. After watching the State of Franklin, delegates to the Constitutional Convention inserted a clause into it which more precisely defined the process of applying for statehood. That clause stated that new states can’t be formed “within the jurisdictions of any … state” without the approval of the mother state and the U.S. Congress. That is why Kentucky had to negotiate with Virginia in its drive to statehood. Without Virginia’s approval, no Congressional approval.

More hilarious is early historian efforts to make the establishment of the State of Franklin a sort of blazing trail of frontier-pioneer democracy. As hilarious as it might be–one has to understand that over its five year history, the State of Franklin was at best an odd expression of a democracy–there was some merit to the claim, but it reflects only the first year of its history and focuses mostly on its constitution, which in actual practice really was a “nothing-burger. But that heroic myth of the State of Franklin as a pioneer democracy is a good place to start our discussion on this weighty matter. But having introduced the State of Franklin in such glowing terms, the reader might hope I have a larger purpose. I do. It is the initial phase of Tennessee’s drive to statehood, but as important, maybe more so, it exposes to view the power and pervasiveness of land, land speculation,  and land assembly as without any doubt the foremost agenda item in making Tennessee a state. Franklin also serves as a needed caveat to those who are a bit romantic about westernization and the settling of the American frontier. There is nothing romantic about economic development and westernization, and the State of Franklin will make that quite evident. By the way, it will also make evident there is nothing romantic about American democracy either.

Birth of the State of Franklin (Spring 1784-5 to 1789)

There is a very simple reason why Franklin came into being: when North Carolina ceded its western lands to the Articles of Confederation it simply created a political vacuum in a trans geography in transition. The Articles took their time to digest this Trojan Horse “gift”, a late 1784 North Carolina election and a new state legislature reversed that decision within six months–and by that time the State of Franklin had been created. Blount’s Plan A was shattered.

When it resumed formal control over its western counties, North Carolina was of several minds as to what to do with this independent state–so it simply ignored it and continued on its usual dysfunctional way. Say it another way, William Blount had to figure out a Plan B. Rather than sending in an expensive militia to crush the State of Franklin, North Carolina just let it be. So in the five year period before it packed up its tent, the State of Franklin just “did it’s own thing”, which mostly was land speculation in Georgia, fussing with Virginia.and negotiating and fighting with Cherokee.

If you want to know what pre-capitalist, frontier anarchy looks like, read on. Truthfully there is good stuff to learn from it.

In the first year, the State of Franklin mostly consisted of the four western counties of North Carolina: Washington, Wayne, Sullivan, and Spencer–what we have thus far called Watauga. Other than notice the names of the next four counties, ignore them for the moment.

Cession to the Articles by the North Carolina legislature had a strange blow-back politically. As described in the last module, Blount had assembled a bar-bell eastern coastal plantation elite and western legislative delegate alliance that provided the necessary votes. The western county legislative delegates, including many Blount associates and those friendly to his overtures, did not reflect the wishes of most of their voters. Watauga voters were always engaged in or threatened by Indian raids or outright invasion and it was not clear to them how the weak, perpetually broke, and far away Articles of Confederation was going to solve that problem. Moreover, the Articles had just completed an Treaty negotiation which most Watauga residents thought unnecessarily favorable to to the tribes. Others believed it likely the Articles would sell the territory to Spain in order to pay its bills and debt. In addition, the rhetoric of the North Carolinian plantation owners regarding the western territory and their frontier residents really was “off-setting” to the westerners. Who wants to be part of that worthless state many reasoned. They never did us much good anyway. So if we can’t trust the Articles, and North Carolina doesn’t want us–let’s form our own state-nation, and go our own way.

Add to this was an organized effort by Virginia plantation elites who owned land in Watauga, wanted more, and had previously been attempting to peel it away from North Carolina and have Virginia annex the area. The State of Virginia for various reasons was never interested but with cession the Virginia planters gave it one more try to see if they could convince the Articles to sell them public land–which was not in the cards either.The 1784 Cession Agreement was a bit loose with its language, and along with its “offer” to the Articles Congress, it also included vague language  that bordered on western lands self-termination as a vehicle for eventual statehood. The language probably was intended to allow the Articles Congress some flexibility in how to conduct the statehood process, but it also (1) opened the door for adjacent Virginia-wealthy resident landowners to advance plans for western lands they owned to establish a new entity of open-ended ambitions, and (2) allowed alienated western North Carolina elites an opportunity to play their own hand at forming a state. But all that took time to play out and become obvious, and in the Spring and Summer of 1784, western residents and absentee Virginia planters called for a state (of Franklin) convention to form an independent state.

The first convention was held in August 1784, and unanimously it voted to create a new independent state. Little did they conventioneers know was that the state of North Carolina had already reversed its decision to cede the lands to the Articles. Unbeknownst to them they were now a rebel government in a civil war with North Carolina. Rather than abandon the attempt, a second state of Franklin convention was held in December 1784 whose purpose was to write a constitution and submit it for approval at a third constitutional convention. In 1785 Patrick Henry, the Governor of Virginia, pulled the rug out of any initiative to have Virginia annex Franklin, undercutting the efforts of the Virginia plantation owners, and the effect was to leave the western Watauga residents on their own, with a new independent state.

The Convention endorsed a petition to the Articles Congress calling for it to adopt and declare it a new state. In the midst of all these moving parts, the Articles Congress was negotiating and trying to implement a series of treaties (including the Hopewell Treaty mentioned previously) with the Native American tribes, which itself triggered a hopeless series of political reaction that centered around Virginia and North Carolina’s refusal to endorse and ratify the Articles treaties. The way to understand this is to recognize how weak the Articles were–and how divergent from the southern perspective the Articles could be in regards to negotiations with Native Americans and western expansion. The reader also need remember STATES were sovereign, and what was now going on was Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia were feuding with each other–and the Articles. THAT IS ONE REASON WHY MANY WANTED TO REFORM THE ARTICLES AND MAKE THEM STRONGER. This is the period of the Washington-Madison’s Annapolis Convention, the forerunner for the First Constitutional Convention. The timing of William Blount’s Plan A could not have been worse.

The process for writing that constitution commenced–it would take a year and the constitution was not approved until November 1785. Over the course of that year, William Blount, Richard Caswell, and John Sevier got their act together, wrote a state of Franklin constitution, and Plan B was put in operation.

Was Franklin an  Amazing Exercise of Frontier Populist Democracy or an Independent State-Nation Controlled and Operated by  Land Speculators

Now it really gets bizarre. My argument in this section is simple. During 1785 Blount and his allies constructed Plan B which merged western residents desire to form an independent state with their desire to engage in a huge land speculation/assembly scheme that when the times were right, would apply for statehood. To ensure the absentee Virginia landowners did not control the State of Franklin, Blount and Caswell joined forces with John Sevier, Watauga’s charismatic leader, who  would be “President-Governor of the State of Franklin”.  Sevier had his own agendas which by default became part of Plan B. Under Sevier’s presidency, and with its own legislature, the State of Franklin conducted its own foreign policy with other states,  the Articles, and with Native Americans. In the meantime as agents of the State of Franklin the land speculators and the companies they formed would pursue a number of schemes to assemble land and–of course–fight Indians. These schemes became prominent elements of Franklin’s political agenda. The principal actor in the State of Franklin (or is it Franchise) was its President-Governor John Sevier

Sevier took formal command of Franklin by submitting his draft of the proposed constitution to its second constitutional convention in November 1785. That second ratifying convention intended to formally approve the Constitution of the new state, also debated an alternative Constitution. Considerably more “democratic” than the North Carolina-based Constitution submitted by Sevier which centralized considerable power in the state legislature (it elected the governor), the rival Constitution called for several key offices including the governor to be elected directly by the voters, and the election franchise, stripped of property qualification, was extended to all males of voting age. In the alternative constitution, any legislation approved the state legislature had to be subsequently approved by state referendum. Local offices (county-level) were also independently elected. Recall of elected officials was made possible.

Whatever else this alternative Constitution would have done, it was a perfect expression of the populism that dominated the western territories–and their answer to the corruption and anarchic politics that had characterized North Carolina. It would have broken up the stranglehold the land speculators had on the legislature–and that is what prompted John Sevier to successfully oppose the alternative and secure the ratification of the North Carolina Constitution in the “new state”. Thus this great expression of frontier democracy was never the official constitution of Franklin, and never took effect. That, of course, does little to change the narrative in today’s history books.


To best understand the dynamics associated with the state of Franklin, I have followed the argument and evidence presented  by Dr. Thomas Perkins Abernethy [99], an argument so cynical that it is not found, but hinted at, in most textbooks today.

Historians have heretofore treated the Franklin movement as a serious rebellion–the cry of the West for freedom. … In reality the movement was … a game played between two rival groups of land speculators. one of these groups, headed by Caswell and Blount are supported by [John] Sevier held vast tracts of western land… A cession of the western country to [Articles] Congress [was] made to secure these claims. but their plans miscarried [with]  the repeal of the cession act. [Virginia land developers left out of the Blount et al scheme] took advantage of the rank and files frontiersmen to bring about a declaration of independence. This was expected to remove the west from under the control of the North Carolina politicians … They were thwarted … by the ingenious Sevier  … He stepped in and took charge of the rebel government. His plan, with the support of Blount and Caswell was to bring a reconciliation with the parent state [North Carolina}. [1]

If the reader is not comfortable with such a cynical assessment of the state of Franklin, preferring one that accentuates the more radical democratic thrust of the area’s resident frontiersmen, and ignores the behind-the-scene’s manipulations of the land grab cliques, I suggest reading in Powell’s “North Carolina Through Four Centuries” [2]. To see how the matter is handled in a college textbook, check out Weeks & Womack, Tennessee: a History of an American State (Chapter Seven) [3]

The individuals involved in Blount’s Plan were the highest level of North Carolina state government–Blount, literally just retired as House Speaker, was its delegate to the Articles, and Caswell, one of North Carolina’s Revolutionary War heroes, founder of the state of North Carolina, and simultaneous with the State of Franklin was North Carolina’s delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and was soon to become North Carolina governor during a considerable part of Franklin’s lifetime. In effect having already seized dominance over the North Carolina state political processes, Blount had extended his influence over an independent state in rebellion against North Carolina, and was using that independent state to advance his and his business partners own vision of profits and American westward movement. From this perspective, much of Franklin’s political agenda and legislative-electoral politics was a democratic veneer of such little depth that it withered away in relatively short order.

There was opposition to these initiatives from a loose political coalition within the North Carolina legislature who desired to maintain North Carolina control over the western counties. The Governor, mostly Richard Caswell, fended them off, but the weakness of that office, and Caswell’s “terming out of office” in 1788 brought in a new governor who commenced to shut down the State of Franklin and reestablish North Carolina political control over the Franklin counties. By 1787, there were two sets of officials in office at the same time and same geography, one from the state of Franklin, the other set from the state of North Carolina. .

By that time the legislature of the State of Franklin had long since stopped meeting and Sevier himself had been “termed out office”, and was engaged in a Georgia military expedition in support of his private land ventures;. When Sevier returned he was arrested, set free by his son, and then illogically elected to the North Carolina legislature. The State of Franklin simply withered away–an incredible 18th century “Never-mind”.

Who is John Sevier?

Why should we care about John Sevier?

Sevier is regarded today as the George Washington of Tennessee , the state’s principal founding father, He was its first governor in 1796 (serving again later for a second term during the War of 1812). His roots began as one of the Founding Fathers of the Watauga Association, and the leader of its militia in the incessant wars against the Cherokee (principally). Sevier was the state’s 18th century political icon, charismatic hero, and a consistently dominant political power until his death in 1815. He was also the chief opponent to a rising Andrew Jackson. The State of Franklin was his political launching pad. I will further develop Sevier, principally as a military leader, in a following module focused on the Southwestern Territory, but Sevier was a key leader in the Revolutionary War, victor in the Overmountain Expedition that resulted in critical Patriot victory in the Battle of Kings Mountain.

His military role in the State of Franklin was substantial and impressive, contributing mightily to his popularity and his ability to distance himself from Blount. Make no mistake, however, Blount and Sevier were consistent business partners over a long period of time, and behind the scenes, always behind the scenes with Blount, an important background ally of the state of Franklin. As to the State of Franklin itself, along with his business interests, his conception or vision of the future political development of North Carolina’s western lands, Sevier also had his own agenda. He was never under the direct control of Blount, or it appears, anybody. Blount, friends with Sevier, took no official position on the state of Franklin in the four years it existed.

Virginia-born, descended from French Huguenots, John Sevier was Tennessee’s equivalent to Washington–in fact he served under Washington in the Lord Dunsmore War.  As a young man Sevier traveled to the early Watauga Association territory, moving his family there in 1773.  By 1775 he was appointed clerk, and in 1776 elected commission member of the Association.  He developed into Washington County’s chief political activist and speaker. When  Cherokee chieftain Dragging Canoe joined the British in opposing the newly-established Patriot Articles of Confederation  he attacked the Watauga area which had formally declared itself pro-Patriot. In reaction, Sevier assumed military responsibilities in defense of the area as well. Sevier was an off and on Blount associate and political associate in the North Carolina state legislature. Sevier presided as president over the various conventions described above.

Having “guided” the politics of those conventions, Sevier, although personally unenthusiastic about the the state of Franklin enterprise, assumed responsibility of providing it direction. Of note, among the very first acts of its legislature was to formally approve all land sales contracts heretofore accepted by the state of North Carolina. Another enactment in 1786 approved the state of Franklin’s participation in sending militia to fight the Creeks in the contested Muscle Shoals Georgia County–in return for which the state of Georgia agreed to cede that area to the state of Franklin. That shall be the subject o the next section.

To understand what is going on with Plan B, it is necessary to travel back to 1782-3 at the time of the legislative land grab legislation.

Plan B: the Speculator’s Agenda Behind the State of Franklin

The land speculation dimension, Plan B, built around the reality of an independent state of Franklin, by Blount, Caswell, Sevier, Donelson and others, had two levels. Always central was that the end game was federal ownership of North Carolina’s western counties and the acceptance as legal and legitimate the current status of land ownership and land claims filed to that point. This meant the legalization of the immense land claims filed during the Land Grab Act of 1783. The second level was a bit more quixotic–and hyper speculative: lands associated with the Great Bend of the Tennessee River; today it includes Alabama’s Muscle Shoals in Colbert County Alabama.

In 1783, Alabama was thirty-six years in the future, and until 1783 there was no accurate survey of which state’s land claims (South Carolina and Georgia, and North Carolina ) were valid. In early 1783, however, a land survey conducted in 1782, however, disclosed that Tennessee was out of contention, and that the Great Bend was in either Georgia’s (most likely) or South Carolina’s (tenuous). This Great Bend land claim became the second level of Plan B, when it was obvious it could not be transferred by North Carolina to the Articles, that it most likely belonged to the State of Georgia. At that time, the Great Bend was considered to be a genuine hot spot for future colonization and large-scale settlement (as Nashville and Middle Tennessee were also viewed).

The Great Bend in 1783 was hoped to be part of Plan A, through a Blount-negotiated deal with the State of Georgia. To this end in 1783, Blount formed a Land Company with Richard Caswell, John Donelson, Joseph Martin (Virginia’s Indian Agent and Patrick Henry’s personal land agent), and John Sevier [4]. Donelson and Martin, both Indian Agents, were detailed to commence negotiations with the Chickasaw tribe to purchase the land from them. In the course, of negotiating a formal peace treaty on behalf of both Tennessee and Virginia, these two “cut a side deal” to purchase the land. Issac Shelby, future governor of Kentucky, refused to join with them and left the negotiations. The deal was consummated nonetheless

With title and negotiated purchase in hand, Blount appeared before the Georgia legislature in 1784, and secured from that body legislation establishing a new county in the Great Bend, a county governed by a commission of seven members that included along with four Georgians, Martin, Donelson and Sevier. The Commission was empowered to make land grants of up to 1,000 acres per transaction, and Donelson was appointed surveyor, Sevier commander of its militia, and Martin the Indian agent. A land office  ad trading post was  immediately opened. Shortly after, South Carolinian Wade Hampton was also included to represent South Carolina’s weaker interests [5]. The Plan seemed to be that through the Land Company, a Georgia county would be administered and land assembly/subdivision and settlement would soon follow. Later that year Plan A collapsed and the State of Franklin came into existence.

With the State of Franklin around, the Great Bend project quickly got complicated. The State of Franklin did not in its “founding” documents claim any particular boundaries. When Franklin petitioned (unsuccessfully) the Articles for statehood in late 1784 it provided boundaries that included much of today’s West Virginia, and territory extending south to include the Great Bend area. Sevier, the Watauga political powerhouse, had initially opposed the creation of Franklin, which at that time was mostly dominated by Radicals and the absentee Virginia plantation owners–who by this time were clearly more aggressive in their own land speculation projects–that included Patrick Henry’s Virginia and Blount-Sevier’s Great Bend Project. At the same time, the Indian Treaty that was linked to the Indian land sale to the Blount Land Company also fell apart, and became beclouded in a cacophony of legality and dissident Native American repudiation.

At this juncture, Blount now with the Articles of Confederation Congress resided in Philadelphia, and Caswell assumed leadership and John Sevier reversed his opposition to Franklin and turned his attention to securing his election as its President-Governor, and the approval of a state constitution of his design–one more suitable to control by the Legislature of which he was dominant. With success in both ventures, one of the first acts of the Franklin Legislature was approval of its military occupation of the Great Bend area–in cooperation with the State of Georgia. In this period the Franklin Legislature also approved the creation of four new counties which extended its formal territory to the Great Bend borders. Three of these counties were dutifully named Sevier, Caswell and Blount.

Legislation by South Carolina, negotiated by Wade Hampton provided a grant of funds to finance a settlement at the Great Bend. With a threat of open war with the Cherokee likely, the Great Bend area–part of the Creeks long-standing hunting ground–was set to be its ground-zero. The Georgia legislature then appealed to the State of Franklin to send Franklin’s military forces into the area in return for its cession of those lands to the State of Franklin (Feb 1785-1786). The Franklin Legislature approved the Georgia proposal. By this time, the cooperation of the Blount Land Company was apparent–and Caswell, Governor of North Carolina and John Sevier Governor of Franklin worked together on the arrangement. At one point Governor Caswell wrote to Governor Sevier in regards to the land sales in the Great Bend: “The Bent of Tennesee (sic) is still an Object with me of an Interesting Nature. I will tend to the grant [of land] you wish to Caveat, in Bumper’s Cove; pray will it not be necessary  to have returns lands on the French Broad so that grants issue from this state“”[6a]

It was at this time that Sevier and the Franklin Legislature, frustrated beyond description at its inability to control events, made the first official overtures to Spain: “the people of Franklin resorted to negotiating with Spain and they considered separating from the United States, if Spain would provide protection and grant free navigation to the Mississippi River. … the Spanish [governor] refused [however] to protect the settlers, sensing  that they [were] merely using the Spanish in order to gain their own independence [as an independent nation] [7].  The Spanish Governor than reached an agreement with the Chickasaw to watch over the Spanish possessions. As late as 1788, our friend James Robertson was scurrying around Spanish-Indian lands trying to find some accommodation, John White was meeting with the Spanish ambassador in Philadelphia–and traveling to Cuba–, and no less than John Sevier wrote a letter on the matter to the Spanish minister [8].

Behind the scenes Sevier was trying to end the fiction that was the state of Franklin, but Caswell, the governor of North Carolina, insisted that the state of Franklin honor its military commitments to the Muscle Shoals area, after which he would negotiate its future. The war against the Creeks which was the ultimate objective became infeasible when Blount was unable to draw in the Articles involvement in the expedition, and in 1788 the election of a new North Carolina governor, sent Caswell on his merry way, and spelled an end to the state of Franklin shenanigan. Governor Samuel Johnson issued an arrest warrant for Sevier, which was duly served and he was packed off to jail. Sevier escaped and was quickly pardoned by the North Carolina legislature. In the next election Sevier was elected by Greene County to the state Senate.

The Muscle Shoals Scandal was the first of a series of land schemes gone awry that afflicted the Big Bend and western Georgia geography–most of which is today known as the Yazoo Yazoo Land Scandal which will rock the state of Georgia. These scandals led to the Early Republic Congress taking over lands that eventually became most of today’s southeast (Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi–with Florida caught up in its mechanizations). It was this Scandal, the aftermath which in its own turn led to the Creek War, and to the later the Indian-Removal campaign that resulted in the 1830’s Trail of Tears. In this sad and unfortunate sequence of events, one can see the power of land speculation and the trans-Appalachian version of the American Dream homesteading.

The Bigger Picture 

Let me conclude with one last argument. I believe it an important one, and it is the underlying reason this module is included in this Chapter.

Certainly the module presents a less than complimentary image of Blount and Tennessee first steps toward statehood. Virginia had its Wilkinson, and the outmaneuvering of the radical Patriots by Tidewater D-R George Nicholas, but at least land speculation, ongoing and polarizing as it was, seemed a separate world from political. It was never thus in Tennessee, I think because of the weakness and frailties and the post-Revolutionary War political vacuum rendered its state policy system prone to opportunistic and personalistic strategies and a dearth of strategies for the public good or to protect the long-term development of the state as a whole. The State of Franklin adds to this policy chaos, and for once the blame is not Blount’s primarily. Blout is off in Philadelphia, or wherever the Articles Congress drew him. Rather the State of Franklin is a tale in which four future governors from four different states played a role. The central role, however, is reserved for John Sevier. And the Tennessee Spanish Conspiracy was just as fantastic, and and even more promiscuous among Tennessee elites, as was Kentucky’s.

That we could tell a tale that persisted over five years, of Great Bend real estate speculation that tied together Patrick Henry, John Sevier, Issac Shelby and Richard Caswell, a speculation that would today probably put three out of the four in jail, has to transport the reader into a realm he or she is ill-equipped to visualize. Little of what we have described was a secret, i.e. not known to some degree by political actors and even the common folk in the hinterlands–there were too many willing accomplices and associates involved and a serious case can be made that much of the absentee Virginia plantation owners real agenda was to displace the Blount-led speculation in future Tennessee? Real estate politics, the politics of homesteading and land rush, of bubbles and bust is the original primeval soup from which modern economic development would evolve.

Out of that chaos and frenetic growth will appear a system of economic development proposed by Kentucky’s Henry Clay, the American System–and against it a policy war would be waged by a competing approach to ED led by its spokesperson Andrew Jackson. But it is too early to see the coherence, after all twenty or more years, another war, and the nation’s first major recession/depression still had to make their mark. Much of what we take for granted has yet to evolve. The rule of law nor a consensual definition of the public and private spheres, never mind the stability of processes and parameters set by an established policy system and political tradition exist in this module. We are describing geographies engaged in continual war that are not states at all. The birth of states, like the birth of a child, “is complicated”, but if Freud is correct, they leave their mark on political culture and political/economic structures.

I cannot envision my early childhood years, cannot fathom what I did or what I looked like–but here are the early childhood days of the American Early Republic as they played out in the streets, not the policy-making halls of Congress and Presidency, but  on the wild and woolly trans-Appalachian frontier. Kentucky and Virginia were the fastest growing states in the nation for the next twenty years–actually thirty if you toss in Ohio. Looking at the antics of Georgia in particular during the Muscle Shoals speculation, one can easily wonder if things are going well there?

There is an underlying reality behind the State of Franklin, a state of mind and popular consensus that allows land speculators to  create states in pursuit of their land schemes that given the context of the times were stepping stones to the individual’s 1780’s version of the American Dream, The complicated and bloody history of the first hesitant steps of Americans across the Appalachians into what will become America’s hinterland, the first steps in our transcontinental migration, are the starting points central in our ED History. Why are they so chaotic and hard to swallow today?

The problem, hidden-in-plain-sight is that the United States started to grow and expand long before its political, economic and legal institutions had been put in place. The expansion into Tennessee, overwhelmed the capacity of its mother state, North Carolina, and triggered a political-economic disruption which neither the Articles of Confederation nor the State of North Carolina could manage. Inadvertently Blount’s Plan A set in motion a sequence of mostly unanticipated events that overwhelmed the poorly established political institutions and policy systems of the Articles. North Carolina and the First Southwest in general. Among these missing political institutions include the rule of law, which also included any definition of the distinction between private and public affairs. What we described in this case study violated few if any laws, legal precedents, and even judicial “footprints”–how could there have been any in an unsettled interior bordered by hostile European powers and occupied legitimately and even legally by Native Americans.

Muscle Shoals/Yazoo demonstrates the absence of even basic fundamentals such as who owned what land, where were the boundaries. It also demonstrated why the Articles had achieved whatever usefulness they had.

It is easy to fall victim to vibrant anti-capitalist emotions– and to point the finger at the evils of private greed, profit, and governmental corruption. Capitalism was terrible its beginning and it has only gotten worse, one can argue. But again I assert capitalism as an economic system was still in formation, and would continue to be so through the present day. What’s more there was no economic system, no capitalism in the trans-Appalachians–and obviously very little government. What was really in play was not just Land Speculators profits but also the exercise of an American Dream which thrust literally hundreds of thousands of migrants and immigrants into Tennessee and Kentucky, and Ohio. Behind Blount and Sevier were homesteaders in droves, in land rushes, where land was bought and sold without benefit of banks or rule of law–without even roads and bridges. How the land was conquered, assembled and promoted and then sold to the end-users looks so messy and abusive because by today’s standards and laws, not to mention ideological constructs, because political institutions had not caught up with the westward migration of Americans–and they would not get a reasonable foothold for the better part of fifty years–or more. The story of the Early Republic is in part the outright absence, frailty and experimentation, the innovation and entrepreneurism that formed our political, economic and legal institutions. It was in this environment that economic development evolved, and in reality exerted a powerful influence in their formation.

Let’s wrap up on a lighter note: BTW, in 1786 in Greene County, in the state of Franklin, a certain David Crockett was born–he was not “born on a mountaintop in Tennessee” (BTW, so did Sam Houston founder of the Republic of Texas and its first governor). Also BTW, in the midst of this State of Franklin, in 1787, a new emigrant to North Carolina, a largely self-taught lawyer who acquired some mastery of the law through internships with lawyers, moved to Surry North Carolina to work. While there he signed a petition supporting independence for the state of Franklin. That petition may be the first recorded political statement by none other than Andrew Jackson–who a year later traveled through Franklin on the Wilderness Road on his way to Charlotte and Donelson’s boarding house in Nashville Tennessee [9]. He has entered our history about a decade earlier than Henry Clay.


[1] Thomas Perkins Abernethy, From Frontier to Plantation in Tennessee: a Study in Frontier Democracy (University of Alabama Press, 1932, 1967),  p. 91-2

[2] William S. Powell, North Carolina: Through Four Centuries (University of North Carolina Press, 1989),  pp. 219-221.

[3] Weeks & Womack, Tennessee: a History of an American State (3rd Ed) (Clairmont Press, 2002), Chapter Seven

[4] A. P. Whitaker, “the Muscle Shoals Speculation, 1783-1789 (Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Dec, 1926), pp. 65-386

[5] Thomas Perkins Abernethy, From Frontier to Plantation in Tennessee, p. 66

[6] A. P. Whitaker, “the Muscle Shoals Speculation, 1783-1789, 

[6a] A. P. Whitaker, “the Muscle Shoals Speculation, 1783-1789, 

[7] Phillip Langsdon, Tennessee: a Political History (Hillsboro Press, 2000), p.14; for a wonderful play by play of the Spanish overture, read A. P. Whitaker, “the Muscle Shoals Speculation, 1783-1789. The detail provided is more than our history requires, but as much as anything I have read it underscores the fragility of the Articles and the Early Republic over their trans-Appalachian areas–and the absence of a firm commitment to a United States of America, by resident Americans–or at least their elites.

[8] Abernethy, From Frontier to Plantation in Tennessee, Chap 6, pp. 91-102

[9] Abernethy, From Frontier to Plantation in Tennessee, p. 122