Remember Early Tennesseans’ Leadership, Democratic Spirit on 210th Anniversary of Statehood
By Drew Johnson ——————————————————————————– On June 1, 1796—210 years ago today—President George Washington signed into law the bill to admit Tennessee as the 16th of the United States. A generation before Tennessee became a state and 15 years before the adoption of the United States Constitution, it was the birthplace of the first free, independent government in America with a democratically accepted constitution and a republican form of government. That independent spirit led Tennessee through the most unique battle for statehood of any state in American history. The first act of American independence from the British Crown came, not from a musket in Massachusetts or a proclamation in Pennsylvania, but from a gathering of settlers along the Watauga River, near present day Elizabethton, in 1772. The settlers, most of whom were members of 16 families who came to the area from Virginia under the leadership of Gen. James Robertson, found themselves living south of lands protected by Virginia, in the area controlled by the volatile colony of North Carolina. Desiring freedom from British rule, but aware of the need for the authority to create treaties with the Indians in the region, the settlers organized the first independent, democratic government of non-Native Americans on the American Continent—the Watauga Association. They then created the Articles of the Watauga Association, the first known written constitution authored by a free and self-governing people in the Western Hemisphere. In his history of the American West, Teddy Roosevelt called the Wataugans “the first men of American birth to establish a free and independent community on the continent.” These Articles, largely written by Robertson and a 27-year old Indian fighter named John Sevier, served as the laws that guided the independent republic for four years until on July 5, 1776, the Wataugans requested and received annexation by North Carolina so they could aid in America’s fight for independence. In 1790, the federal government, at least in part to prepare the area for statehood, sectioned the lands south of the Ohio River and West of the Appalachian mountains—including the western portion of North Carolina—into the Southwest Territory. President Washington named William Blount, a signer of the United States Constitution from North Carolina, the Governor of the new territory. The area desired statehood almost immediately, but was blocked by the requirement that an area maintain a population of 60,000 to gain statehood. Finally, in April 1795, Blount called for a census to determine if the population met the required amount. Census takers concurrently conducted a vote to determine public desire for statehood. The census determined a population of 77,263 with three out of four voters in favor of statehood. A convention to develop the new state’s constitution convened soon thereafter with James Robertson, who oversaw the development of the Watauga Association, serving as chairman. Thomas Jefferson, a man familiar with the craft of authoring constitutions, declared Tennessee’s resulting constitution “the least imperfect and the most republican” constitution adopted by any state. It was a weighty remark considering that Jefferson’s mentor George Mason largely penned Virginia’s Constitution, and close friend-turned-adversary John Adams authored the Massachusetts Constitution. It was the Southwest Territory’s allegiance to Jefferson that made Tennessee’s struggle for statehood the most contentious in American history. Fearful that Tennessee’s admission to the Union—and the new state’s four proposed electoral votes—would push the 1796 election in favor of Jefferson over Federalist John Adams, the Federalists sought to postpone Tennessee’s admission into the Union until after election day. The Senate, with its Federalist majority, prepared to delay Tennessee statehood when Republican Aaron Burr of New York, in a stroke of political genius, proposed an amendment to allow Tennessee statehood on the condition that the state initially receive only one House member. This reduced Tennessee’s Electoral College votes from four to three, limiting the state’s ability to help Jefferson in the coming election. Both the amendment and the vote for statehood passed and Washington’s signature on June 1, 1796, brought Tennessee into the Union. The man chosen to fill that lone House seat was a 31-year-old attorney named Andrew Jackson. On this 210th anniversary of Tennessee statehood, we should remember the early settlers’ vision of liberty, which led them to create the first independent, democratic community on the American Continent. Over two centuries later, these early Tennesseans’ desire for freedom and their struggle for statehood should still remind us of the value of democracy and the importance of liberty.