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A Commonwealth of Pioneers

ISSUE:  Autumn 1932

From Frontier to Plantation in Tennessee: A Study in Frontier Democracy. By Thomas Perkins Abernethy. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. $3.50.

Professor abernethy has dwelt in Tennessee, delving in records, mapping election returns, using scholarly technique and a notable understanding of human nature to discover the character and meaning of that community’s experience. The radiating results embodied in “From Frontier to Plantation in Tennessee” make American state history more intelligible than any other book within my knowledge.

A forewarned reader may skim the first chapters, which treat of North Carolina politics in and after the Revolution at undue length and without full clarification. But cross the Smokies and this author is at home. He knows the ridges and vales, the vigorous pioneers and aimless drifters, the yeomen and planters, the politicians high and low; and he permits no patriotic, democratic, or hero-worshipping illusions. His own sympathy, never fervid, goes to the plain people, and his qualified admiration to their candid if uncouth spokesman, Andrew Johnson. James K. Polk also receives a meed of praise; but few other worthies would find ground for self-esteem in these pages.

Among men of early prominence William Blount, of genteel nurture, is exhibited in many land-grabbing intrigues in addition to the plot which caused his expulsion from the Federal Senate, and in equally persistent manipulation of politics for his own gain. John Sevier’s political battles in and after the “State of Franklin” are shown to have had a sham character, and his leadership to have been unintelligent. He was an Indian fighter, not a guide of his people.

Of Andrew Jackson little is left but a brittle temper, an acquired grand manner, a self-seeking purpose, political oscillation, and the battle of New Orleans (off stage). “Brought up in the old school of William Blount, he always believed in making the public serve the ends of the politician. Democracy was good talk with which to win the favor of the people and thereby accomplish ulterior objectives. Jackson never really championed the cause of the people; he only invited them to champion his.” Abernethy does not merely say this sort of thing; he proves it, or at least fortifies his opinion so strongly that anyone who holds the opposite view must now bear the burden of refutation.

The book takes Federal affairs in the main for granted. This, or perhaps a lack of interest, prevents a full portrait of John Bell. Davy Crockett likewise is dismissed with brief allusions. Parson Brownlow, who may some time invite a full chapter, gets no mention. As any but a hack writer is entitled to do, Professor Abernethy follows his own bent. His narrative thins after 1830 and ends in ‘61.

Among economic and social concerns he treats frontier life elaborately, showing the participants to have been far more acquisitive than liberal. Society, he says, was never homogeneous except in casual aspect. Stratification was but momentarily discarded at the trek’s end; men and women of staunch nature, most of whom were of good ancestry, very soon differentiated themselves from the mass of the drifters who were passive in the West as their forebears had been in the East and in Britain before.

Speculation, land laws, taxation, religion, and internal sectionalism are admirably treated in their varied impingements. The growth of Nashville is discussed in detail, but not of Knoxville or of rowdy Memphis. The plantation system and Negro slavery are likewise left in some disregard, which makes the title of the book a promise not quite fulfilled. But such a point is a peccadillo. The work as it stands is a rich illumination.


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