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Lost: One State and a Few Illusions?

ISSUE:  Autumn 1933

History of the Lost State of Franklin. By .Samuel Cole Williams. New York: The Press of the Pioneers. $6.00.

Americans have always been land-hungry. During

the years 1776 to 1781 men had seen substantial for-

tunes dissolve in the crucible of revolution. This brought a keener realization that land was the one form of wealth which would not melt away. Moreover, having thrown off all restraint of British rule, the revolutionists felt themselves singularly free to carve out their own destinies. Despite their pretensions to scoff at such undemocratic distinction, hordes of them destined themselves to be “gentlemen.” The most obvious essential of a “gentleman” was a landed estate. Therefore, one immediate consequence of the victory at Yorktown was a tumultuous rush for western lands. And the race was not always to the scrupulous. These late-comers had to compete with those shrewd, far-sighted men who had taken advantage of the confusion of revolution to fasten their claims on western territory. A feverish appetite for lush acres seized high and low. We find General Washington exchanging his finest stallion for five thousand acres of Kentucky lands. We see Caleb Wallace, of Virginia, bartering his calling as a Presbyterian clergyman for the same valuable consideration. “If you can find me a good location,” he wrote to a friend, “a congregation will be of no importance.” There was a powerful element, principally from those states possessing little or no western territory, which held the theory that these western lands, as crown lands, had passed to the United States as a whole. It may easily be imagined that the individual states —particularly Virginia, with her domain stretching “from sea to sea”—did not tamely surrender their claims, and the formation of the Union was all but wrecked on this question. All was turmoil and confusion, and one consequence was a series of separatist movements in the western country during the decade following the Revolution.

The most important of these movements was that which started in the western part of North Carolina, now East Tennessee, in 1784. This “lost” State of Franklin came within a hair’s breadth of being the fourteenth state of the Union. It was an ambitious scheme; southwestern Virginia came near to being involved, and the “Franks” had hopes of conquering lands in what is now Alabama. But it failed, as have all other secession movements in America.

In 1924 Judge Samuel Cole Williams, former Justice of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, published the first edition of his “History of the Lost State of Franklin.” A second edition, with slight revisions, has recently come from the press. Judge Williams has traced the rise and fall of Franklin with the industry of a scholar and with the enthusiasm of a native of the land of which he writes. It is an absorbing tale he has to tell: the story of Sevier, “Governor, captain-general, commander-in-chief and admiral in and over the State of Franklin,” whose salary was one thousand deerskins per annum; the story of the Virginian, William Cocke, who pleaded before the Congress of the Confederation for Franklin’s admission, and so nearly succeeded. Jefferson, along with many others, was friendly to the infant state and saw no reason for refusing to take it into the Union. Notwithstanding such support, it was North Carolina’s land which the Franks had lopped off to form their state, and this fact defeated the movement. The State of Franklin was “lost” forever after a stormy career of four years, during which period its General Assembly and Privy Council had made war as well as statutes.

Such attention as has been paid to these early separatist movements has been drawn to them largely because they are supposed to represent the cry of the youthful West for freedom, a natural expression of the democracy of the frontier. Judge Williams, in his entertaining story of Franklin, adheres to this view. However, there is ample evidence to show that Franklin and other similar movements represent rather the schemes of groups of land speculators who thought they could manipulate western legislatures and courts more conveniently than they could those of the East. This does not mean that all who were concerned with the movements were actuated by greed for land; it means merely that the leaders were speculator-politicians who, to further their own purposes, persuaded the people that separation from the eastern settlements was the only way in which they could maintain their liberty. The Franks had unrivaled opportunity to adopt a liberal constitution, one redressing all their grievances. Under the crafty manipulations of land speculators they adopted almost in toto the constitution of North Carolina—the very instrument under which they had rebelled. Would rebels animated only by motives of liberty immediately re-shackle themselves with the fetters they had just unloosed? Judge Williams makes no attempt to explain this and other phases of the movement inconsistent with his interpretation of the genesis of Franklin. He thinks it would have been more fitting and politic had the rebels named their state Jefferson for that apostle of liberty and friend to the West. Instead, they named it for the philosopher, Benjamin Franklin, who expressed his “philosophy” very clearly in a letter written to his son in 1774: “. . . my intention is to decline all interest in them [public affairs], and every active part, except where it can serve a friend . . . having lived so great a part of my life to the public, it seems but fair that I should be allowed to live the small remainder to myself and to my friends.” In their philosophy Benjamin Franklin and the founders of the abortive state were as one; it was perhaps more appropriately named than its historian realizes.


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