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8. The Old Southwest

In the Southwest the Americans faced an at least equally difficult situation. At the end of the war, about 10,000 American settlers lived in these southwestern enclaves: central Kentucky, what is now northeastern Tennessee on the Holston River, and on the Cumberland River in north-central Tennessee. To the south, Spain claimed all the land south and west of the Tennessee River, covering western Tennessee and what is now Mississippi and Alabama. The Spanish claim, by conquest and occupation, was in fact far more tenable than that of America, which had sent no settlers into the deep Southwest. Its only claim was based on the peace treaty in which Great Britain had transferred lands no longer in its effective possession. Spain, too, tried to use the Indians of the Southwest as a buffer against American expansion.

Despite these hazards, the coming of peace saw the beginning of a flood of migration westward into the settlements of Kentucky and western Tennessee, doubling their population in one year. Many of the new settlers came armed with land-company grants, veterans’ land rights and other such special privileges granted by Virginia and North Carolina, and were even able to oust many of the original settlers from the land. Dissatisfaction was particularly rife in western North Carolina, where the conservative-dominated legislature in 1783 threw open the western country to an orgy of speculative land grants. After doing so, North Carolina cunningly ceded its western lands to the Confederation Congress on condition that all of its speculative land grants be validated. But now the Holston River settlers, taking advantage of the cession and of the recently passed Ordinance of 1784, elected a convention which met in late August to form their own government and looked forward to becoming a new western state. The guiding spirit of the new-state movement was Colonel Arthur Campbell, of Washington County in southwestern Virginia, who urged the formation of a new state of Franklin to consist of what is now eastern Tennessee, chunks of southeastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina, northwest Georgia, and northeastern Alabama. However, the Holston convention of December 1784 was more modest and confined itself to Holston territory that North Carolina had already ceded; in accordance with the Ordinance of 1784 the convention declared a new state of Franklin, elected John Sevier governor, and asked Congress for admission as a new state. Campbell, however, persisted in leading a movement in Washington County to secede from Virginia and join the new state of Franklin. Campbell persuaded the county not to send any delegates to the Virginia House and he organized meetings condemning the oppression of Virginia’s tax and militia laws. Throughout 1785 Campbell waged a successful struggle with Governor Patrick Henry, an opponent of secession, over retention of his and his followers’ county offices.

In November 1785 a decisive confrontation occurred in the Franklin convention. On one side were the conservative forces, led by Governor Sevier, who had opposed the Franklin movement at the beginning and who wanted to remain a quasi-adjunct of North Carolina, limiting Franklin territory to North Carolina cessions and retaining a North Carolina type of constitution. In particular, Sevier wished to keep a North Carolina land law and a judicial system to foster land speculation, for Sevier himself was a leading land speculator. Thus, Sevier managed to reintroduce into the Holston settlement the hated land laws and land grants of North Carolina. In opposition, Arthur Campbell, the Reverend William Graham, and the Reverend Samuel Houston, led a struggle for a greater Franklin to include southwestern Virginia, and to form a new frame of government free from North Carolina’s influence and based on highly liberal and radical principles. Campbell’s proposed constitution would have instituted a one-house legislature, universal manhood suffrage, voting by secret ballot, and a referendum of all bills to the people before they could become law. In short, the legislature would propose, and the people would dispose of, all legislation; the people, in effect, would have been a second house of the legislature. But Sevier’s victory at the convention meant that the claims of North Carolina land speculators remained essentially intact, and Campbell understandably lost interest in his own Franklin movement.

Meanwhile, North Carolina, reacting in horror to the new state of Franklin, repealed the cession of its western lands to the United States in the autumn of 1784. Sevier could not risk his popularity by acceding to North Carolina sovereignty, but he was, as we have seen, successful in keeping Franklin in the North Carolina orbit. The state remained precariously independent, however, and virtual civil war within Franklin erupted in 1787 as North Carolina tried to reestablish jurisdictions. In every Holston county there was now dual power, each with a set of Franklin and a set of North Carolina officials. Generally, the northern Holston counties were willing to return to North Carolina, while the southern counties, encroaching on Cherokee territory, were more fiercely committed to independence for fear that North Carolina would not defend their right to exist.

Another western land scheme, the Muscle Shoals project, was a land company attempt to grab and settle land at the bend of the Tennessee River south of the North Carolina line and hence under Georgia’s asserted jurisdiction. Two of the main rulers of North Carolina, Congressmen William Blount and Governor Richard Caswell, both conservatives and inveterate land speculators, organized a land company with other leading western figures, including John Sevier. Also included were a set of influential Georgia politicians who obtained an agreement from Georgia in early 1784 to establish there a county of Tennessee. Georgia appointed a board of commissioners to report on the lands and function as Justices of the Peace for the county; three of the seven commissioners were members of Blount’s Muscle Shoals Company. Sevier, one of the commissioners, was made colonel-commandant of the county. The difficulties of the state of Franklin, however, as well as the growing disenchantment of Georgia officialdom, blocked the advance of the Muscle Shoals scheme during 1784. When Georgia proved reluctant to get involved with the Indians in the area, Blount and the other promoters turned to South Carolina, another state with claims in the region. Influenced by General Wade Hampton, one of the organizers of Blount’s company, South Carolina made large grants of land in the “Bend of Tennessee” area during 1786. Georgia was also persuaded, after a struggle, to grant large tracts of land to the commissioners of the new “Tennessee County.”

With the advent of peace, the citizens of the Kentucky region had begun a drive for independence from Virginia and for statehood. Particularly grievous to the Kentucky land speculators was Virginia’s recent tax of five shillings per hundred acres on all large Kentucky land grants. This action turned the leading Virginians living in Kentucky, most of whom were land speculators in Virginia grants, in favor of a statehood which they had previously opposed. This, plus other tax burdens, the lack of independence of the Kentucky militia, and poor judicial service from the state of Virginia, ignited the postwar Kentucky statehood movement. Proceeding very cautiously, the voters of Kentucky, in three separate elections and three conventions at Danville during 1784–85, deliberated until finally unanimously demanding Virginia’s recognition as a “free, sovereign, and independent republic.” The goal was a separate state and then admission to the U.S. Virginia, in gentle resignation, resolved in June 1786 to accept Kentucky as a separate state if requested by another convention, the acceptance to take effect when Kentucky would in turn be accepted by Congress. One vital clause was Virginia’s insistence that Kentucky retain the validity of all land claims previously established under Virginia law—a clause that dampened some of the ardor of the Kentucky settlers for independence. Indeed, the Kentucky statehood movement had been captured by the Virginia land speculators from the original liberal settler-oriented advocates led by Arthur Campbell. Kentucky’s seemingly imminent statehood, furthermore, was challenged during 1786 by its preoccupation with combating Indian forays.7


  • 7. [Editor’s footnote] Jensen, The New Nation, pp. 327–37; Abernethy, Western Lands and the American Revolution, pp. 288–324.
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