John Rhea, pioneer, statesman, and early advocate of higher education, was born in northwest Ireland in 1753. He was the son of Joseph Rhea, a Scottish Presbyterian minister transplanted to Ireland, and Elizabeth McIllwaine, also Scots-Irish. As a child, he immigrated with his parents to Pennsylvania and later into western North Carolina near what is now Blountville, Tennessee.
A soldier in the Revolutionary War, Rhea completed a degree in classical studies and law from Princeton University in 1780. Representing Sullivan County in the North Carolina House of Commons, he voted for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1789. As Tennessee evolved from a territory into a state, Rhea sat on the constitutional committee of 1796. Representing Sullivan County during the first three sessions of the Tennessee General Assembly, he chaired the committee that drafted the guiding rules for the legislature. In 1802 Rhea entered the national political scene, and, with the exception of 1815-16, was a member of the House of Representatives until 1823.
In his political stances, Rhea was hostile to Great Britain and antagonistic to the renewal of the national bank charter. He believed the removal of native tribes was sound policy; championed states’ rights; upheld the legal rights of slaveholding states though he recognized slavery as a great moral evil; and promoted agrarian interests above commerce and industry. As a lifelong proponent of higher education, he served as trustee or incorporator of three of the earliest institutions west of the Alleghenies: Washington College, Greeneville College (now Tusculum College), and Blount College, the parent institution of the University of Tennessee.
John Rhea died in 1831 and is buried in Blountville. Rhea County and Rheatown (Greene County) carry his name.
Marguerite B. Hamer, “John Rhea of Tennessee,” East Tennessee Historical Society Publications 4 (1932): 35-44