A short-lived attempt to create a new state in the trans-Appalachian settlement of present-day East Tennessee, the State of Franklin arose from the general unsettled state of national, regional, and local politics at the end of the Revolutionary War. Under the severely limited congressional revenue powers imposed by the Articles of Confederation, the best solution for funding the new national government in the 1780s was the cession of western lands by the individual states. Congress actively encouraged this process, anticipating substantial returns. North Carolina, however, had not agreed to such a step and instead reopened its western land office in 1783. Acting on the presumption that the Cherokees had forfeited their land claims due to their alliance with the British during the Revolution, the entire trans-Appalachian West, with only a few exceptions, was made available for purchase.
The provisions of the North Carolina land act of 1783 favored those with prior knowledge of its passage. These individuals, including many of the most prominent and influential members of the North Carolina legislature, quickly claimed over four million acres of western lands in what came to be called the “Great Land Grab” of 1783. Having thus secured title to most of the area that would eventually become Tennessee, these lawmakers now gave their support to the western land cession. In 1784 North Carolina passed an act to cede its western lands to Congress with the stipulation that all land titles would remain valid.
The cession, coupled with the apparent congressional desire to create new states, provided the final justification among the western inhabitants for an independent statehood movement. Sentiment for such a movement had been growing among the western residents largely as a result of the distance between their settlements and the seat of government, which made it difficult for eastern legislators to understand the complexities of trans-Appalachian life and for settlers to obtain relief for their complaints. Under the leadership of Arthur Campbell of southwestern Virginia and others in the Holston River settlements, a meeting was arranged at Jonesborough in August 1784, where the decision for statehood was unanimous. Delegates were elected to attend a December convention to draft the constitution for a new government.
The land grab by the North Carolina legislature created so much resentment against the land speculators–who controlled the legislature–that voters turned out the business element in the elections of 1784. The new legislature promptly repealed the act of cession, and the western statehood movement was now technically an act of rebellion.
The convention met as planned on December 14, 1784, and reaffirmed their support for an independent state to be known as Franklin. Delegates adopted the North Carolina constitution to serve as a temporary government, but made some alterations such as the reduction or abolition of property qualifications for elective office. A second convention met in November 1785 to adopt a permanent constitution. This document, sometimes called the “Holston Constitution,” provided for a unicameral legislature with specific property, religious, and moral qualifications for its members; however, the temporary North Carolina constitution continued to serve the new state. At a third convention the following March, John Sevier, a popular Revolutionary War hero and Indian fighter, was elected governor; a barter system for the payment of taxes was established; and four new counties were established.
By this time, the Franklin movement enjoyed less than unanimous support. Once again land speculators dominated the North Carolina legislature, and they were eager to regain control over Franklin in order to validate their land titles. They pursued a policy of encouraging dissension in the west through conciliatory overtures to the Franklinites while simultaneously condemning the movement. The North Carolina legislature created additional counties, courts, and a militia brigade with John Sevier as the brigadier general.
Legislative overtures made little headway until August 1786, when John Tipton emerged as the leader of the anti-Franklin faction in Washington County. Conflict between the pro- and anti-Franklin groups intensified and became a personal feud between Sevier and Tipton as the two vied for leadership. North Carolina capitalized on the dissension and undermined support for the Franklin movement by offering pardons and a remission for two years of back taxes.
The combination of inducements and strong opposition from Tipton produced a decline in support for the Franklin movement everywhere except in the area south of the French Broad River. There, the Franklin government’s aggressive policy towards the Cherokees attracted widespread support from settlers vulnerable to Indian attacks. In June 1785 a token number of Cherokee chiefs signed the Dumplin Creek Treaty, which allowed settlement well to the south of the French Broad River and into an area set aside by North Carolina as a Cherokee reservation. In November of the same year, a larger Cherokee delegation met with American representatives at Hopewell in South Carolina and established a treaty line north of Greeneville, the capital of Franklin. The two conflicting treaties soon produced open warfare between the Franklinites and the Cherokees. Franklinites interpreted the Hopewell Treaty as evidence of lack of congressional interest in their defense and opened negotiations with the Spanish authorities to explore the possibility of annexation; however, the talks came to nothing. By August 1786 the Cherokees had been defeated and forced to sign the Treaty of Coyatee, which allowed settlement as far south as the Little Tennessee River.
By 1788 the feud between Tipton and Sevier escalated to the point that the two sides engaged in a minor skirmish. Later that same year, Tipton arrested Sevier on a North Carolina warrant. Sevier made bail and a new governor wisely ignored the case.
By early 1789 the Franklin movement was all but over. North Carolina continued its policy of reconciliation by allowing the locally popular Sevier to be seated in the legislature as the representative from Greene County; as a further gesture of goodwill he was appointed brigadier general of militia for Washington County. In the settlements south of the French Broad River, support for an independent state continued and settlers organized themselves into an association known as “Lesser Franklin.” When no strong leader emerged to replace Sevier, this movement also faded away.
Samuel C. Williams, History of the Lost State of Franklin (1924)