There was an extremely slim chance that Vermont might have been admitted to the Union as the 15th instead of the 14th State. This possibility was contingent on the fate of the breakaway portion of North Carolina.
The Western half of what was then North Carolina ran from the peaks of the Appalachian range to the Mississippi River. At the time, western North Carolina held only two major settlements. They only had difficult and tenuous ties to the state capital at Raleigh. One of the areas consisted of a line of hill stations along the Cumberland River. The 5,000 inhabitants there suffered through numerous Indian raids and felt estranged from the rest of the state.
At the same time, the North Carolina legislature was tired of administering the western portion of their state. Yet, the western area was the state’s major bargaining chip. A solution was the opening up of the western lands via a law, later called the “Land Grab Act”. 4,000,000 acres were claimed by individuals between late 1783 and early 1784, most of them going to legislators or their business partners. Obviously, many of the land warrants were fraudulent.
In April of 1783, the State of North Carolina ceded the western half of its land to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Congress. Even so, some factions in the government of North Carolina had become increasingly worried that Congress might
sell the ceded territory to France or Spain as a way of settling part of the US war debt.
While the US Congress debated its response to Raleigh’s cession offer, the North Carolina citizens voted to oust the state legislators who had ceded the western lands. One of the first actions the new legislators performed was the repeal of the cession.
Complicating the situation was the passage, by the US Congress, of several new land acts that encouraged the swift formation of new states from Federal and ceded land. Of the several statehood movements, the ones in western North Carolina had gained traction.
As a response to the original North Carolina cession, representatives of four counties declared independence from the state. In May of 1783, the counties petitioned for statehood to the US Congress under the proposed name of “Frankland”. Acceptance, by Congress, fell short of the required two-thirds majority. Following defeat, the grouping of counties changed the proposed name to “Franklin”, in an effort to woo the support of Benjamin Franklin to their cause.
On August 23, 1784, the counties issued their declaration of independence from North Carolina. The declaration listed grievances against their state, the most importance being the distance and isolation from Raleigh. Furthermore, the settlers held the legislature in contempt because of the previous land grab by the lawmakers and their cronies.
The outer boundaries of the proposed state of Franklin, apart from the original four counties, was undecided. However there was a chance the state could grow larger. In this netherworld between Federal and North Carolina administration, the North Carolina legislature was unwilling to renew their act of cession. There was the fear that a State of Franklin, not the US government, would determine the legitimacy of the disputed land warrants.
Meantime, in late 1784, the Franklin Constitutional Convention was held and drafted what was called the Houston Constitution. Among the features were: a unicameral legislature, routine legislation be submitted as voter referenda, guarantees of religious freedom, and universal white male suffrage. Interestingly, candidates for public office could not be clergy, doctors, or lawyers. The Houston Constitution turned out to be too radical, so it was rejected. Instead, a constitution similar to North Carolina’s was approved.
In an effort to unite the settlers behind statehood, the prominent, charismatic John Sevier came into view. He was appointed governor. New counties were absorbed and a representative was sent to Washington in 1785. Governor Sevier met with the Cherokee leaders with the aim of acquiring more lands. New settlers immediately moved into the territory, but only the Franklin officials recognized their land claims.
All of these actions were quite tentative and highly disputed. In fact, one faction, headed by John Tipton, favored a return to North Carolina. Tipton even convinced a North Carolina county sheriff to seize some of Governor Sevier’s land, Sevier responded by heading up a small army to Tipton’s home place. The confrontation was a minor one, with no fatalities. Historians have now named it “The Battle of Franklin”.
The confrontation marked a swift decline in the State of Franklin. In 1788, Governor Sevier even made a desperate, last gasp effort to negotiate annexation as a Spanish colony. In July, Sevier was arrested and charged with treason. A few days later, he was freed by a heavily armed band of his followers. Sevier’s efforts came to a close when he and other Franklin officials pledged their allegiance to the State of North Carolina in February of 1789.
With the last essence of Franklin out of the way, the North Carolina legislature felt safe to again cede the western lands to the US Congress. Washington acted quickly, this time. The Federal government assumed all the legal claims to the western lands. Because of their experience, John Sevier and several former Franklin advocates were appointed to positions in the new territories. Their skills and popularity helped to congeal the support needed for effective administration of the western lands.
When all was said and done, what had began as Frankland, evolved into the Southwest Territory. On June 1, 1796, the Southwest Territory became the sixteenth state when it was admitted to the Union as the State of Tennessee.