Government under North Carolina
In the days before statehood, Tennesseans struggled to gain a political voice and suffered for lack of the protection afforded by organized government. Six counties—Washington, Sullivan and Greene in East Tennessee and Davidson, Sumner, and Tennessee in Middle Tennessee—had been formed as western counties of North Carolina between 1777 and 1788.
After the American Revolution, however, North Carolina did not want the trouble and expense of maintaining such distant settlements, embroiled as they were with hostile tribesmen and needing roads, forts and open waterways. Nor could the far-flung settlers look to the national government, for under the weak, loosely constituted Articles of Confederation, it was a government in name only.
State of Franklin
The westerners’ two main demands—protection from the Indians and the right to navigate theMississippi River—went mainly unheeded during the 1780s. North Carolina’s insensitivity led frustratedEast Tennesseans in 1784 to form the breakaway State of Franklin.
John Sevier was named governor, and the fledgling state began operating as an independent, though unrecognized, government. At the same time, leaders of the Cumberland settlements made overtures for an alliance with Spain, which controlled the lower Mississippi River and was held responsible for inciting the Indian raids. In drawing up the Watauga and Cumberland Compacts, early Tennesseans had already exercised some of the rights of self-government and were prepared to take political matters into their own hands.
Such stirrings of independence caught the attention of North Carolina, which quietly began to reassert control over its western counties. These policies and internal divisions among East Tennesseans doomed the short-lived State of Franklin, which passed out of existence in 1788.
When North Carolina finally ratified the Constitution of the United States in 1789, it also ceded its western lands, the Tennessee country, to the Federal government. North Carolina had used these lands as a means of rewarding its Revolutionary soldiers. In the Cession Act of 1789, it reserved the right to satisfy further land claims in Tennessee.
Congress designated the area as the “Territory of the United States, South of the River Ohio”, more commonly known as the Southwest Territory. The territory was divided into three districts—two for East Tennessee and one for the Mero District on the Cumberland—each with its own courts, militia and officeholders.
Admission to the Union
In 1795, a territorial census revealed a sufficient population for statehood. A referendum showed a three-to-one majority in favor of joining the Union. Governor Blount called for a constitutional convention to meet in Knoxville, where delegates from all the counties drew up a model state constitution and democratic bill of rights.
Tennessee leaders thereby converted the territory into a new state, with organized government and constitution, before applying to Congress for admission. Since the Southwest Territory was the first Federal territory to present itself for admission to the Union, there was some uncertainty about how to proceed, and Congress was divided on the issue.
Nonetheless, in a close vote on June 1, 1796, Congress approved the admission of Tennessee as the sixteenth state of the Union. They drew its borders by extending the northern and southern borders of North Carolina, with a few deviations, to the Mississippi River, Tennessee’s western boundary.
In the early years of settlement, planters brought slaves with them from Kentucky and Virginia. Enslaved African Americans were first concentrated in Middle Tennessee, where planters developed mixed crops and bred high quality horses and cattle, as they did in the Inner Bluegrass region of Kentucky. East Tennessee had more subsistence farmers and few slaveholders.
During the early years of state formation, there was support for emancipation of slaves, founded in part on fears by whites of competition with slave labor (who could be hired out) in the middle and eastern parts of the state. At the constitutional convention of 1796, free Negroes were given the right to vote if they met residency and property requirements. Efforts to abolish slavery were defeated at this convention and again at the convention of 1834. The convention of 1834 also marked the state’s retraction of suffrage for most free African Americans. By then slaveholding had expanded markedly in the state, especially in the Mississippi Delta where cotton planters held large groups of enslaved African Americans, often numbering in the hundreds.
By 1830 the number of African Americans had increased from less than 4,000 at the beginning of the century, to 146,158. This was chiefly related to development of large plantations and transportation of numerous slaves to the Cotton Belt in West Tennessee, in the area of the Mississippi Delta. African American labor created the cotton plantations that generated so much wealth for the planters. By 1860 the enslaved population had nearly doubled to 283,019, with only 7,300 free Negroes in the state. While most of the slaves were concentrated in West Tennessee, planters in Middle Tennessee also used enslaved African Americans for labor but had smaller operations and held fewer slaves. According to the 1860 census, enslaved African Americans comprised about 25% of the state’s population of 1.1 million before the Civil War.