The Failed State of Franklin

Map showing the 8 counties of the Lost State of Franklin
Counties of the Lost State of Franklin. Map drawn by Wikipedia user Iamvered

Founded in 1784 with the intent of becoming the fourteenth state of the new United States, the State of Franklin was located in what is now Eastern Tennessee. The story of Franklin — and how it failed — highlights how the victorious end of the American Revolution in 1783 actually left the new Union of states in a fragile condition.

How Franklin Came to Be

The costs of fighting the Revolutionary War left the Continental Congress facing a staggering debt.

In April 1784, the legislature of North Carolina voted to give Congress some 29 million acres of land — about twice the size of Rhode Island — located between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River to help pay its share of the war debt. 

However, North Carolina’s “gift” of the land came with a major catch. The cession document gave the federal government two years to accept complete responsibility for the area. This meant that during the two-year delay, the western frontier settlements of North Carolina would be virtually alone in protecting themselves from the Cherokee Indians, many of whom remained at war with the new nation. Needless to say, this did not sit well with the residents of the ceded region who feared that the cash-starved and war-weary Congress might even sell the territory to France or Spain. Rather than risk this outcome, North Carolina took the land back and began to organize it as four counties within the state.

After the war, the frontier settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi had not automatically become part of the United States. As historian Jason Farr wrote in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly, “It was never assumed.” Instead, Congress gave the communities three options: become parts of existing states, form new states of the union, or become their own sovereign nations.

Rather than choosing to become a part of North Carolina, the residents of the four ceded counties voted to form a new, fourteenth state, which would be called Franklin. Historians suggest that to some extent, they may have agreed with George Washington, who suggested that they had become “a distinct people” with cultural and political differences from those in the Atlantic states who had fought for American independence.

In December 1784, Franklin officially declared itself to be an independent state, with Revolutionary War veteran John Sevier reluctantly serving as its first governor. However, as historian George W. Troxler notes in the Encyclopedia of North Carolina, Franklin’s organizers did not know at the time that North Carolina had decided to take it back.

“The December 1784 constitution of Franklin did not formally define its boundaries,” Troxler wrote. “By implication, jurisdiction was assumed over all of the ceded territory, and area approximating the future state of Tennessee.”

The relationship between the new Union, its 13 Atlantic Seaboard states, and the western frontier territories had gotten off to a rocky start, to say the least.

“There was little concern for western political and economic interests during the Confederation era, especially among the northeastern elite,” Farr writes.

“Some even assumed that frontier communities would remain outside the union.”

Indeed, Franklin’s declaration of statehood in 1784 stirred fears among the Founding Fathers that they might not be able to keep the new nation together. 

The Rise of Franklin

A delegation from Franklin officially submitted its petition for statehood to Congress on May 16, 1785. Unlike the statehood approval process established by the U.S. Constitution, the Articles of Confederation in effect at the time required that new petitions for statehood be approved by the legislatures of two-thirds of the existing states.

While seven states eventually voted to admit the territory as what would have been the 14th federal state, the vote fell short short of the required two-thirds majority.

Going It Alone

With its petition for statehood defeated and still unable to agree with North Carolina over several issues including taxation and protection, Franklin began operating as unrecognized, independent republic.

In December 1785, Franklin’s de-facto legislature adopted its own constitution, known as the Holston Constitution, which closely tracked that of North Carolina.  

Still unchecked — or perhaps unnoticed due to its isolated location — by the federal government, Franklin created courts, annexed new counties, assessed taxes, and negotiated several treaties with area Indian tribes. While its economy was based mainly on bartering, Franklin accepted all federal and foreign currencies.

Due to the lack of its own currency or economic infrastructure and the fact that its legislature had granted all of its citizens a two-year reprieve on paying taxes, Franklin’s ability to develop and provide government services was limited.

The Beginning of the End

The ties that held Franklin’s unofficial statehood together began to unravel in 1787.

In late 1786, North Carolina offered to waive all back taxes owed to it by Franklin’s citizens if the “state” agreed to reunite with its government. While Franklin’s voters rejected the offer in early 1787, several influential citizens who felt disenchanted by the lack of government services or military protection in Franklin supported it the offer.

Ultimately, the offer was rejected. North Carolina subsequently sent troops led by Col. John Tipton into the disputed territory and began to re-establish its own government. For several very contentious and confusing months, the governments of Franklin and North Carolina competed side-by-side. 

The Battle of Franklin

Despite the objections of North Carolina, the “Franklinites” continued to expand to the west by forcibly seizing land from the Native American populations.

Led by the Chickamauga and Chickasaw tribes, the Native Americans fought back, conducting their own raids on Franklin’s settlements. As part of the larger Chickamauga Cherokee Wars, the bloody back-and-forth raids continued into 1788.

In September 1787, the Franklin legislature met — for what would be the last time. By December 1787, the loyalties of Franklin’s war-weary and debt-laden citizens to its unrecognized government was eroding, with many openly supporting alignment with North Carolina.

In early February 1788, North Carolina ordered Washington County Sheriff Jonathan Pugh to seize and sell at auction any property owned by Franklin’s Governor John Sevier in order to repay taxes he owed to North Carolina.

Among the “property” seized by Sheriff Pugh were several slaves, who he took to Col. Tipton’s home and secured in his underground kitchen.

On the morning of February 27, 1788, Governor Sevier along with about 100 of his militiamen showed up at Tipton’s house, demanding his slaves.

Then, on the snowy morning of February 29, North Carolina Colonel George Maxwell arrived with 100 of his own better-trained and armed regular troops to repel Sevier’s militia.

After less than 10 minutes of skirmishing, the so-called “Battle of Franklin” ended with Sevier and his force withdrawing. According to accounts of the incident, several men on both sides were wounded or captured, and three were killed.

The Final Fall of Franklin

The final nail in Franklin’s coffin was driven in March 1788 when the Chickamauga, Chickasaw, and several other tribes joined in coordinated attacks on frontier settlements in Franklin.

Desperate to raise a viable army, Governor Sevier arranged for a loan from the government of Spain. However, the agreement required Franklin to be placed under Spanish rule. To North Carolina, that was the final deal-breaker.

Strongly opposed to allowing a foreign government to control what it considered to be part of its state, North Carolina officials arrested Governor Sevier in August 1788.

While his supporters quickly freed him from the poorly protected local jail, Sevier soon turned himself in.

Franklin met its final end in February 1789, when Sevier and his few remaining loyalists signed oaths of allegiance to North Carolina. By the end of 1789, all of the lands that had been part of the “Lost State” rejoined North Carolina.

The Legacy of Franklin

While Franklin’s existence as an independent state lasted less than five years, its failed rebellion contributed to the framers' decision to include a clause in the U.S. Constitution regarding the formation of new states.

The “New States” clause in Article IV, Section 3, stipulates that while new states “may be admitted by the Congress into this Union,” it further stipulates that no new states “may be formed “within the jurisdiction of any other State” or parts of states unless approved by votes of the state legislatures and the U.S. Congress.

Historical Events Fast Facts

  • April 1784: North Carolina cedes parts of its western frontier to the federal government as repayment of its Revolutionary War debt.
  • August 1784: Franklin proclaims itself as the 14th independent state and secedes from North Carolina.
  • May 16, 1785: Petition for Franklin statehood sent to U.S. Congress.
  • December 1785: Franklin adopts its own constitution, similar to that of North Carolina.
  • Spring 1787: Franklin rejects an offer by North Carolina to rejoin its control in return for forgiving the debts of its residents.
  • Summer 1787: North Carolina sends troops to Franklin to re-establish its government.
  • February 1788: North Carolina seizes slaves owned by Franklin Governor Sevier.
  • February 27, 1788: Governor Sevier and his militia attempt to recover his slaves using force but are repelled by North Carolina troops.
  • August 1788: North Carolina officials arrest Governor Sevier.
  • February 1789: Governor Sevier and his followers sign oaths of allegiance to North Carolina.
  • By December 1789: All areas of the “Lost State” of Franklin had re-joined North Carolina.