Once upon a time, there was America’s 14th state: Franklin. If you haven’t heard of Franklin, it’s probably because it only existed for four years and was never recognized as a state by Congress. During its struggle for legitimized statehood, residents of Franklin lived, fought, and died for the principles the State of Franklin represented.
In 1784, before Tennessee was drawn on a map, there were unhappy people in three counties in western North Carolina: Washington, Sullivan, and Greene. These small towns were isolated from the rest of the state, separated by the Southern Appalachian mountain range. Residents were very aware of how much the mountains around them alienated them.
This is what happened to the long lost state of Franklin.
“There is a sort of political marginalization being so far away from the seat of state power and not having your political interests represented,” Dr. Kevin Barksdale, a history professor at Marshall University and author of The Lost State of Franklin: America’s First Secession, said. One of the main concerns of the Franklinites was that the government of North Carolina and the federal government would sell the land from under their feet.
In 1784, the US owed massive debts from the Revolutionary War. Without the power to impose taxes, the Continental Congress had to get creative in how to compensate their lenders. One way America did this was by accepting land abandoned from the 13 states and selling it to settlers.
This essentially threatened to make the Franklinites trespassers on their own land. North Carolina changed its mind about giving up territory in 1784, but it was too late. Representatives of Washington, Sullivan, and Greene met in Washington County and declared their sovereignty as the new State of Franklin.
At that point, the 14th state was hardly defined – as much as the Great Smoky Mountain fog that clouded the area. Franklin’s boundaries were unclear, and the name wasn’t even agreed upon. One draft of the constitution referred to it as “Frankland,” meaning free land or land of the free. But finally, “Franklin” made it to the final version, in honor of, you guessed it, Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin was formed one year after the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. The US was basically an infant country with a “personality” based on rebellion, independence, and sovereignty. The American Revolution war heroes fought and killed for these principles and were now leaders in local government. And this was the case for war veteran John Sevier, the elected governor of Franklin.
Franklin, in its brief existence, represented the early American concept that “if your government is not representing you, then it’s your right and your duty to throw off that government and establish a new government.” Despite the Franklinites’ determination, the state’s boundaries were never respected by the neighboring states. North Carolina’s government ignored Franklin’s separation and set up courthouses in its territory. Franklin ultimately dissolved and became Tennessee.