Answer Man

The state that almost was an original colony

Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin

Q: Can you confirm that there was almost a state named after Benjamin Franklin? Friends won’t believe me.

T.U., of O’Fallon

A: Ask how many original states there were in the United States, and any grade-school student probably will tell you 13.

But what wasn’t even in my college history textbook was that before President George Washington took office in 1789, there was a concentrated move to form a 14th: the State of Franklin or, as it was called originally, Frankland. It was never admitted to the union, but you might be surprised at how close it came. Even after it failed, Frankland continued to operate as a sort of independent republic until it finally folded its tent and gave up in 1789.

This lengthy and somewhat complicated effort began in the spring of 1784. With the United States facing massive debts from fighting the Revolutionary War, North Carolina offered to give Congress 29 million acres (45,000 square miles) lying between the Allegheny Mountain and the Mississippi River to help offset its portion of the bill. The Tarheel State apparently didn’t want to mess with these lands west of the mountains so they figured Congress could raise money by selling or leasing the land.

For whatever reason, the federal government didn’t want it, either, leaving the area in a kind of limbo. This worried both the settlers and the roving frontiersmen who were continuing to push west. With nobody wanting control, who would protect them from the Cherokee and what would keep someone from selling the land to, say, France or Spain? A few months later, North Carolina came to its senses and rescinded its offer. By that time, area residents were becoming upset over the state’s reluctance to assert control.

As a result, on Aug. 23, 1784, representatives from four western Northern Carolina counties convened in Jonesborough and declared themselves to be independent of North Carolina. John Sevier, who had just been asked by North Carolina to form a brigade of soldiers for defense, reluctantly switched sides and became its first governor. In December, they met again and wrote a state constitution, which, interestingly, reportedly prohibited lawyers, doctors and preachers from running for the state legislature.

But the proposed state’s fortunes started going downhill quickly. Residents defeated the constitution referendum, preferring to remain under the North Carolina constitution. On May 16, 1785, a petition for the statehood of Frankland was submitted to Congress, but although seven of the 13 states voted for it, Frankland needed two more for the required two-thirds majority.

Still, it wasn’t going down without a fight. In June, the Frankland government met again and tried to win additional favor by changing the state’s name from Frankland to Franklin, ostensibly after Benjamin Franklin. To drum up support, Sevier even wrote the great American statesman for support, but he declined in 1787, saying:

“Being in Europe when your State was formed, I am too little acquainted with the circumstances to be able to offer you anything just now that may be of importance.”

The would-be state tried to continue as a de facto independent republic, but the handwriting was on the wall. By 1786, several notable Franklin residents and supporters began looking to reintegrate with North Carolina. When Franklin residents refused to accept an offer to have all back taxes waived, North Carolina marched troops into the territory in 1787 and re-established its own courts and government in Jonesborough. After one last stab by Franklinites to expand their territory by seizing Indian lands and asking the Spanish for help, Sevier and other holdouts swore oaths to North Carolina and the state of Franklin dissolved in February 1789. Other dissidents tried to keep what was known as Lesser Franklin going, but it, too, had fallen apart by 1791.

Now, Franklin doesn’t seem to merit even an asterisk in most history books. And what became of this “state”? Ironically, North Carolina soon did what it originally wanted to do — cede the area back to Congress. In turn, the federal government used it to form the Southwest Territory, which became the state of Tennessee. Today, Franklin would be the 12 northeastern-most counties of Tennessee. If you’re interested in a road trip, you can still visit the Tipton-Haynes Historic Site in Johnson City, Tenn., where Col. John Tipton and Col. George Maxwell had Sevier and his force of 100 on the run after a 10-minute skirmish in a heavy snowstorm on Feb. 29, 1788.

Today’s trivia

Name the largest spider on the planet.

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: In 1977, smut had gotten out of hand in the Eldon, Mo., schools. In just one book, Missouri Highway Patrol Trooper Roy Herren and 23 other residents had counted more than three dozen objectionable words, so they petitioned the Eldon school board to ban it. By a 6-0 vote, the board approved the petition — and removed “The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Dictionary” from the library. “Some adults got ahold of the dictionary and looked up all the dirty words,” Mary Groves, a mother of two said in an Associated Press story. “Not the children. It’s silly. It’s like a ‘Mary Hartman’ episode.”

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer