The U.S. State That Didn't Recover

John M. Dabbs
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Long, long ago, in a place far away… there was a state called Franklin, but it was not to be.

The State of Franklin was an unrecognized territory in what is now Eastern Tennessee, in the United States. They created Franklin in 1784 from territory west of the Appalachian Mountains. North Carolina had offered the area to congress, to pay toward debts related to the Revolutionary War.

Franklin’s founding should become the 14th state of the United States of America. It was not to be.

The creation of Franklin is novel, in that it resulted from both a cession (an offering from North Carolina to Congress) and a secession (seceding from North Carolina, when its offer to Congress was not acted upon and they rescinded the original cession). []

The American Revolutionary War left the United States of America deeply in debt. North Carolina voted to give 29,000,000 acres between the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi River to offset its debts in 1784.

The area was part of the Washington District. They gained these western counties through a lease from the Overhill Cherokee.

The North Carolina cession to the federal government stipulated Congress must accept responsibility for the area within two years. Congress was reluctant to accept for many reasons. The act left western North Carolina settlements to deal with the Cherokee of the area on their own.

This was an unwelcome development by the people of the frontier. They had pushed further west and gained ground at Fort Nashborough at the Cumberland River (now Nashville). It was also unsettling for the Overmountain Men who had settled the area during the Watauga Republic. The inhabitants of the land speculated congress may sell the territory to Spain or France.

Franklin established its initial capital in Jonesborough (now Tennessee’s oldest town), before moving to Greeneville. In 1785, the government of Franklin ruled in parallel with North Carolina, before returning to North Carolina as part of its bureaucracy. They never admitted Franklin to the union. The failed state existed for about four and a half years, operating as a republic before North Carolina re-assumed full control of the area.

The concept of a new western state came from Arthur Campbell of Washington county Virginia and . They believed the over mountain towns should be admitted to the United States as a separate state. They differed, however, on the details of such a state, although John Sevier (in a letter written in 1782) acknowledged Campbell’s leadership on the issue. Campbell’s proposed state would have included southwestern Virginia, eastern Tennessee, and parts of Kentucky, Georgia, and Alabama. Sevier favored a more limited state, that being the eastern section of the old Washington district, which was then part of North Carolina.

Although many of the frontiersmen supported the idea, Campbell’s calls for the creation of an independent state carved out of parts of Virginia territory caused Virginia Governor and Kentucky AAnAndAdd speculatAdd speculatoAdd speculatorAdd speculator Patrick He and speculator Patrick Henry — who opposed a loss of territory for the state — to pass a law which forbade anyone to create a new state from Virginia by the cession of state territory. After Virginia Gov. Henry stopped Campbell, Sevier and his followers renamed their proposed state Franklin and sought support for their cause from Benjamin Franklin. Benjamin FranklinThe Frankland movement had little success on the Kentucky frontier, as settlers there wanted their own state (which they achieved in 1792).

North Carolina’s Error

A newly elected North Carolina Legislature saw their error. The land couldn’t be used for debts of Congress. They reviewed the potential economic impact of the area and had rescinded the offer, reclaiming the western district.


The blunder led to the call for an independent state from North Carolina. Representatives from the North Carolina counties of Washington, Sullivan, Spencer, and Greene (all now in Tennessee) met in Jonesborough. They declared the counties to be independent of the State of North Carolina.

They elected John Sevier as their governor, Landon Carter as Speaker of the Senate, and William Cage as Speaker of the House. They elected David Campbell as the judge of the Superior Court.

Delegates met in a constitutional convention in Jonesborough, where they drafted a constitution excluding preachers, doctors, and lawyers as candidates in the legislature. The constitution failed ratification in a referendum and the area continued operation under the North Carolina constitution.

Joining the union

A delegation submitted a petition for statehood to Congress in 1785. Seven states voted for the state (under the name of Frankland). They could not meet the two-thirds majority required under the Articles of Confederation for adding states. The Franklin government changed the official name to gain favor for their cause, the area was to be officially “Franklin (presumably after Benjamin Franklin. John Sevier attempted to gain the support of Benjamin Franklin, but he declined in a letter. Franklin wrote:

… I am sensible of the honor which your Excellency and your council do me. But being in Europe when your State was formed, I am too little acquainted with the circumstances to offer you anything just now that may be of importance, since everything material that regards your welfare will doubtless have occurred to yourselves.… I will endeavor to inform myself more perfectly of your affairs by inquiry and searching the records of Congress and should occur to me that, I think may be useful to you, you shall hear from me thereupon.
Benjamin Franklin, Letter to Governor John Sevier, 1787

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An outdoor enthusiast with a passion for travel and adventure. John is a professional consultant and photojournalist.

Johnson City, TN

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