restricted access 7 The Social Fabric
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7.  The Social Fabric Prior to the Revolution, Tennessee was a meeting place of whites and Indians who generally interacted peaceably as long as there was a rough balance of power. Whites were basically transients in an Indian landscape—traders, soldiers, a few long hunters, and occasional odd-ball visionaries such as Alexander Cuming and Christian Gottlieb Priber. The relationship between the Indians and the whites was no mere dichotomy of exploiters and victims but rather a process of mutual accommodation and adaptation, a cultural negotiation of expediency in which both sides attempted to gain advantages and maintain varying degrees of autonomy. The intercultural fluidity even allowed AfricanAmericans a modicum of opportunity within both Native American and white society. Following the Revolution, this landscape rapidly vanished as accommodation became less necessary for whites. Indians quickly learned that United States sovereignty meant the end of British support, and hordes of new settlers appropriated vast tracts of lands. Neither limited Spanish support nor the stubborn resistance of Creeks and Chickamaugas could restore the rough military parity of earlier days. By the turn of the nineteenth century the Indians had been neatly cordoned off by treaty-imposed boundaries, and they were no longer the dominant concern of white Tennesseans. African-Americans were now shackled by an expanding plantation economy. The demise of older modes of accommodation and adaptation reflected significant changes within all of Tennessee’s social components. Before, during, and after the American Revolution, patterns of deference to elites carried over from the older colonial societies along the Atlantic seaboard. In upper East Tennessee individuals like James and Charles Robertson, Evan Shelby, John Carter, and John Sevier assumed a mantle of leadership that extended to almost every facet of life. Carter, for example, served as colonel of the Watauga militia, chairman of the Washington District’s court, senator in the North Carolina legislature, land office official , and chairman of the first Washington County court. Sevier , William Cocke, and (for a time) the Robertsons were only slightly less prominent as public figures in the same jurisdiction. Evan Shelby and his clan, along with Joseph Martin, Gilbert Christian, and William Russell, had similar prominence in southwestern Virginia and Sullivan County, while men such as James Robertson, Daniel Smith and, later, Andrew Jackson dominated political, business, and military affairs in the Cumberland region. The understandable popular interest in illustrious leaders obscures the fact that the deference to them of their social inferiors was always voluntary and conditional. A major theme of colonial society was the determination of white men of all ranks to gain personal independence—freedom from the will of others—and to create “improved” societies which would guarantee that freedom and its fruits, including the right of independent individuals to exploit dependent ones. Late colonial societies, including those of frontier Tennessee, were not the supposedly egalitarian, idealized systems of the 1820s and 1830s. Instead, they hearkened back to the ordered systems of an earlier period, but tended to rank people according to merit and achievement rather than family background or legal priviledge. Thus Tennessee’s leaders were men of varied background whose common links were personal enterprise and accomplishment and who had gained the respect of other aspiring whites. Deference was earned, conditional , and always subject to dispute. Most Tennesseans were  153 The Social Fabric concerned with private rather than public matters and were willing to leave political leadership to their supposed betters as long as the government was authoritative but not very intrusive, and as long as it promoted economic and social improvement. A similar attitude prevailed in the Tennesseans’ home state of North Carolina, where the hierarchical social structure had to accommodate the desires of its lower-class citizens. Because the latter had an unusual degree of autonomy, aristocratic privilege often existed side by side with a spirit of yeoman independence. In North Carolina’s backcountry, including Tennessee, frontier elites had undisputed sway only over those matters that the lower classes ignored or disdained. Both groups mostly tended to their own interests. This meant that political legitimacy and the institutions that upheld it were always tenuous at best; would-be leaders were required to seek a popular base of support. As militia colonel, James Robertson validated his own authority among Middle Tennesseans by defying federal authority and authorizing attacks on the Chickamauga towns. Likewise, Governor William Blount was ultimately more responsive to his territorial constituents than to the Washington administration because he realized just how conditional his...