The Lost State of Franklin: America’s First Secession (review)
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Keywords

State of Franklin, Tennessee, Cessation, Trans-Appalachian West

The Lost State of Franklin: America’s First Secession. By Kevin T. Barksdale. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009. Pp. 296. Cloth, $50.00.)

The State of Franklin, organized by 1780s settlers of what is now eastern Tennessee but never officially recognized, is often overlooked in studies of post-Revolutionary America and its trans-Appalachian West. Determined to change this tendency, Kevin T. Barksdale delves into the myths, romanticizations, and recriminations that continue to cloud Franklin’s brief existence and calls its “ruinous failure” a reminder of the “extraordinary and fragile nature of America’s independence” (17). [End Page 135] Barksdale’s quest to identify “Franklin’s historical middle ground” (4) results in an exceptional narrative of its short lifespan, along with sporadic insights on topics such as backcountry fidelity and historical memory.

Prior to a historiographic discussion that comprises most of the Introduction, Barksdale lays out the two dominant views of Franklin ever since its demise in 1789: a popular romanticism that sees it as a “patriotic extension of the American Revolution,” and a more critical interpretation focused on the “sordid maneuverings” of the region’s power-brokers (4). Barksdale pledges to navigate between these two poles, but his analysis favors the latter, albeit through a more nuanced approach to the goals and efforts of Franklin’s elite. Indeed, he identifies many similarities among the leadership of both the pro-statehood Franklinites and anti-statehood Tiptonites (named for leader John Tipton). Several key leaders, including Tipton and Franklin governor John Sevier, participated in the famous patriot victory at the 1780 Battle of King’s Mountain, and “parlayed their exploits into further political and economic hegemony” (49). From the weak North Carolina governance of the early 1780s, to that state’s cession of the territory to the national government and quick reversal of this decision during 1784, and throughout Franklin’s twists and turns from late 1784 into 1789, Barksdale contends that the preservation of this hegemony drove the actions of Franklinites and Tiptonites alike. The author’s intensive source investigation and colorful writing style effectively bring men like Sevier to life as post-Revolutionary figures struggling and conspiring to retain their property interests, political power, and social prestige.

Five of The Lost State of Franklin’s eight chapters present a straightforward narrative of the region’s sociopolitical environment, leading voices, and key events from early white settlement through Franklin’s demise. Barksdale checks off all the important legislative clashes and nicely details the so-called “Battle of Franklin” that helped bring the movement to a close. His claim for a “frontier fidelity [that] transcended ethnic, religious, and class lines” (37) in favor of interest-based loyalties to Tipton, Sevier, et al., however, does not bring the average settlers who aligned for or against Franklin into clear focus. Elite leaders certainly used King’s Mountain flag-waving and frustrations about “eastern” policies regarding Indians and taxation to curry support, but the processes of transmission to and reception and response by the region’s yeomanry, trapped in circumstances that demanded a choice between [End Page 136] risk-filled alternatives, remains underexplored. Barksdale’s Franklin is one of powerful men, key decisions, and episodes of violence, leaving limited room for those not destined to have statues or historical markers or romance novel characters dedicated to them.

The book’s two topical chapters on settler–Native relations and the era’s murky “Spanish Conspiracy” demonstrate both the strengths and limitations of Barksdale’s analysis. Both are eminently readable and firmly grounded in local sources yet do not shed much additional light on the Franklin era. It is indeed difficult to make sense of the confounding western–Spanish machinations, and Barksdale is likely correct to portray men like Sevier using Spanish intrigues to forward their own hegemonic purposes. That said, one would expect more on the issue of popular national fidelity in a book with “secession” in the subtitle. Similarly, chapter 6 rightly describes the “draconian” actions by Franklinites freed from the “shackles” of eastern diplomacy, and the “decades of turmoil” suffered by the region’s Cherokee peoples (92...