“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another...” (from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence)
Secession is an American tradition. Not necessarily a legal tradition in most cases, but it is a tradition in America nonetheless. After all, the United States of America’s “Novus Ordo Seclorum” (“New Order for the Ages”) began with thirteen British colonies seceding from the Kingdom of Great Britain.
Almost everyone is aware that the State of Tennessee seceded from the Union in 1861, but not as many know that the majority of counties in East Tennessee (plus one in Middle Tennessee) almost seceded from the state that year. Had it happened, that would not have been without precedent in Tennessee’s history, since the state was created by secession, after multiple prior secessions, from the parent state of North Carolina.
In addition to some facts about East Tennessee’s near independence, I’m adding a few facts to put the whole thing into the proper context politically.
Antebellum (pre-Civil War) secession
A large part of the State of Tennessee’s prehistory and history has involved secession. For instance, those who founded the Watauga Association in 1772 were Regulators from North Carolina who had declared themselves independent of the royal governor and corrupt officials, inciting the War of Regulation (1765-1771). After losing that conflict, James Robertson led a couple of dozen westward across the Appalachians, where they established themselves as an independent government.
At the outbreak of the war in 1775, the Watauga Association together with the settlements upon the Nolichucky River organized themselves as the Washington District. The other settlements inside the later Tennessee, Pendelton District (aka North-of-Holston) and Carter’s Valley, were considered part of Washington County, Virginia, and remained outside Washington District.
Westsylvania (roughly the current state of West Virginia plus the southwest corner of Pennsylvania) seceded from the states of Virginia and Pennsylvania in 1776 and petitioned to join the new United States. Their appeal was turned down and what is now West Virginia became the District of West Augusta at the end of 1776. The would-be citizens of Westsylvanian in southwest Pennsylvania continued to seek separation until 1782 when the state legislature made any discussion of the region’s independence treason subject to the death penalty
Washington District successfully petitioned to become part of North Carolina in 1777 after failing to be accepted by Virginia as part of that state’s Washington County. In North Carolina, it became that state’s Washington County, and included what are now the Allegheny, Ashe, and Watauga Counties in North Carolina.
It was partly in response to the creation of Washington County in support of the Revolution that the Cherokee leader Dragging Canoe and his militant followers seceded from the rest of their Nation after the latter made peace that year. They first relocated to what was long known as the Chickamauga country, after Dragging Canoe’s town on South Chickamauga Creek. However, they remained Cherokee rather than becoming a separate tribe as some claim.
That same year, 1777, the Republic of Vermont declared its independence from both New Hampshire and New York, first attempting to Quebec as New Connecticut before organizing the independent republic. This Republic of Vermont was the first government in the New World to outlaw slavery and to allow all adult males to vote.
In 1780, the Pendelton District and Carter’s Valley were added to North Carolina. Also that year, James Robertson, leader of the pioneers on the Watauga River, joined with others in what is now the Nashville area to establish the Cumberland Compact. The Cumberland District became North Carolina’s Davidson County three years later.
After North Carolina reneged on giving its western territories to the federal government in 1784, the people of those counties, eight in East Tennessee (Sullivan, Spencer, Wayne, Washington, Greene, Caswell, Sevier, and Blount) and three in Middle Tennessee (Davidson, Sumner, and Tennessee) seceded from North Carolina. When the Continental Congress failed to accept them as the 14th State of Frankland, the future Tennesseans became the Free Republic of Franklin.
The independent republic’s territory included the modern East Tennessee counties of Sullivan, Hawkins, Johnson, Carter, Unicoi, Washington, Greene, Cocke, Jefferson, Hamblen, Sevier, and Blount; the modern Middle Tennessee counties of Davidson, Sumner, Montgomery, Robertson, and Humphries; and the western North Carolina counties of Allegheny, Ashe, and Watauga Counties, which were then part of Washington County. Its first capital was Jonesboro, but was later moved to Greeneville.
In 1786, the leaders of the Republic of Franklin, along with the with the government of the State of Kentucky and the newly-appointed Superintendent for Southern Indian Affairs, began scheming with Esteban Rodriguez Miro, governor of Spanish Louisiana, to bring their territories into the Spanish Empire. James Robertson, Daniel Smith, and Anthony Bledsoe from the Cumberland region and Joseph Martin and John Sevier of the eastern counties, along with James Wilkinson, governor of Kentucky, and James White, the Indian superintendent, were the main conspirators.
I should point out that at this time Spain’s province La Florida claimed all the territory to the Ohio River anyway and had for some time. In fact, Spain had established short-lived forts inside what are now North Carolina and Tennessee as early as 1567.
The conspirators’ chief vector of communication with Governor Miro was Don Diego de Gardoqui in New Orleans, capital of Louisiana west of the Mississippi, which had been in Spanish hands since the end of the French and Indian War in 1763. The plans of all the parties involved fell apart due to two main factors: first, the dithering of the Spanish government in Madrid, and, second, a letter from Joseph Martin to Governor Miro which made its way into the hands of the Georgia legislature.
The Sabine Free State didn’t have to secede from anyone because it was abandoned by both the United States and the Empire of Spain in 1806 because the two disagreed over the boundary of the Louisiana Territory purchased by the U.S.A. from Napoleonic France in 1803. The disputed territory lay between the Mississippi River in the east and the Sabine River in the west and was populated mostly by a tri-racial ethnic group called the Redbones, similar to Tennessee’s own Melungeons. The dispute was resolved in 1821 in favor of the U.S. claims, and the Sabine is the border between the states of Louisiana and Texas.
The Republic of West Florida seceded from the Empire of Spain in 1810. Spain had acquired its province of West Florida in the treaty which ended the first American war of secession, our Revolution. Great Britain had gained La Florida at the end of the French and Indian War in exchange for abandoning claims to France’s Louisiana west of the Mississippi, which became Spanish Louisiana. The British divided La Florida into East and West, the latter including the southern tips of Alabama and Mississippi and the northern section of the eastern portion of the modern state of Louisiana. The republic’s independence lasted three months until the U.S. arrived and assumed control.
That portion of the state of Massachusetts which became Maine seceded from the former in 1819 and was approved as a state by Congress in 1820 as part of the Missouri Compromise.
More famously, the Republic of Texas seceded from United Mexican States in 1836 and won its independence the same year with former U.S. Representative for Tennessee, former Tennessee Governor, and adopted son of John Jolly, then Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation West, as its first President. What is not as well known by much of the American public is that far more of those fighting for independence and supporting it were Spanish-speaking Tejanos rather than English-speaking Texicans from America. Houston had been adopted by Jolly while living at Cayuga on what used to be known as Jolly’s Island—Hiwassee Island.
Another short-lived republic declared its independence from the United Mexican States during the first year of the U.S.-Mexican War which lasted from 1846 to 1848. Like its predecessor, the Republic of California lasted just three months before the army arrived and took over.