A rich history encompasses Tennessee. 2021 marks 225 years since Tennessee was granted statehood. News 2 will celebrate our state’s 225th birthday with a year-long look at the people, the places, and the events that have shaped the Volunteer State.
The journey to statehood was intense, lengthy, and sometimes deadly. There were dangerous expeditions, contentious political rivalries, and deadly battles with Native Americans to claim land.
June 1st marks the anniversary of Tennessee’s statehood status. “The first [Tennessee] constitution was written in 1796,” said Judge Andy Bennett. “Before that time, Tennessee had been a territory. And before that, it had been a part of North Carolina.”
Judge Bennett was born in Tennessee. He has a vast knowledge of our state constitutions. He currently serves on the State Court of Appeals.
Not long after the United States declared its independence from Great Britain in 1776, the precursor to Tennessee was formed with several counties under the umbrella of North Carolina.
The region continued to grow from 1777 to 1788 – but not without conflict. From 1784 to 1788, a group occupying what is now known as Northeast Tennessee formed a government with Col. John Sevier as its Governor. The group attempted to create their own state petitioning the federal government for support.
Judge Bennett said it was called The State of Franklin, also known as Frankland. “It was sort of a rebellion by some folks in Eastern Tennessee against the North Carolina government,” he continued, “Because they felt like they were ignored. They were across the mountains and communication was difficult.” Bennett added they didn’t feel like their needs were being met by the government. In 1788, the State of Franklin fell apart.
In 1879, North Carolina ceded its Tennessee lands to the federal government forming the “Territory South of the River Ohio”, also known as the “Southwest Territory.”
From 1789 to 1795 warfare increased with Native Americans and the territory eventually expanded into eleven counties. “When folks in Tennessee thought they were ready to become a state, a census was taken,” said Bennett. 60,000 people was the requirement to petition for statehood, and there were more than 70,000 counted in the census.
A vote was taken in 1795. The eight East Tennessee counties voted for statehood while three Middle Tennessee counties voted against it. “The Middle Tennessee counties were concerned the more populous Eastern counties would dominate the state government,” explained Bennett.
Five delegates from each county traveled to Knoxville in January of 1796 for the first constitutional convention of Tennessee. “It took them 27 days, which actually is a very short amount of time, but they did a lot of borrowing,” Bennett said. Those 55 delegates were already familiar with the North Carolina constitution and borrowed parts of it for Tennessee’s constitution. “They borrowed a lot from the Pennsylvania constitution of 1790 as well. It was one of the more recent state constitutions and viewed as modern.”
The Southwest Territory was the first to apply for statehood. “The constitution was sent to Congress, and Congress debated on the admission of Tennessee until June first of 1796, when George Washington signed the ‘X’ that made Tennessee a state,” exclaimed Bennett. Tennessee also became the 16th state of the Union.
TIMELINE: Becoming Tennessee