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Map of Tennessee

The state of Tennessee originally was the western district of North Carolina. It formally separated from the mother state in 1790, at which time it became the federal Territory South of the River Ohio. In 1795 territorial Governor William Blount called for a constitutional convention, and on February 6, 1796, the convention unanimously approved a document and submitted it to the government in Philadelphia. The House of Representatives subsequently supported Tennessee's bid for statehood, but Senate Federalists disliked the constitution for a number of reasons. A conference committee managed to resolve major differences, however, and Congress formally recognized the state of Tennessee in May 1796.

The 1796 constitution comprised eleven articles, the eleventh being a declaration of rights that included free navigation of the Mississippi River. Both the executive and the judiciary were firmly under the control of the bicameral General Assembly. In terms of democratic practices, the constitution gave the right to vote to all freemen over twenty-one and did not impose any explicit racial restrictions, which meant that Tennessee's miniscule but growing free black population had the franchise as well. The constitution also provided for a written ballot and apportioned representation on the basis of taxable inhabitants. Elections for both governor and the General Assembly were held once every two years.

Tennessee was universally Jeffersonian by 1796, but that fact masks significant political complexity. During Tennessee's territorial phase, a small clique of surveyors and speculators had controlled government institutions. They used land accumulation to establish themselves, and they maintained political control because no formal mechanism existed for ordinary settlers to undermine their authority. At the turn of the nineteenth century, however, a burst of militia elections gave ordinary Tennesseans access to positions of community importance. These elections also established a precedent for political opposition. Soon the elite had to construct broad constituencies in an increasingly vibrant popular democracy.

This shifting political culture coincided with remarkable economic and demographic development, particularly in the region surrounding Nashville. Between 1796 and 1801 the population there grew 200 percent, and by 1815 many of the 292,590 residents were committed to cotton and tobacco cultivation. Commercial agriculture in turn created a mercantile class that integrated "Middle" Tennessee into a global economy. Yet competition associated with this economy created unforeseen popular divisions. Even as planting and merchant interests looked to the government to expedite commercial growth, ordinary farmers believed that limited land accessibility and excessive debt threatened their stability. They therefore used the political sphere to contest more expansive definitions of progress. These debates helped establish "party" interests out of the universal Jeffersonian political culture, and such divisions were solidified through the panic of 1819.

Middle Tennessee's development stood in sharp contrast to that of the eastern district, which was bounded by the Appalachian Mountains in the east and Cumberland Plateau in the west, and where the soil was generally too poor for significant commercial farming. The region's more self-contained existence made for less dynamic economic development between 1787 and 1825, an issue noted by early nineteenth-century leaders of both regions.

Bibliography

  • Abernethy, Thomas Perkins. From Frontier to Plantation in Tennessee: A Study in Frontier Democracy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1932.
  • Cumfer, Cynthia. Separate Peoples, One Land: The Minds of Cherokees, Blacks and Whites on the Tennessee Frontier. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
  • Finger, John R. Tennessee Frontiers: Three Regions in Transition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
  • Ray, Kristofer. Middle Tennessee, 1775–1825: Progress and Popular Democracy on the Southwestern Frontier. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007.
  • Remini, Robert. Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Empire, 1767–1821. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.
  • The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture
  • Tennessee Documentary History 1796-1850