Revolution, Memory and John Sevier's State of Franklin

Perhaps the most defining moment in John Sevier's life was his participation in the Battle of Kings Mountain. Arguably the most decisive battle in the Southern campaign of the American Revolutionary War, the Battle of Kings Mountain pitted a frontier militia, led by Isacc Shelby and John Sevier, against loyalists to the British crown led by British Major Patrick Ferguson. In a little more than one hour, John Sevier's forces totally decimated Ferguson's American Tories, with every last man either dead or taken prisoner.

Kings Mountain established John Sevier as a Revolutionary War hero, and his participation in this battle helped to launch his political career and ambitions. In my ongoing research into John Sevier, I have been reading Sarah Purcell's book, Sealed with Blood: War, Sacrifice, and Memory in Revolutionary America.  In the book, Purcell notes that John Sevier traded on the memory of his status as a Revolutionary War veteran and hero of the Battle of Kings Mountain to prop up his efforts to establish the State of Franklin.  According to Purcell:

"Memories of the Revolutionary War assumed a central role in the Franklinites' rhetoric as they tried to explain why they, as westerners, ought to be able to shape their own political fates. They engaged in a campaign to convince North Carolinians and other fellow southerners that their statehood movement was legitimate because of wartime heroism... Sevier claimed, the veterans' record of Revolutionary service confirmed their fidelity. Indeed, he pointed out in a 1786 letter to Richard Caswell, North Carolina's governor, that so many Franklinites had 'fought and bled in behalf [of] the parent state" that North Carolina ought never to be suspicious of their motives.'" [Purcell, 79]

Strapped for cash, North Carolina ceded its claim to its western frontier to avoid paying its share of the Revolutionary War debt, which was apportioned to each state based upon land ownership.  Sevier used this fact to great effect, making the case that the Mother State had abandoned its western citizens in much the same way as the British abandoned the colonies, a memory still fresh on the minds of many of the overmountain men who fought along side Sevier in the Battle of Kings Mountain.  Again, according to Purcell:


"Arthur Campbell and John Sevier, the leaders of Franklin's bid for independence, had commanded frontier militia units during the war and had become local heroes at the Battle of King's Mountain. In their uphill battle for independence from North Carolina, both sought to capitalize on their heroic reputations by depicting themselves as the leaders of a band of loyal, patriotic veterans who deserved repayment for their wartime service in the form of political independence. During a short period in 1784, it seemed that the government of North Carolina was willing to grant their wish, but conservatives assumed control of the state legislature at the end of the year and rescinded the offer. Sevier was hard pressed to abandon his chance to become a governor and rich land speculator, so he spearheaded a continuing movement to keep Franklin's statehood hopes alive." [Purcell, 79]

"Continued resistance and the threat of military incursions by North Carolina officials led the Franklinites to amplify their rhetoric. By 1787, Sevier and others seemed to imply that veterans might have to take up arms again, albeit with 'excruciating pain,' if their political requests were not honored."

"The Franklin Council threatened to use violence against easterners with whom 'we have fought, bled and toiled together within the common cause of American Independence,' if it were the only way to guarantee independence. The Franklinites' resistance to what they perceived as oppressive measures was all about memory as Sevier framed it to theNorth Carolina Assembly: 'Has North Carolina forgot that for such acts America took up arms against the British nation?' Although the memories of veterans' shared sacrifice never bore political fruit after the territory was forcibly reintegrated into North Carolina in 1789, Sevier demonstrated the rhetorical power of memory in high-stakes political battle, and his use of military memory to couch thinly veiled threats against easterners showed that some veterans might be willing to explore the darker consequences of a military republic." [Purcell, 81]

NOTE: For a thorough and thought-provoking analysis of memory and the Battle of Kings Mountain, I encourage you to read Michael Lynch's article, "Creating Regional Heroes: Traditional Interpretations of the Battle of King's Mountain," recently published in the Fall 2009 issue of Tennessee Historical Quarterly.  Michael also blogs at Past in the Present, which is also definitely worth a read.


SOURCES:

  • Carl S. Driver, "Chapter V: Governor of Franklin," John Sevier: Pioneer of the Old Southwest. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1932, pages 79-98.

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