|Sir Peter Lely's portrait of Oliver Cromwell,|
"warts and all."
For me, John Sevier is a compelling subject for the same reason that history is compelling. He is a man of contradictions. On the one hand, he was a hero of the American Revolution, having fought in the Battle of Kings Mountain, and was a legend on the frontier. He was politically savvy, having led an unsuccessful effort to carve a state from the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, but undeterred, he eventually guided Tennessee to statehood and became its first governor. And even in the twilight of his years, John Sevier was compelled to serve his country in the backwoods where his reputation as a fearless Indian fighter was made many years before. He died in relative obscurity in the woods of Alabama, only to have his legend resurrected generations later by those who would find his life's exploits worthy of honor and recognition.
On the other hand, John Sevier was also someone whom the pages of history shows was not perfect. He was accused of treason for conspiring with Spain in his effort to create the State of Franklin. He encroached on Native American lands and led armies in the slaughter of hundreds of people in his drive to claim the western edge of the Appalachians. A compelling argument can also be made that John Sevier provoked Andrew Jackson into a duel by insulting his wife, behaved like a coward in the face of threats of retaliation, and actually feared Jackson to such an extent that "Old Hickory" invaded his dreams.
|John Sevier Statue inside|
National Statuary Hall.
At first, I was taken aback by this attempt at clairvoyance. My only motive for writing about John Sevier was curiosity, and how one could ascertain my motives beyond that was a mystery. However, after some consideration, this thought-provoking encounter actually gave me an opportunity to think about the larger issue of how history has been chronicled over time, and how the public at large has interpreted that history in an effort to understand how past events have shaped the present. In today’s ideologically charged climate, history has been corrupted by politicians and well-meaning citizen activists who see their idyllic world crumbling all around them. In an effort to understand the cultural and generational shifts of the twenty-first century, they often reach into the past for answers from America's heroes. In the process, they place these heroes on an unreachable pedestal where they are no longer considered human beings. To them, they are gods.
Perhaps I can best explain my approach to studying John Sevier’s life this way: I have never claimed to be a Sevier scholar, but I do have an avid interest in this subject. I am a native Tennessean, so I naturally feel a certain kinship to John Sevier, even though we are not related. His history is my history. In my effort to learn more about my state’s early history and its first governor, I have endeavored to read as many historical accounts about John Sevier as possible. The narrative that I have found in the biographies of John Sevier in particular—written primarily by lawyers and antiquarians who were admirers of John Sevier and who had little or no training in the study of history—was effusive with praise for "Nolichucky Jack," with nearly no reference to Sevier's flaws. One has to search deep into the past to find these flaws, but they are there. After all, John Sevier was human, and human beings are flawed creatures, though some more flawed than others.
John Sevier's biographers are, in many instances of his life, our only link to his past. Over time, the memory that has built up around these narratives has become the primary source of information for those who wish to study John Sevier. In many ways, the memory of John Sevier as chronicled by his biographers is as intriguing as the man himself. John Haywood, J. G. M. Ramsey, Lyman Draper, Theodore Roosevelt, James Gilmore, and many others have endeavored to “rescue from oblivion” the memory of John Sevier’s accomplishments. This series of blog posts is about them as much as it is about John Sevier. If you take the time to read these narratives deeply enough, you will realize, as I did, that they are in many respects a reflection of us, and how history has shaped our opinions and our attitudes throughout the generations.
John Sevier was an important figure in the early history of Tennessee and deserves further recognition and study. A more scholarly biography of John Sevier is certainly long overdue. Perhaps one day, someone will take on this subject and give John Sevier a complete and up-to-date biography. In the meantime, I cannot view history through rose-colored glasses. I would rather know the truth of what happened in the past. That is my motive, "warts and all."
Tennessee State Library & Archives, and past president of the Society of Tennessee Archivists. On The Posterity Project, Gordon blogs about archives, local history, genealogy, social media advocacy for archives and cultural heritage organizations. His forthcoming book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory.