In my own study of John Sevier, I have discovered an interesting dynamic among his unabashed admirers. There is no doubt that John Sevier was a charismatic leader and an accomplished statesman, but he was not perfect, and yet those who admire him see a flawless hero. A "warts and all" study of John Sevier seems almost impossible in the blinding light of adoration shown upon "Nolichucky Jack" by his loyal following.
One recent example of this admiration was recently published in the Knoxville Daily Sun. In "Who is John Sevier? An Introduction," John Disque presents a brief biography of John Sevier, but then offers this puzzling analysis:
Regarding war, politics and culture: When you compare John Sevier's time and "his reasons" with the times of today the truth of everything starts to dawn on you. Governor Sevier was, in fact, the original master problem solver. He was confronted daily with issues that would make today's political leaders run home to their mothers. His decisions and actions were anything but self-serving and they weren't short term band-aids used to get him reelected or keep him in power. He led at a time when leaders weren't bought with campaign contributions from multi-billion dollar corporations. He didn't put up signs and billboards on every corner. There was no radio or television to lie to. He wasn't born into ideal circumstances yet everything he did affects our daily lives and will continue to affect us all, not just the people of Knoxville and Tennessee -- all of the people of the United States of America for centuries to come. John Sevier was the truest, bravest, most selfless man of his own time, a natural born leader. This fact was recognized by the people of Tennessee and we, in turn, asked him to lead us. He had one key, motivating thought and question: "What is best for ALL of the people?" (farmers, business owners, mothers, fathers, children, the people just arriving to America and the people who will be arriving for many years to come). "How can I protect them all and how will my decisions continue to protect them long after I am gone?"
Overmountain Man statue at Sycamore Shoals
John Sevier was, among many things, a land speculator, and as such he was motivated by the desire to acquire wealth, which in his time was equated to land ownership. I'm not making a judgement here about Sevier's ambitions, rather I am simply saying that his motivation was not completely selfless.
John Sevier was also obsessed with the creation of his "State of Franklin" to the point that he entered into what some historians have described as a treasonous alliance with Spain in order to become the leader of his own sovereign nation.
Additionally, John Sevier attempted to capitalize on the fame he had won at the Battle of Kings Mountain to convince his followers that carving a new state from what was North Carolina's western territory was equivalent to the colonists fight for independence from the British crown to create the United States of America. These are hardly the actions of a man who was doing what was "best for ALL of the people."
There's a certain danger in trying to apply the actions of an 18th century historical figure to the social, political, and economic circumstances of today. Even if you are among those who honestly believe that John Sevier was "the truest, bravest, most selfless man of his own time," we simply cannot know how John Sevier would have responded to events in the 21st century. A responsible historian would not have attempted this kind of comparison.
The story published on the Knoxville Daily Sun's website is apparently the first in a series. According to the author, "It's important for the reader to recognize that this is just a brief introduction to who John Sevier is. My agenda is to intrigue you and get you started."
Consider me intrigued, but not in the manner intended by the author of this article.
Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.