June 1, 2012 marks the 216th anniversary of Tennessee’s admission as the 16th state in the year 1796. Upon Tennessee's admission to the Union, John Sevier became its first governor, and would go on to serve six terms, holding the governor's office for eleven out of Tennessee's first thirteen years of statehood.
In 1796, Tennessee's admission into the United States as its 16th state was not at all certain, so John Sevier's first task as the newly elected Governor of Tennessee was to shepherd his state into acceptance into the Union. The difficulties arose primarily through political considerations more than anything else, as documented by the Tennessee State Library and Archives' "Tennessee's Founding & Landmark Documents" website...
Gov. John Sevier's Address to the
first General Assembly.
Image credit: TeVAUnprecedented circumstances surrounded Tennessee’s admission to the Union in 1796. First, the Federal Government had never before admitted a state which had been a territory. Secondly, because 1796 was an election year, a power struggle loomed between John Adams’ Federalists and Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans. If admitted, Tennessee would side with the Republicans; and the addition of these electors would give Jefferson an advantage in the upcoming Presidential election. From the outset, Tennessee’s acceptance seemed doubtful.
According to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, any territory possessing 60,000 free inhabitants could be admitted to the Union. When the Constitution of the United States was later ratified it did not change this precedence for admission but rather stated in general terms: “New States may be admitted by Congress into this Union.” The Constitution further mandated a state seeking admission should have a constitution forming a republican government. Under these circumstances the Southwest Territory prepared for admission by conducting a census and creating a functional constitution.
In March of 1796, with a new constitution in place, the prospective state elected John Sevier as its first governor. It also selected the First General Assembly, which proceeded to pass laws and create new counties. The state took the name Tennessee and the newly created counties of Montgomery and Robertson replaced Tennessee County. William Blount, previously Governor of the Southwest Territory, was elected along with William Cocke to represent Tennessee in the United States Senate. Finally, four electors were chosen to participate in the upcoming presidential election.
On April 8, 1796, President George Washington submitted a copy of Tennessee’s constitution and census returns to Congress for approval. Congress was divided with the Republicans holding the House and Federalists the Senate. Fearful of the impact of a new Jeffersonian state, Federalists moved to block Tennessee’s admission. While the House committee accepted Tennessee as the sixteenth state, the Senate committee argued against admission stating only Congress should initiate the statehood process. They also claimed the census, though taken by officials, was not valid since it was not directed or supervised by the Federal Government. The Senate drafted Senate Bill 46 requiring another census with the expectation it would not be completed until after the Presidential election. In response, the House amended Senate Bill 46 into an Act of Admission for Tennessee. The Senate refused to concur in the House action and the two bodies met in conference to resolve the issue. In order to gain Senate approval, Tennessee forfeited one elector and one representative. As a result, Congress adopted Federal Statute Chapter XLVII admitting Tennessee into the Union.
On June 1, 1796, Tennessee became the sixteenth state to enter the Union. In a letter dated June 2, Senators Blount and Cocke reported to Governor Sevier the status of Tennessee’s admission and explained the problems encountered during the process. Based on this information, Sevier issued a circular convening the First General Assembly. On July 30, 1796, Sevier addressed the state legislature instructing them to focus their first session on implementing the Act of Admission as passed by Congress. Although the state of Tennessee was born amidst the political turmoil of the early Republic, it conclusively showed that a state might be established prior to admission into the Union.