The North Carolina Assembly adjourned a day or two after passing the cession acts, and the news was carried to the western counties by their returning delegates. The minds of the people there had not been prepared for the information by any discussion of probable action at that session of the Assembly; and in this respect they were taken by surprise. They were not, however, unprepared for separation by lack of previous consideration of the subject. They, of course, knew of Arthur Campbell's movement for a separate government in 1782. Kept in close touch with the Kentucky Country, as they were by the tide of travel which flowed forward and backward along Boone's trail through Cumberland Gap, the West Carolinians were not unaware of the repeated efforts to bring about a separation of Kentucky from Virginia. As early as 1780, the settlers in that district had appealed to the Continental Congress for separate statehood.1 As great a celebrity as Thomas Paine, in a widely published attack on Virginia's claim to territory lying westward to the south seas, had foreseen the difficulties and championed the cause of the western people: "The situation of the settlers on those lands will be hazarded and distressing; and they will feel themselves aliens to the commonwealth . . . The distance the settlers will be from her (Virginia) will immediately put them out of all government and protection . . . and they will appear to her as revolters, and she to them as oppressors." It was in the same year (1780) that Congress resolved that western lands on being ceded should be "formed into distinct republican States, which shall become members of the federal Union."2
The movement in Kentucky for separation appeared above the surface again in December, 1783, when a memorial was sent to Congress asking for autonomy in which the view-point of the western people was quaintly expressed: "Much wisdom is not required p28 to supply our wants. A fool can put on his clothes better than a wise man can do it for him."3
Washington wrote to Hamilton that such a concession should be made by Virginia;4 and Jefferson wrote to Madison (February 20, 1784): "We have transmitted a copy of a petition from the people of Kentucky to Congress praying to be separated from Virginia. . . . It is for the interest of Virginia to cede so far (Kanawha meridian) because the people beyond that will separate themselves, and be joined by other settlements beyond the Alleghany."5
The inhabitants of the western territory of North Carolina in circumstances and aspirations were not different from those of their neighbors in Kentucky.
The passage of Jefferson's Ordinance of March, 1784, had not gone unnoticed by them, as affecting territory "to be ceded" by the States, and as evidencing congressional encouragement of self-government.
The attitude of the people on the waters of Holston and Nolachucky was not one of resentment because of the cession. In all probability a large majority would have favored it, in a plebiscite. The Virginian element of the population, strong in number and influence, had never felt a warm attachment to Carolina, and the feeling of alienation from the mother State was general. But they did deeply resent the motives that prompted some members of the Assembly to vote for the act; and as well the disposition manifested by many North Carolinians to exploit the Western Country before ceding it.
Particular offense was taken at language used in the debate over the cession act by some of the most eminent members of the Assembly. "When the members from the western country were supplicating to be continued a part of your State, were not these their epithets: 'The inhabitants of the western country are the off‑scourings of the earth, fugitives from justice and we will be rid of them at any rate'."6
The spirit of independence that had projected and won the War of the Revolution was fanned into flame when the details of the passage of the cession act were passed by word of mouth from house p29 to house on the frontier. The people were not without experience in independent government, gained in the years of the existence of the Watauga Association. There was at the time no precedent afforded of a people forming a territorial government under congressional authority and control; nor with one made until after the adoption of the Ordinance of 1787 creating the Territory Northwest of the Ohio. A crisis was at hand and the initiative of the Wataugans served again in the solutions of the problem. If they were a separate people, why should they not provide for their own government? The period of one year, allowed for acceptance of the cession by Congress would probably be followed by further delays, and in the meantime nothing in the way of governmental protection or advantages could be expected from the parent State. Indian attacks were a constant menace to the borderers; the population was fast increasing, and there was all the more need of the orderly enforcement of civil, criminal and military law.
The North Carolina Constitution adopted by the Provincial Congress of 1776, of which John Sevier was a member from Washington District, contained a provision that looked to the "establishment of one or more governments westward of this State by consent of the legislature"; and in one of the stipulations of the Ordinance of 1784 was a virtual invitation to the western people to form separate governments in ceded territory, on their own initiative: "The settlers either on their own petition, or on the orders of Congress . . . to meet together for the purpose of establishing a temporary government."7
In this situation there was formulated a plan to call a convention to consider what trend should be given to public affairs. Here there was resort to the same convenient machinery that had been used by Arthur Campbell and his followers in Southwest Virginia in 1782 — that of the militia organization. Two men from each captain's company were elected delegates to a primary convention in their respective counties, to deliberate upon a general plan of action. The county conventions named delegates to a general convention to be p30 held at Jonesborough empowered to adopt such a course as should appear wise.
The elections of delegates to the general convention resulted as follows, according to Haywood: Washington county; Charles Robertson, William Purphey [Murphey], John Sevier, Joseph Wilson, John Irwin, Samuel Houston, William Trimble, William Cox, Landon Carter, Hugh Henry, Christopher Taylor, John Chisholm, Samuel Doak, William Campbell, Benjamin Holland, John Bean, Samuel Williams and Richard White.
Sullivan county: Joseph Martin, Gilbert Christian, William Cocke, John Manifee, William Wallace, John Hall, Samuel Wilson, Stockley Donelson and William Evans.
Greene county: Daniel Kennedy, Alexander Outlaw, Joseph Gist, Samuel Weir, Asahel Rawlings, Joseph Bullard, John Maughan, John Murphey, David Campbell, Archibald Stone, Abraham Denton, Charles Robinson [Robertson] and Elisha Baker.
On the appointed day, August 23, 1784, the convention was held. John Sevier was made president, and Landon Carter secretary. No formal record of the proceedings of this convention has been preserved; but Samuel Houston, one of its members, left a memorandum which shows:
"A member arose and made some remarks on the variety of opinions offered, for and against separation, and taking from his pocket a volume containing the Declaration of Independence by the Colonies in 1776, commented upon the reasons which induced their separation from England, on account of their local situation, etc., declaring independence applied to the counties here represented by their deputies. After this member had taken his seat, another arose and moved to declare the three western counties independent of North Carolina, which was unanimously adopted."8
It was, in all likelihood, William Cocke who made the speech above referred to. He was a man of great eloquence, and he headed the committee which was appointed by the convention to take under consideration and report upon the state of affairs as they had been affected by the cession of the Western Country. The Committee, composed of Cocke, Outlaw, Carter, Campbell, Manifee, p31 Martin, Robertson, Houston, Christian, Kennedy, and Wilson, brought in a report which was adopted:
"Your committee are of the opinion and judge it expedient, that the counties of Washington, Sullivan and Greene, which the cession bill particularly respects, form themselves into an Association and combine themselves together, in order to support the present laws of North Carolina, which may not be incompatible with the modes and forms of laying out a new State. It is the opinion of your committee, that we have a just and undeniable right to petition Congress to accept the cession made by North Carolina, and for that body to countenance us in forming ourselves into a separate government, and either to frame a permanent or a temporary constitution, agreeable to a resolve of Congress, in such case made and provided, as nearly as circumstance will admit. We have a right to keep and hold a convention from time to time, by meeting and convening at such times and places as said convention shall adjourn to. When any contiguous part of Virginia shall make application to join the Association, after they are legally permitted, either by the State of Virginia, or other power having cognizance thereof, it is our opinion that they should receive and enjoy the same privileges that we do, may, or shall enjoy. This convention has a right to adopt and prescribe such regulations as the particular exigencies of the time and the public good may require; that one or more persons ought to be sent to represent our situation in the Congress of the United States, and this convention has a just right and authority to prescribe a regular mode for his support."
The following "articles" were also adopted:
First. We agree to entrust the consideration of public affairs, and the prescribing of rules necessary, to a convention to chosen by each [military] company as follows: That if any company should not exceed thirty, there be one representative; and where it contains fifty, there will be two; and so in proportion, as near as may be, and that their regulation be reviewed by the Association.
Second. As the welfare of our common country depends much on the friendly disposition of Congress, and their rightful understanding of our situation, we do therefore unanimously agree, speedily to furnish a person with a reasonable support, to present our memorial, and negotiate our business in Congress.
In the action thus taken, the western folks were feeling their way, as indeed they must have done in the absence of any precedent to guide them in the creation of a separate state government. The p32 natural thing for them to do was temporarily to fall back upon the once-tried association form of government; and, until broader plans could be matured, "either to frame a permanent or temporary constitution, agreeable to a resolve of Congress" — the Ordinance of April, 1784.
They stood ready, moreover, to proceed in disregard of that Ordinance in respect to a rectangular State, so that "when any contiguous part of Virginia shall make application to join this Association, after they are legally permitted," they should be received into the body politic. There were doubts as to whether such permission, in respect of legal power, should come from Virginia or Congress as the "other power having cognizance thereof."
It seems certain that Colonel Arthur Campbell, about this time, made visits to the Western Carolina counties concerned in the movement, and with the purpose of bringing about concert of action in combining Southwestern Virginia counties with those south of the state line in a new government, thus reviving his scheme of 1782.9
p33 The reference in the report of the committee to an indefinite "contiguous part of Virginia," may be ascribed, in part at least to Campbell.10
The August Convention felt concern as to the status, after the cession, of the former fiscal agents of the State of North Carolina. On motion of William Clarke, it was
"Resolved, That the clerks of the county courts who have bonds and recognizances of any, officers, sheriffs and collectors, who have collected any of the public monies, or are about now to collect any of the same, are hereby specially commanded and required to hold said bonds in their possession and custody until some mode be adopted and prescribed to have our accounts fairly and properly liquidated with the State of North Carolina. And, moreover, that all the sheriffs and collectors, who have before collected any of the public monies, shall be called on, and render due account of the monies that they have collected and have in their hands, or may collect by virtue of their office.
"Messrs. White and Doak moved, and were permitted to enter their dissent against both of those resolutions, because, in their opinion, it was contrary to the law to retain the bonds."11
Having made provision for delegates to a second assembly or convention of the Association, as above noted, it was resolved that the next session be held at Jonesborough, on September 16, 1784.
Ramsey states that for some reason not distinctly known, the delegates did not meet in convention until November, and then broke up in great confusion. There was not unanimity on the details of the plan for a new government. The Assembly of North Carolina was in session in November, and one element desired to wait until the attitude and further action of that body was known.
The county of Davidson, which was laid out on the Cumberland river in 1783, did not send delegates to this or any later convention. That county steadfastly stood aloof from association with their brethren of the three counties on the upper waters of the Tennessee river. The reasons for this are not far to seek.
North Carolina had chosen the Cumberland district as one in which to make reservations for the officers and soldiers of the Revolution; and in 1784, a tide of North Carolinians was flowing to p34 that county to make their homes. This tended to the inhabitants of Davidson county with the mother State. The members of the Carolina Assembly from Davidson county "on account of the good offices they could do for those who wished to become owners of land on the Cumberland, and to have military warrants they had purchased well located and attended to, were regarded and treated with great attention."12 James Robertson, the acknowledged leader on the Cumberland, and other influential men in Davidson county had further interested themselves in behalf of North Carolina warrant-holders in the location of choice lands in the domain of the Chickasaws.
Certificates of preëmption rights were liberally granted by the North Carolina Assembly to the earlier settlers on the Cumberland.13 Furthermore, the Constitution of 1776 and the Cession Act of 1784 alike looked to the possible creation of more than one State in the back territory of Carolina, and the Ordinance of 1784 provided for a future rectangular State on the Cumberland, distinct from that on the Holston and Watauga. The Cumberland mountains separated the two regions, and the seat of government would, in all likelihood, be in the East where the bulk of the population was. If coalition with the people of another district were to become necessary, that to be sought by the Cumberland settlers was one with the people of central Kentucky rather than with those of the Tennessee Valley, separated from them by a mountain wilderness.
1 Roosevelt, Winning of the West, II, 398, and appendix.
2 Paine's Public Good, 6‑38.
3 Maryland Journal, December 9 and 20, 1783.
4 Bancroft, Hist. Constitution U. S., II, 343.
5 Jefferson, Writings, III, 401.
7 One of the rectangular States provided for in this Ordinance of Jefferson included most of the territory occupied by Holston-Watauga settlers. However, the astronomical lines did not accord with the demands of physical geography or the convenience of the settlers. A part of the trans-Alleghany country, that now known as Johnson county, Tennessee, would have been, by Jefferson's scheme, left detached, east of the Kanawha meridian.
8 MSS. Reverend Samuel Houston, quoted by Ramsey, Annals of Tennessee, 287.
9 Letter from a gentleman, living in the territory ceded by North Carolina to his friend in Virginia (Colonel Arthur Campbell) dated December 20, 1784, refers to "the reasons you gave when last here," thus indicating that more than one such such visit was made by Campbell. Pennsylvania Journal, of February 5, 1785; Gazette of the State of South Carolina, of February 24, 1785. The writer of this letter corresponded with Campbell at intervals during the years of 1784‑89. Several of his communications are to be found in the Draper Collection of Manuscripts at Madison, Wisconsin; but all are unsigned. The handwriting is far above the average for the times, and a reading of the whole leaves the impression that the writer was a clergyman of the Presbyterian church, and the impractical Reverend Samuel Houston. The writer started out an advocate of separation, but later he took an attitude of unrelenting bitterness and antagonism toward Sevier and his party. His last letter to Campbell may shed light on the latter's design in corresponding with him:
Cedar Spring, October 28, 1789.
". . . That perfidious wretch Sevier has publicly asserted to the people of this quarter that letters from you have informed him that a criminal correspondence was carried on between myself, Russell, Martin and from them on to the Governor of Virginia, and so on to Congress; and that you give it as your opinion that this country would be ruined unless the inhabitants would join and drive me from amongst them." The writer, in the same letter says that he had "ever preserved the idea of a separate government and am fond of it," but he ventures the prediction that "another century would not bring the time when 60,000 free inhabitants would be found between the Appalachian and the Cumberland mountains, and, in short, it is a doubt with me whether the bounds above would contain that number of inhabitants, suppose it to be settled as fully as it could possibly bear."
11 Haywood, 139; Ramsey, 289.
12 Haywood, 211. Haywood was in public life in North Carolina at the time, and later lived in the Cumberland Country, so his statement carries weight.
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