At a time when many of our democratic and institutional norms are being challenged and, in some cases breached, in the United States, it is helpful to reflect upon June 1st, 1796, when Tennessee was officially admitted to the Union as the 16th state. Back then, as is the case today, many divisive and opposing forces were working against each other, and there were strong disagreements that threatened to pull the settlers of the territory, that would eventually come to be Tennessee, apart. Before the start of the American Revolution, those pioneering settlers were often wrangling with both the British government and the government of the colony of North Carolina. The clashes between these groups actually created some of the sparks that led to the roaring fire of the American Revolution itself. But when the war finally ended, there was a strong urge among the settlers to come together and unite under the leadership of the new United States and form a territory.
William Blount then came to the Southwest Territory in 1791 and was tasked with forming a government. In 1793, Blount called for the establishment of a Territorial Legislature and the first baby steps toward statehood were taken. A census was undertaken and after 77, 262 residents were counted, Blount organized a constitutional convention in Knoxville to elect delegates in 1795. Then, in January 1796, 55 delegates reconvened in Knoxville to draft the constitution for the new state. They decided to call it Tennessee, presumably a name borrowed from a Cherokee village in the area. After the document of statehood was signed on February 6, John Sevier was elected as the first governor of Tennessee. And on March 30th, Blount and William Cocke became Tennessee’s first two senators.
The signed document was then sent to President George Washington and in April, Senators Blount and Cocke travelled to Philadelphia to lobby the congress to accept Tennessee’s petition for statehood. Fiery debates took place in the House and Senate for a month, but finally, when the dust had settled, Tennessee was officially welcomed into the Union as the 16th state on June 1, 1796.
Those early settlers, under the leadership of men like Blount, Sevier and Cocke, showed everybody at the time and remain a positive example for us today of what can be accomplished when people unite, table their differences of opinion and work together to accomplish a worthy and righteous goal. Please reflect with gratitude upon the accomplishments of these great Tennesseans, some known, many unknown, as you celebrate Tennessee’s statehood this June 1st and remember, when we work together as one, there is no limit to what we can accomplish together.