William Graham and the Lost State of Franklin

Following the American War of Independence, the US Congress (operating under the Articles of Confederation) was in great financial debt. As a result, the State of North Carolina, in 1784, voted to offer a grant of land on its western frontier to Congress as a way of paying off some of its debt. Congress would be obligated to assert its control of the area within two years, which it was reluctant to do. Peace had not yet been made with the Cherokee Indians, and the settlers there were in need of a solid government. North Carolina rescinded its offer later that year, and a movement bearing the name of Benjamin Franklin, under the leadership of John Sevier, aimed to fill the power vacuum by proclaiming independence for the territory to which they originally gave the name of the State of Frankland (they later changed it to the State of Franklin).

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

There were many famous men associated with the Frankland / Franklin movement for an independent free state in what is now Tennessee. At least three Presbyterian ministers were actively involved in the movement, including the Rev. Samuel Houston (1758-1839) [uncle of the famous Virginian-Texan general and governor Sam Houston]; the Rev. Samuel Doak (1749-1830); and the Rev. William Graham (1745-1799), founder of Liberty Hall, near Lexington, Virginia, where he tutored Archibald Alexander.

It was William Graham, according to Kent Wilcox, author of The Lost History of Washington and Lee: New Discoveries: A Historical Performance Audit (2018), who authored a remarkable document titled A Declaration of Rights, along with a proposed constitution for the State of Frankland (this proposed constitution differs from that which was actually adopted later). This document, promoted by Rev. Houston, was published in Philadelphia, and demonstrates the principles of civil government to which the patriotic Presbyterian pastor adhered. Consistent with the address to Virginia’s General Assembly, also authored by Graham in 1785, neither the Declaration of Rights nor the proposed Constitution affirm or seek an established church for the “Commonwealth of Frankland,” but the proposed Constitution does assert that

…no person shall be eligible or capable to serve in this or any other office in the civil department of this State, who is of an immoral character, or guilty of such flagrant enormities as drunkenness, gaming, profane swearing, lewdness, Sabbath breaking, and such like; or who will, either in word or writing, deny any of the following propositions, viz:

1st. That there is one living and true God, the Creator and Govern or of the universe.
2nd. That there is a future state of rewards and punishments.
3rd. That the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are given by divine inspiration.
4th. That there are three divine persons in the Godhead, co-equal and co-essential.

A petition was made to Congress for statehood in 1785, but although seven states voted in favor, the required two-thirds threshold for passage was not met. The Congressional delegation went so far as to changed the name from Frankland to Franklin with the aim of soliciting more active support for the project from Benjamin Franklin himself (it is thought that Graham was not particularly favorable to the man, likely because of Franklin’s religious views, and that he originally chose the term “Frankland” to reflect this), but to no avail. In 1786, Graham, as a “citizen of Frankland,” authored an Essay on Government (not yet available at Log College Press). Although not accepted as a state, the government of Franklin attempted to operate as an independent republic until conflicts with the Cherokees and the State of North Carolina over taxes and other issues resulted in the 1788 “Battle of Franklin,” soon after which the State of Franklin collapsed, except for one county (“Lesser Franklin”) which continued its claims of independence until 1791. The territory in dispute eventually became part of a new State of Tennessee, and Sevier himself would serve as Governor of Tennessee.

For more on the life of William Graham, consult Archibald Alexander’s biographical notice which appears in Vol. 3 of William B. Sprague’s Annals of the American Pulpit. He was a fascinating and influential man in American civil and ecclesiastical history. Although the State of Franklin was short-lived, Graham’s spiritual legacy lives on through the spiritual and political lessons he taught others, including Archibald Alexander.