Monday, June 1, 2015

Tennessee Gets Its Start With "Least Imperfect" Founding Document

Tennessee’s first constitution went into effect on this date in 1796, following a process that was full of political intrigue. A group of leaders who lived in the region met in Knoxville for a constitutional convention beginning in January of that year. They came up with a founding document that was eventually ratified by the United States Congress, officially making Tennessee the nation’s 16th state.

Tennessee's first constitution, adopted in 1796. Handwritten in ink on paper.
Tennessee Founding and Landmark Documents
Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA)

That first constitution was remarkable for several reasons.

Although it was approved by Congress, the document was never put to a popular vote of the people who were living within the territory that would become the state of Tennessee.

The new constitution granted voting rights to anyone 21 or older who met certain property ownership and residency requirements. This included free black men, although their rights to vote were later rescinded when the state adopted a new constitution in 1835.

The original constitution was criticized by some as giving too much power to the legislative branch of government and not enough to the executive branch.

Congressional support hadn’t come easily, though. At the time, there was a political battle between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Since Tennessee was viewed as likely to support Anti-Federalists, like Jefferson, the Federalists in Congress were reluctant to grant statehood.

However, that didn’t stop Tennesseans from forming its own legislature, which met May 28, 1796 and chose William Blount and William Cocke as its first U.S. senators.

In Washington, a dispute over the census used to determine Tennessee’s representation in Congress was resolved and the federal government voted in favor of statehood, effective June 1, 1796.

On that date, Blount and Cocke’s appointments as senators became official and Andrew Jackson was selected as the state’s lone member in the U.S. House of Representatives. The new state constitution provided for two-year terms for governors with the right to serve "not...more than six years in any term of eight." John Sevier was elected to serve as Tennessee's first governor.

The 1796 constitution became obsolete when Tennesseans approved a new constitution in a public referendum nearly four decades later.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

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