Tennesseeâ’s forgotten birthday
by Jack Neely
What are you doing on Wednesday? This year, itâ’s Ash Wednesday, and for some high-church folks, not a day for much carousing. But Feb. 6 is a day that was once celebrated in Tennessee. For decades, that date was inscribed prominently on the stateâ’s Great Seal.
It celebrated something that happened on Gay Street, at the corner of Church. The event got nationwide attention and prompted a major action of the U.S. Congress. Thomas Jefferson praised its results in superlative terms.
The place where it happened, now a surface parking lot, is unmarked in any way. Every year, the day always passes without note.
Today, the Great Seal of Tennessee says â“1796,â” the date of the founding. Before 1850 or so, though, it was more specific. It said, â“Feb. 6, 1796.â”
The event was the successful conclusion of the three-week state constitutional convention that formed the State of Tennessee Territorial Gov. In the convention, held at the capacious office of federal Indian agent David Henley, at the southwest corner of Gay and Church, the delegates were among the most famous Tennesseans, many with last names recognizable in the 21st century, in part because several of them would have new counties named after them: Rhea, Cocke, Claiborne, Anderson, McNairy. Territorial Gov. William Blount was the conventionâ’s president. William C.C. Claiborne, later the first Governor of Louisiana, was there. So was Irish immigrant John Adair, university founder Samuel Carrick, and a very young Andrew Jackson who, legend has it, suggested a name for the new state, inspired by the particularly euphonic river that knits much of the otherwise ungainly state together.
They finished the project on Feb. 6. Thomas Jeffersonâ"then between the jobs of Secretary of State and Vice President, he apparently had some time on his handsâ"called the result â“the least imperfect and most republicanâ” of the new republicâ’s 16 state constitutions.
In later years, statehood day would be celebrated on June 1, which is the day that Congress accepted the Tennessee proposal. Perhaps a necessary formality.
But itâ’s clear in early documents that Tennesseans considered themselves a state as of the end of the working day on Feb. 6. In the Knoxville Gazette of Feb. 17, 1796, are several stanzas of poetry, headed â“Ode Sung at Knoxville, in the State of Tennessee, in celebration of the Presidentâ’s Birthday, Feb. 11, 1796.â” (Even that date needs a footnote. Washingtonâ’s Birthday is generally celebrated on Feb. 22, but Washington was born before America adopted the Gregorian calendar; Feb. 11 was the â“old-styleâ” date, from the Julian calendar.)
Most of the lyrics are hard to read in the dark microfilm copy, but what you can make out sounds almost giddy, to that degree of giddiness thatâ’s rare among those who havenâ’t just founded a whole new state: â“Sons of this rising state / Come sing with heart elate / The patriotâ’s birth....â”
Unfortunately, no sheet music is attached.
On Feb. 6, we were a state, whether the USA wanted us or not. What happened on that day was the part of the founding of Tennessee that happened in Tennessee, by Tennesseans. Politically, it was probably the most significant thing that ever happened in Knoxville.
However, back in 1996, the bicentennial was celebrated mainly in Nashville, and not at all on Feb. 6.
Feb. 6 vanished from the state seal in the 1840s. I suspect it was Nashville jingoists, determined to scrub all traces of Tennesseeâ’s Knoxville heritage from state symbology.
I think itâ’s still legal to celebrate it here, though, and youâ’d think weâ’d be grateful to have an excuse for a holiday right then. Itâ’s a particularly dismal time of year. After the holiday season, which coincides with the football season, and closes with the speeches and solemn processions of Martin Luther King Day, Knoxvilleâ’s suddenly left to fend for itself, to work and sleep and occasionally take in a basketball game.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Gulf Coast has Mardi Gras. The cities of the North, plus Savannah, have St. Patrickâ’s Day to look forward to. But for us, all weâ’ve got left is the damp gray of winter. Thereâ’s no further excuse for a public celebration until April, which brings Dogwood and Rossini and about a dozen other pocket festivals that pile on top of each other.
We used to be able to count on snow to fill the gap. In my youth, the big snow days every week were impromptu festivals: holidays when we got the day off and spent it outside, participating in all the ritualsâ"no snow day was complete unless you built a snowman and went sledding and got in a snowball fightâ"celebrating more furiously than we ever celebrated, say, Columbus Day.
Weâ’ve gotten a lot less snow in the last decade or two than we used to, though, and there are some years when we have to wonder whether maybe thatâ’s all behind us.
So, naturally, we need to come up with some sort of winter holiday. Happy Sixth of February. All that remains, besides funding, is some prescription of what to do. Fireworks, a parade, something. Wear a powdered wig to work day. An anvil shoot, which I bet is much more exciting when itâ’s downtown. An Andrew Jackson look-alike contest. Maybe, until we build something on that empty spot, a cheerful bonfire.
Iâ’m afraid it might have to involve some variety of grog. Believe it or not, sour mash wasnâ’t invented yet. But in the Gazette, I found this recipe from around the time of the founding. â“Three pounds of brown sugar. Seven pounds of corned beef. Four quarts of whiskey toddy. Boil all together, without intermission, so that one-half is consumed. The remainder will be a sufficient charge for a three-pounder.â”
Hm. Iâ’ll have to give that a kitchen test, but if it turns out to be tasty, maybe that can be our traditional Sixth of February dinner.
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