John Sevier, William Blount, and Their Unmentionable Footnotes

A few dozen Revolutionary War descendants celebrated John Sevier’s 265th birthday last week, with an admirably quirky ceremony and a new plaque for our first governor’s already impressive grave. Sevier’s actual birthday is today, the 23rd, but I didn’t nitpick. Courthouse-lawn wreath-layings and musket-firings are all too rare.

Sevier was the popular multi-term first governor of Tennessee, a combat veteran who’d battled the British at King’s Mountain, but he baffles modern concepts of patriotism. If the Tea Party were to run a candidate against Sevier, their imaginative flacks would guffaw. This is just too easy, they would say. The guy was in secret and unauthorized negotiations with a potentially hostile foreign power. He’s been jailed as a traitor to his country. He escaped and ran away from justice. And he’s running for governor? You can hear the TV commercials, the ominous slow-motion of Sevier whispering to swarthy foreigners, with that cynical baritone voice-over: “And now this man says he wants to be governor of Tennessee...”

They wouldn’t even have had to twist the record much. In 1788, as James White was settling in on First Creek, Sevier was governor of the struggling, pre-Tennessee proto-state known as Franklin, and he appears to have been secretly plotting to subvert the foreign policy of the young United States, making his own unauthorized negotiations with emissaries of Spain’s King Carlos III. When it was still the dominant European power in North America, Spain had prospects for the Tennessee country, for making its residents loyal to the king and even the pope.

Sevier was at least interested in the possibilities of a separate alliance between his provisional frontier government and Spain. When authorities got wind of his “intrigue,” Sevier was jailed for treason, but escaped back into the frontier, and the government didn’t pursue him further. Many of the details of what Sevier did, or intended, are murky, but based on his letters to and from the Spanish agent Don Diego de Gardoqui, concerning requests for money and passports, the frontier hero would seem to have had a lot of explaining to do. Sevier lived another 27 years in the public eye, and could have come clean for posterity, but didn’t.

It probably didn’t shock anybody. A lot of his pioneer neighbors, frustrated with the inefficient and ungrateful new republic, were flirting with the more powerful and resourceful Spain, especially in the South, where the King still controlled commerce via the Mississippi River.

It’s hard not to compare Sevier’s strange adventures to those of another sometime Knoxvillian, William Blount, also a Revolutionary veteran, moreover a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and a signer of the U.S. Constitution. When he was a territorial governor, and then one of Tennessee’s first U.S. senators, Blount initiated secret negotiations with his former enemies, the British, to attack the troublesome Spanish—to conquer Louisiana for King George III. There’s evidence that if what’s known as the Blount Conspiracy had worked, the U.S. senator would have donned a handsome red coat and become the governor of British Louisiana. But after it came out, his neighbors in Knoxville didn’t hold that against him. We elected him to the state Senate.

They were different times. I get the impression that on the frontier, folks defined patriotism as what was in the economic and security interests of your neighbors, not necessarily the principles that East Coast guys in powdered wigs were dreaming about. If the United States were really a nation, there were days when it didn’t seem much like it out here.

But treason wasn’t strictly a regional phenomenon. Several other subversive characters prowled the era, like Aaron Burr, bold combat hero of the Revolutionary War, later vice president—who killed one of the other founding fathers, and whose personal international plots brought him charges of treason from his former ally, President Jefferson. Gen. James Wilkinson, another Revolutionary War combat veteran, conspired against the nation he risked his life to found. Later known to have been a paid Spanish secret agent, Wilkinson is implicated in both the Sevier and Burr plots, 15 years apart.

It’s a little unsettling how many of these original patriots schemed with foreign powers to undermine American independence. Admirers of Blount, Sevier, and the others elide those darker portions of their resumes, as if they’re irrelevant to the heroic stories. On the other hand, cynics like to concentrate on these dark patches as proof they were sleazy opportunists. The truth may be more complicated, but there’s one interesting demographic detail they have in common.

It’s their approximate age. Sevier, Blount, Burr, Wilkinson—and several other Revolutionary veterans who were, on occasion, accused of treason—were all a decade or more younger than Washington, Franklin, Adams, the leaders of the American Revolution. During the Revolutionary War, they were very young men. Old enough to participate, but not necessarily young enough to revere their superiors as infallible. Sevier and Blount never saw Washington’s image on a coin or a dollar bill, or in a painting of him crossing the Delaware. They never said the Pledge of Allegiance, and never even heard the National Anthem.

They were too young to have earned a place in the pantheon of the founders of a nation. But they were too old to have grown up—as we did—revering our Founding Fathers as Immortals, something a little beyond merely human.

When Washington, the newly retired president, denounced Blount as a traitor “to be held in detestation by all good men,” it probably didn’t bother that Knoxvillian as much as it would bother you and me. Blount had spent a hot summer in Philadelphia with his elder statesmen; he knew what Washington smelled like. Maybe he and Sevier and the others resented the greater glory the new nation was already according these older guys.

Blount and Sevier weren’t Sons of the Revolution. Nor were they Founding Fathers. They were the Rebellion’s rebellious little brothers.

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