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On June 1, 1796 — 210 years ago this month — President George Washington signed into law the bill to admit Tennessee as the 16th of the United States.

A generation before Tennessee became a state and 15 years before the adoption of the United States Constitution, it was the birthplace of the first free, independent government in America with a democratically accepted constitution and a republican form of government. That independent spirit led Tennessee through the most unique battle for statehood of any state in American history.

The first act of American independence from the British Crown came, not from a musket in Massachusetts or a proclamation in Pennsylvania, but from a gathering of settlers along the Watauga River, near present day Elizabethton, in 1772. The settlers, most of whom were members of 16 families who came to the area from Virginia under the leadership of Gen. James Robertson, found themselves living south of lands protected by Virginia, in the area controlled by the volatile colony of North Carolina.

Desiring freedom from British rule, but aware of the need for the authority to create treaties with the Indians in the region, the settlers organized the first independent, democratic government of non-Native Americans on the American Continent — the Watauga Association. They then created the Articles of the Watauga Association, the first known written constitution authored by a free and self-governing people in the Western Hemisphere.

As we marked 210 years of Tennessee statehood, we should remember the early settlers’ vision of liberty, which led them to create the first independent, democratic community on the American Continent. Over two centuries later, these early Tennesseans’ desire for freedom and their struggle for statehood should still remind us of the value of democracy and the importance of liberty.

Drew Johnson is president of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research


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