The Fifth Beatle of Appalachia


Atlanta, Georgia—From this point forward, we’re finished with the Appalachians. Since this trip began 23 days ago, hardly a day has gone by where we haven’t passed through the mountains at least once, taking us through all manner of gaps and gulches, hills and hollows, knobs and notches, and whatever other names they might have come up with for mountains and the various ways around them. I like to think we’ve caught a real taste of the region—a town killed by coal; a county built on contraband; commercialization gone crazy; pulled pork; and some pretty awesome music. But there’s one subject (ok, probably a lot of subjects) I’ve been meaning to write about since we first crossed into Tennessee. And since we’re not coming back, I’d be remiss if I let the occasion pass without at least mentioning the lost state of Franklin.

For four glorious years in the 1780s, the northeastern corner of Tennessee, originally part of North Carolina, operated as a quasi-independent state, known as “Franklin” (or maybe it was “Frankland”; the accounts vary). It appealed for statehood under the Articles of Confederation, but, as with most other items on the agenda during that period, saw its application go nowhere, and was eventually folded into Tennessee. The end. It was all over and done with in less than a decade, and to my knowledge there’s no Franklin Liberation Front or anything like that devoted to restoring its sovereignty—which is probably for the best.

I can’t credit Franklin for secretly saving civilization—its greatest legacy might just be this Americana band—but it’s a pretty clear example of how the map of the United States could very easily look a lot different. And there’s a bigger takeaway, too: Franklin reflects a volatility in the early republic that tends to get glossed over when conservatives (and whoever else) heap too much praise on the founding founders. Franklin, like Kentucky, flirted with breaking away from the Union altogether if Spain could just guarantee protection and water rights on the Mississippi River. As much as we like to talk about Jefferson and Hamilton, the nation was founded, as much as anything, by a bunch of opportunists who really just wanted cheap land and economic prosperity and didn’t much care how they got it—even if it meant casting their lots with another king.

As it happens, there’s actually a science fiction novel, Joyleg, about the whole episode. I wouldn’t normally bring it up, except that the plot happens to be absolutely insane. Basically: Two Tennessee congressmen, one a fiscal hawk and the other a big-government liberal, discover that the VA has been paying out $11 a month to a Revolutionary War veteran. It turns out the old minuteman and everyone else in the town of Rabbit Notch have managed to avoid taxes and all other such patriotic obligations because their town is technically in the state of Franklin, which, because of another glitch in the Matrix (your tax dollars at work!), has quietly continued to exist, unbeknownst to anyone, for two centuries.

This is only the second-most preposterous part of the narrative, though, because like I said, it’s 1960 and our hero of Saratoga is still alive. So what was his secret? Simple. He took a bath in moonshine for a few hours every night. Of course.

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