William Blount was one of the signers of the Constitution from North Carolina. His story could eventually be called a tragedy in American history, but, for those who knew him, William Blount was a man whose leadership would inspire a generation and help give birth to the official state of Tennessee.
No one individual played so large a role in the formation of Tennessee statehood as did William Blount. For many people, however, he was regarded as an eccentric and little was known about his life and times. That he originated from “Continental stock” and a good family was well-known and he did seem to command the respect of some of the nation’s early leaders, including President George Washington. His life, however, was a mystery to all, but a select few and would remain such for many years after his death.
Following the ending of the American Revolution, a new economy and way of life began sweeping over the nation. For a family like the Blounts, who had faithfully served under British rule for generations, it meant huge changes in their way of thinking and William Blount was a man who could change with the times.
William Blount was born on March 26, 1749 (according to the Julian Calender) in Bertie County, NC in the Pamlico Sound region near the coastal town of Wilmington. His family was one of the oldest in America and could even trace their roots back to William The Conqueror in England. His parents Jacob and Barbara Gray Blount were wealthy for the time and young Blount received one of the best educations available in the colonies.
Both William Blount and his father enlisted as soldiers in 1771 and fought for the British under Gov. William Tryon at the Battle of Alamance. As Revolution began sweeping the colonies, the Blounts sensed an opportunity in the new American government. When war broke out between the two nations; both took jobs as paymasters in the Continental Army.
The family was always ambitious and established themselves as leaders in business. William, his father Jacob, and both of his brothers enjoyed success in shipping and mercantile enterprises. William was also a land speculator who, at one time, owned more than one million acres in western North Carolina’s Appalachian region, which included land in present-day Tennessee.
In 1778, William Blount married Mary Grainger, who was also from a well established family in Wilmington. She had been brought up in the old school and instructed in managing household affairs and the social graces. With few exceptions, the couple were a perfect match and Mary’s background helped her husband find his calling in life in politics.
In 1780, with war raging all around them, the Blount’s gave birth to their first daughter, Nancy, and William Blount was elected to his first seat in the North Carolina state house. Two years later, Mary gave birth to their second daughter Mary Louisa, and the North Carolina statesman served as a delegate to the Continental Congress. In his status as a representative of the state, William Blount became one of the most influential men of his time in helping a young America establish itself as a nation. In 1787, he served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention where he played a large role in its writing and influencing of other representatives. His work soon caught the attention of President George Washington, who immediately took a liking to him. William Blount tossed his hat into the ring for the seat of U.S. Senator from North Carolina, but lost the seat and returned to his comfortable home in the state and his four children – a son, named William Grainger Blount, was born in 1784 and an infant named Richard.
Although his political career was short-circuited, Blount saw an opportunity in a new governor’s post rumored to be available in the Southwest territory, where his vast land holdings were located. When Congress created The Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio, Blount lobbied hard and got the support of the North Carolina Congressional delegation to support him as a candidate for the post of territorial governor. His favorable impression on President George Washington is said to have carried a lot of weight and the President appointed the 42-year-old statesman to a three-year term as governor beginning in June of 1790.
When he informed his wife they would be moving to the new territory becoming known as Tennessee, it is said she cried for days. Mary Blount had become accustomed to the continental lifestyle of North Carolina and did not relish the idea of leaving her beloved home for a wilderness of frontiersmen and Indians, especially with an infant on her hip. She feared for the safety of herself and her family and was truly frightened by the prospect of moving.
Governor Blount, on the other hand, was ecstatic with the move.
“The salary is handsome,” he said in a letter to a friend, “and my western lands had become so great an object to me that it had become absolutely necessary that I should go to the western country…”
Unlike John Sevier and Andrew Jackson, William Blount was no frontiersman nor did he aspire to be one. He was a cultivated, educated gentleman from North Carolina and knew his limitations. The frontier families in the region were unsure about the government as they had five times previously tried to form their own governments and, with America so young a nation, they didn’t know if the new territorial government would hold for any length of time. One job that was thrown on Blount was that of Superintendent of Indian Affairs – a trumped-up title that meant he tried to resolve the numerous conflicts between the various tribes and keep America out of a full-scale Indian war that would cripple the government and probably hand it back over to the British. Blount’s regal composure and reputation as a “government man” among the settlers gave him a unique perspective that allowed him to open negotiations with the various tribal leaders and successfully begin building a working relationship with them.
After a brief stay at Rocky Mount in upper East Tennessee, Gov. Blount decided to go on a tour of the country and search for a place he and his family could settle. He wanted to settle on the Clinch River, where he owned property, but was impressed with the region surrounding James White’s Fort and its location on a river, which was a major traffic artery in those days.
The strain of his office started taking effect almost immediately, especially in regards to the Cherokee Nation. The tribal government wanted to settle a dispute over the increasing number of white settlers living on land that legally belonged to the Cherokee Nation.
Gov. Blount decided to negotiate a settlement with the Cherokee Nation near a place where the Holston enters the Tennessee River and to end the growing dispute that would have definitely ended in war. This brought him once again to the growing settlement around James White’s Fort. The political nature of Blount shone through at what became known as the “Treaty of the Holston”. More than 1,200 Cherokee watched the signing of the treaty by 42 tribal chiefs that redrew the boundary lines separating the Cherokee and the settlers. It was hailed as a brilliant treaty for its day and credited with leading to the decision of Gov. Blount to move his family to the White’s Settlement, which he later named Knoxville, after his immediate superior who was then-Secretary of War and Chief Administrator of Indian Affairs Henry Knox. In the land lottery held in 1791, Gov. Blount acquired lot number 18 and immediately began working to build a proper city which would serve as the territory capitol.
Gov. Blount sent for his wife and children and the family lived in a log cabin, while milled lumber and supplies were being brought down river to begin working on a proper home for the Governor. The house, which was the first frame home-built west of Southern Appalachia, held the growing community in awe and people traveled for miles to watch its construction. Mary Blount ordered flowers, herbs, and plants from North Carolina, in addition to furniture and needed draperies and linens. Blount himself worked diligently on his home sending letters to John Sevier ordering glass windows and asking the future governor of Tennessee help secure the shipments to Knoxville from Virginia. As the home started taking shape, it quickly became one of the most talked about buildings in the territory and Native Americans throughout the region stood in awe of the two-story building, which was something most had never seen before then. Numerous outbuildings were also built to house the kitchen, servants’ quarters, and his territorial office. Although Blount conducted business there, it was his lavish home that became the centerpiece of Knoxville. Guests from all walks of life visited the governor and often stayed overnight. Mary Blount almost single-handedly took hold of the young city and began developing a social life and establishing a sense of community among its residents. Being a frontier town, Knoxville was wide-open and there were few laws in a town where brothels and taverns were the mainstay of the economy. Her gracious nature fostered an air of respectability about Knoxville that carried its own political weight and put the young city in the international spotlight.
Through the years, rugged frontier men such as John Sevier, future President Andrew Jackson, and Cherokee Chiefs would share space with other notable historical figures like French botanist Andre Michaux and future King of France Louis Philippe to name a few. The afternoon teas, lavish dinners, and general parties always featured a who’s who list that was the envy of many east coast governors.
William Blount’s work as governor continued and, while it often put him at odds with the frontiersmen of the region, Gov. Blount always received Native American leaders with the pomp and circumstance that would be given a national leader and issued an order to the territory that local militias could only be used defensively against the Native American tribes. Following his reappointment in 1793, Blount sensed an opportunity to realize one of his lifetime professional goals of serving as Senator of the United States.
In his first year of office, a governor’s census revealed the territory had the 5,000 male population necessary to petition for statehood, but Blount never organized a representative assembly and instead focused on developing the region. Following the opening of a road to Nashville in 1794, however, he did organize the assembly and began working on statehood for the territory. Blount took another census and found that more than 60,000 men lived in the territory. A vote was held and a measure wanting statehood for Tennessee passed by a two to one margin. In January 1796, Blount called the first Constitutional Convention in Knoxville. Blount was chosen to preside over the committee and, when the state constitution was drafted in Blount’s office, it was immediately taken to Philadelphia – then serving as the nation’s capitol.
While national politics challenged the territory’s request for statehood in the Jefferson-Adams presidential election of 1796, Tennessee was admitted to the Union on June 1 of that year with then-President George Washington signing the proclamation. Tennessee’s admission set the standard for future states and, after seven different names and forms of government, the territory had achieved the status it long sought.
John Sevier became the first Governor, Andrew Jackson was elected to represent Tennessee in Congress, William Cocke and William Blount took the posts of U.S. Senators. Although realizing his lifetime goal of being Senator, Blount’s personal fortunes started taking a tumble. His business interests began failing and Blount transferred title of his Knoxville mansion to his half-brother to avoid losing it to creditors. To make matters worse, his vast real estate holdings in the western part of the territory were being threatened by colonial politics on the Mississippi River.
A rumor began spreading that Spain, which had claims to New Orleans and Louisiana, was about to cede the holdings to France in order to pay for its failing war efforts in Europe. Britain was at war with France and Spain and America was officially neutral in the conflict. If France and Spain cut a deal, it could mean Americans would be denied use of the Mississippi, which would abruptly halt westward expansion.
Across the street in Knoxville, Blount’s neighbor, a tavern keeper by the name of John Chisholm, had come up with a plan that might protect Blount’s land holdings. Chisholm, who was a master of colonial intrigue, told Blount he could help organize an expedition of frontiersmen and Indians that could aid Britain in seizing the City of New Orleans and keep the Mississippi River region open and secure for settlement – maintain property values in the west.
Blount wrote a letter about the plan to a friend, but wind of the rumor had spread and the letter suspiciously ended up in the hands of then-President John Adams.
The President was still upset over the fact that Tennessee had given its three national delegates to Thomas Jefferson in the presidential election and had no sympathy for anyone west of the Appalachians. Adams was a supporter of a strong-centralized government while Jefferson was in favor of less government and that philosophy appealed to the independent minded Tennesseans, who overwhelmingly voted in favor of the Virginian. That slap in the face was enough to earn the political ire of Adams. Rather than deal quietly with the Blount letter as most Presidents would have done to avoid a crisis, on July 3, 1797– a day before Independence Day celebrations – President Adams sent it to Congress where it was read aloud to the entire body, including William Blount himself. The result was immediate and five days later the Tennessean was expelled from the Senate for the “Blount Conspiracy” by a vote of 25 to one for daring to conspire with Britain in a war where America was “officially” neutral.
When Blount arrived on the outskirts of Knoxville disgraced, he did not expect what he saw. A roar went up from a huge crowd led by James White, who was waiting there for him. A troop of cavalry joined the cheering crowd in escorting Blount back to his home in Knoxville. Tennesseans, like everyone else in the region, were dependent on the Mississippi River for their developing economy and supported the Chisholm plan for securing the region. Many felt that President Adams and the majority of the Congress were too “colony oriented” and cared little for America west of the Appalachians. A Senate trial was convened in Philadelphia to officially impeach Blount from office and a warrant for his arrest was issued. The Sergeant-at-arms was dispatched to Knoxville to take Blount into custody.
When the sergeant-at-arms arrived, he was welcomed into the hospitality of the Blount home and stayed for several days enjoying the comfort of the mansion. The officer’s unexpected treatment confused him and he was further disconcerted when he tried to arrange a posse to help him transport his prisoner back to Philadelphia. Not one single person would help the sergeant-at-arms with his task and he was informed there was no way he would leave Knoxville with Blount. Although seen as over-educated, stuffy, and eccentric by many in the city, he was one of their own and they would have no part of taking him back to the nation’s capitol. The sergeant-at-arms was forced to return without Blount to Philadelphia.
The impeachment trial never truly got underway and was dismissed on the grounds that Blount was no longer a Senator and thus not subject to its jurisdiction. While the trial was underway, Blount was already back in politics serving in the Tennessee General Assembly – replacing James White as Speaker of the Senate. He continued his political career and was suddenly struck with a fever in early 1800. On March 21 of that year, 50-year-old William Blount passed away. Although never regarded in the genre of the colorful frontiersmen of his day, William Blount had played the most integral role in pushing America over the Southern Appalachian Mountains and beginning a westward expansion that would soon take the nation to the Pacific Coast. He had fought in the Revolutionary War, served in the government of North Carolina, twice been a delegate to the Continental Congress, helped to write and sign the Constitution of the United States, and been the driving force in the formation of the first American state from federal property. His great wealth had dwindled and, at the time of his death, he was virtually penniless. His wife, who had never wanted to leave her family home in North Carolina, remained at their Knoxville mansion until her death two years later. She was laid to rest in the cemetery of the First Presbyterian Church in Knoxville.
Mary Grainger Blount was as beloved by the people of the region as was her husband. Grainger County, Tennessee was named in her honor as was the city of Maryville. The county of Blount was named in honor of William. A small college started on a hill in the city was named Blount College in his honor and evolved into what is known today as the University of Tennessee.
The Blount Mansion remained in the family for a good number of years. In 1827, following the death of Blount’s oldest son, the home passed out of the family. It still remained the center of Knoxville social life as it served as the residence of two city mayors. During the Civil War years, it served as a hotel and boarding house for such notables as Confederate spy Belle Boyd.
In 1925, the Blount mansion was slated to be razed by the city for downtown redevelopment. Citizens of Knoxville rallied around the home and worked long hours raising money to purchase the house and lands and begin developing it into a historic site commemorating the life of William Blount and the birth of Tennessee. They formed the Blount Mansion Association and began working to restore the house to its original condition.
Through the years, the Blount Mansion has become regarded as one of the best historical sites in East Tennessee and was eventually recognized as a National Historic Landmark. It hosts numerous annual educational programs showcasing the life and times of 18th century Knoxville. Over the past few years, University of Tennessee archaeologists have been holding a summer program where children can help participate in the excavations.
“The Blount Mansion,” said Tennessee historian Sylvia Lynch “is one of the most underrated historical sites in the South. Inside its compound lays the true story of Tennessee that many people have forgotten over the years. From the days of James White’s Fort to today, it has remained a vibrant part of the community and is an almost-perfect looking-glass into Tennessee’s and Knoxville’s past.”