1784


TWO HUNDRED YEARS AGO


On December 14th , delegates from three western counties recently ceded to the Union by North Carolina met and voted 28 to 15 to form a state of their own, the State of Franklin. They agreed on a provisional constitution and prefaced it with a declaration of independence asserting that being abandoned had “reduced us to a state of anarchy.”


Earlier, Congress had urged states to give up to the Confederation their western lands, and North Carolina’s legislature responded in April by voting to cast off a region that was remote, expensive to protect, and peopled, according to one assembly leader, by “offscourings of the earth.”


The people of Franklin simply wanted to protect their interests. But without know-ing it, they were rebelling—North Carolina had decided to rescind the cession on November 20, primarily because the federal government refused to repay the state for Indian expeditions in the area. Word of the cession repeal arrived just after the convention ended, and from then on the Franklin movement was confused, divided, and ultimately doomed.


Soon there were two governments competing for dominion in the region, each with its own courts and militia. The governor of Franklin, the dashing Indian-fighting hero John “Nolachucky Jack” Sevier, insisted that he had been “dragged with the Franklin measures by a large number of people.” Over the next four years Franklin died a slow death, sustained largely by landholders whose interests it served. The state sought and was denied federal recognition, underwent a pamphlet battle over a proposed constitution, saw factional feuds lead to personal combat, signed Indian treaties that conflicted with the Confederation’s, and fought a bloody war against the Cherokees.


In 1788, as Franklin’s authority dwindled, Sevier dabbled with the possibility of an alliance with Spain; later the new governor of North Carolina had him arrested for treason, whereupon he was quickly rescued by his followers. But by 1789 Sevier had made his peace with North Carolina and become one of its congressmen. In 1796 he became the first governor of Tennessee, whose northeast corner encom-passes the lost state.


1884

ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO


At about 2:00 P.M. on the windy afternoon of December 6, a small group of men on a wooden platform 550 feet above Washington, D.C., witnessed the lowering into place of the 3,300 pound capstone of the Washington Monument. Into the top of the capstone one of them then screwed the very peak of the monument, a pyramid of solid aluminum just 8.9 inches high. Thus was completed a construction job that had taken more than thirty-six years. Aluminum, a novel metal, more expensive than silver, had been chosen to top off the marble structure because it would conduct lightning efficiently yet virtually never corrode. At one hundred ounces, this was the largest piece of the metal that had ever been cast. Once the apex was fastened, flags were unfurled, a twenty-one-gun salute was fired from the White House grounds, guests near the top of the monument sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and a representative of the Washington Monument Society read a resolution hailing the completion . (A far grander ceremony would be held on the following Washington’s birthday.)


The next day The New York Times issued a critical appraisal of the obelisk, stating that “as a work of art the monument is entitled to neither more nor less consideration than a factory chimney.... Perhaps the next Washington monument that we feel moved to erect may be something not absurdly unworthy of its subject. In the meantime we have the sweet consciousness that the Washington Monument is the tallest structure in the world.” In this the monolith had surpassed the Cologne Cathedral. But it would only be tallest until 1889, when the Eiffel Tower, nearly twice as high, was erected in Paris.


1934


FIFTY YEARS AGO


Christmas Eve seemed everywhere the most hopeful since the beginning of the Depression. In the White House, President Franklin D. Roosevelt read aloud to his family from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. As his wife, Eleanor, later observed, “For all his advanced political theories, he clung to the old-fashioned traditions in many curious little ways. He also insisted on real candles for the Christ-mas tree. Eleanor had felt compelled to make a statement about that apparently hazardous custom several (lays earlier: “The President feels that a tree doesn’t look right without candles,” she explained, “and hasn’t the right atmosphere unless it smells of hot evergreen. The President grew his own trees at Hyde Park—but not entirely in respect for family tradition. When reporters had asked his cousin Theodore Roosevelt how he would decorate his White House tree, he had said there would not be one. As a conservationist, that Roosevelt disapproved of all Christmas trees.




December 17, 1934: The U.S. senator Huey P. Long of Louisiana spent the week before Christmas in Baton Rouge with his state’s legislature. The Populist Democrat had not been governor since 1932 but he now had the most absolute control of a state government in the nation’s history. Tightening his grip, he had pushed through dozens of bills in two sessions in August and November. One new law had given the governor, a virtual Long puppet, dictatorial control over the state’s election machinery; others had allowed panels headed by the governor to independently set utility rates and property taxes throughout the state, to control the bar association, and to hire and fire almost all local police and fire chiefs. By now nearly every conceivable state or local government job had become a patronage position controlled by Huey Long.


This week Long held another whirlwind session, introducing thirty-five bills on opening night. Most further increased the patronage he could hand out—one effectively gave his organization the authority to hire and fire sheriff’s deputies across the state. A bill aimed at Long’s archenemy, Standard Oil, imposed a five-cents-a-barrel tax on oil refining in the state; others enabled the governor to over-throw and replace the uncooperative local governments of Alexandria and New Orleans. On the first day of the session an obedient House passed Long’s bills to its Ways and Means Committee at the rate of one a minute. The next day Long, the com-mittee’s only witness, explained his hills as the committee’s members sat sur-rounded by state police officers and his personal bodyguards. Ionhat took seventy minutes. The day after that the House passed the bills at the rate of one every three minutes. Only one was dropped—at Long’s suggestion; however, he was forced to modify the law concerning sheriff’s deputies. When the bills reached the Senate, that body rejected one while Long was out of the room. The decision was reversed when he returned.


Such special sessions seemed to be called at Long’s whim, and the law-makers appeared to be overwhelmed l)y the Kingfish’s demands. Actually, the entire proceeding was carefully planned by Long’s organization. The senators legislative leaders would he frilly informed in advance of the content of the hills, and other pro-Long lawmakers would hear them explained in detail on the first morning of the session. The opposition, a minority, would be left in the dark. The most controversial laws were often inconspicuously tacked on as amendments to innocuous hills just before the roll call. Legislators who did not support Long’s programs felt helpless.


Long described one of the most sweeping bills as dealing with the financing of education for children who crossed parish lines to go to school. The next day it became known that the bill in fact gave Long’s organization the power to hire and fire every schoolteacher in the state. The Kingfish commented: “Aw, that ain’t nothing. That ain’t no new power.” In response one representative announced that the House had been made into a body of “putty-faced stooges.” The following September, during another special session, Long was assassinated in the capitol by the son-in-law of a leader of the opposition.



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