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Tennessee Heritage
by Walter T. Durham

How do we explain the heritage of Tennesseans?

At first blush it may appear that to explain our heritage would be overwhelming, possible only by the application of computer programs not yet developed. But consciously or not, we base our daily lives very much on our understanding of what previous generations have bequeathed to us.

If you and I were to brief a newcomer on the state's heritage, what could, what should we say?

First, Tennesseans inherit a frontier legacy, a fearless willingness to face the unknown that grew out of the arrival of new waves of immigrants on the East Coast in the eighteenth century and their subsequent migration inland. It is a legacy of the leveling effects of the frontier. Neither the weather nor rugged mountains nor raging streams nor the resistance by Native American Indians was a respecter of persons. To overcome such obstacles, settlers learned early that they could best succeed by banding together. They employed the strength of numbers, but used that power to protect their personal freedom. This contributed mightily to a legacy of individualism.

Tennessee heritage of the nineteenth century includes broad public support for dreams of national expansion. Tennesseans of the period cannot be faulted for thinking small. Some moved into the Louisiana Purchase area, but it was their involvement in the annexation of Texas and the Mexican cession that validated their optimism and expansionist dreams. Taking leadership roles as they pushed the frontier westward, Tennesseans generated excitement that further encouraged expansionist dreams throughout the nineteenth century. Behind the acquisition of new territory, there was greed aplenty, but it was countered by the belief that there was more than land enough for all.

The frontier experiences and expansive optimism must surely have led to the spirit of volunteerism that caused Tennessee to be known as the Volunteer State. This readiness of young men to volunteer received nationwide recognition in the Mexican War when President James K. Polk called upon the governor of Tennessee for 2,800 volunteer soldiers and ten times that number stepped forward. That spirit has been kept alive by the countless number of Tennesseans, both men and women, who have volunteered in prior and more recent wars and those who have contributed millions of hours of volunteer civil service.

State lawmakers have left us the legacy of three states in one--Tennessee divided into three grand divisions. East Tennessee is the part lying between the western boundary of North Carolina and the middle of the Cumberland Plateau. From that point Middle Tennessee extends westward to the north-flowing Tennessee River. And West Tennessee is that part of the state between the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers.

The grand division distinction is more geographical and cultural than political, and in each division the culture changes with the geography. Laced by numerous small streams and valleys, East is known for the mountain grandeur of the Appalachians and the rugged ranges of the eastern Cumberland Plateau. The Middle Division displays a gently rolling landscape, reasonably fertile, and well watered with low hills north and south. Largely a vast plain sloping from the Tennessee River to the Mississippi, West Tennessee has supported large-scale agricultural operations in cotton and soybeans and the production of hardwood lumber.

We must explain to the newcomer that by heritage we are a warring people. Many of us are descendants of American soldiers who won our freedom from the British Crown in 1783 and maintained that freedom in the War of 1812. We are descended from veterans of the Seminole War of 1836, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the conflict in Vietnam, and the first and second wars in Iraq. In addition, we intervened with force in Haiti, Panama, Lebanon, the Sudan, the Balkans, and Afghanistan. With the exception of the wars with Great Britain, Mexico, and Spain, we have not gained territory by conquest but have responded to what we regarded as greater threats to our own security and world peace. The preemptive nature of the second war with Iraq is an exception to our traditional role of taking military action only after it has been initiated by others.

We must warn, also, that the legacy of the Civil War, the only occasion in our history when Tennesseans fought each other on Tennessee battlefields, still challenges us to find further meaning from that desperate conflict within the American family. We know that two critically important results of the war were the abolition of human bondage and the final invalidation of the right of states to secede from the Union. Tennesseans, both Confederate and Union, conducted themselves courageously on the many battlefields of the war within the state. Almost anywhere in loyal East Tennessee, there were rebels, and similarly in the larger Confederate sections in Middle and West, there were Union sympathizers. A tragic aspect of this war was the estrangement of family members by their divided loyalties.

Prior to and after the war, many Tennesseans tried to hold the middle ground. Our state left the Union only after Tennesseans had led in organizing the Constitutional Union Party, furnished its candidate for President, and taken other last minute but unavailing steps to avoid the conflict. At war's end, Tennessee was the first state to return to the Union, again showing its respect for the concept of nationhood and our willingness to take the middle ground. Although we supplied by far a greater number to the Confederacy, we were the only southern state to supply a significant number of soldiers to the Union, approximately 30,000. Combining the two, Tennessee had more men in uniform than any other state, north or south.

A strong sense of personal responsibility has been a Tennessee characteristic since the earliest times. As the state was settled, community leaders organized local and state governments, encouraged the worship of God, and sought to provide schooling for the young.

Schooling was part of the ministry of the early Protestant Christian preachers who founded and taught in some of the first schools including institutions of higher learning. No one contributed more to nurturing education in those frontier days than the ministers--Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist. Later to arrive on the scene, the Catholic Church and other Protestant denominations today operate a number of elementary and secondary schools across the state. Nineteenth-century Protestant teachings contributed much to Tennessee's becoming a strong link in the Bible belt.

Embracing responsibilities at the national level, Tennesseans appeared as leaders in both houses of Congress and beginning with Andrew Jackson's election in 1828, Tennessee supplied three presidents of the United States within a period of forty years. In the immediate post World War II period, Tennessee furnished the secretary of state who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in creating the United Nations.

During the next quarter century, Tennessee elected four United States senators who achieved national prominence, one later losing his bid for vice president. Another, elected in 1984, won the vice presidency in 1992 and served two terms in that office. Nominated by his party for president, he won the popular vote but lost in the electoral college in 2000.

The tradition of providing political leadership led to a legacy of partisan political activism. The Democratic Party has been dominant much of the time since 1828, although the Whigs controlled the General Assembly and the governor's office from time to time during the ensuing quarter century. After the Civil War, the Republican Party entered the state in East Tennessee but had little political clout outside the region. During the latter years of the twentieth century, the party increased its number of seats in the General Assembly and in Congress and elected three governors and three United States senators.

Like their counterparts in other states, Tennessee men were less than enthusiastic about extending the right to vote to women until the legislature ratified the nineteenth (women's suffrage) amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920. Added to the prior 35 ratifications, Tennessee's vote raised the count to the minimum number required to ensconce the amendment firmly in the Constitution. The right to vote further opened public office to women and prepared the way for them to become formidable players in Tennessee politics.

A slowness, even reluctance, to acknowledge the rights of persons different from our majority European heritage has been a downside of our legacy. Most Tennesseans of the early period found it impossible to recognize the inherent rights of the Native American Indians who were here when our ancestors arrived. Even after the Civil War, most Tennesseans could not agree to recognize the civil rights of African Americans who themselves or their ancestors had been brought here against their wills.

Nonviolent courage was the order of the day during the 1960s for the young Tennessee African Americans who initiated public demonstrations to challenge racial segregation. One of the first and most effective of their efforts was the lunch counter sit-ins at Nashville. Black students sat at lunch counters where formerly they had been denied service because of their race. Waiting patiently day after day, they offered no resistance to threats or periodic violent attacks upon them. Their courage and restraint encouraged the mayor of the city to abolish segregation in public facilities and to go on record against the Jim Crow laws that had prevailed for the previous seventy-five years.

Perhaps the most popular Tennessee legacy for both present and future generations is the diversity of its vocal and instrumental music. It all began with "country." Originating early in the hills of East and Middle Tennessee as a folk art, country music appropriated tunes from county singing conventions and brought in elements of African-American rhythm, blues, and spirituals from West Tennessee. It was first sung and played with fiddles, guitars, and banjos, but as it evolved other instruments often were included. Beginning in 1927, country music became a nationally recognized art form through radio broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry from Nashville.

The more recent mixing of country, blues, and emphatic rhythm patterns gave rise to the music known as rockabilly with Memphis as its center. Essentially a mixture of country and rock, rockabilly offered driving rhythms that appealed to new audiences as it pushed country ever closer to "pop" or popular music. More recently, country has edged into the world of classical music.

From frontier living in the eighteenth century to the lifestyles of the twenty-first, Tennesseans have left a heritage sprinkled with accomplishments and failures. But altogether it is ours; what will we do with it?

We can bask in the glory of its independent frontier spirit, its tradition of volunteerism and bravery, its emphasis on education and religion, its optimism and political activism and the diversity of its music. Also, we can respond to the challenges, especially those implicit in our many wars.

How can one state be a force for peace? Tens of thousands of Tennesseans have fought and died to bring about peace in a distraught world, but how can we live for peace? We have already furnished the father of the United Nations and we can do more. Drawing on the experiences of the frontier people, we should seek a new vision for tomorrow. We can advance the quality and reach of public education; we can work for and in good government; and we can do whatever is necessary to be certain that the spirit of volunteerism and individual responsibility is alive and well today.

What a heritage! What a challenge!

(This article originally appeared in The Courier, Tennessee Historical Commission, June, 2005.)