This is the grave of William Blount.
Born in 1749 in Bertie County, North Carolina, Blount grew up in the wealthy colonial elite, with an upwardly mobile family who built up a good fortune. Blount and his brothers followed their father into the family business, which included slaving, tobacco, livestock, cotton, and gambling, as the family ran a horse track, which could be a tremendously lucrative business with gambling southerners. Land speculation was another big hobby of the family. With continued pressure to commit genocide on the frontier that would open up millions of acres of land, the Blounts proved masters of the extremely sketchy land speculation claims out there. If you could win the inevitable court cases around these competing claims, you could get rich and the Blounts proved quite good at this.
Initially, with the American Revolution coming on, the Blount family was on the side of the Crown but by 1776 had become moderate supporters of the Patriots. William became paymaster of the North Carolina militia that year. The entire family’s role in the war, which included making sure the soldiers got paid when possible as well as providing much needed supplies, meant a lot more money went into the family fortunes. Were they war profiteers? Absolutely, but this was also in a situation where the states were often too cheap to fund actually fighting the war they had wanted.
The North Carolina frontier was a violent place and William Blount was definitely part of that. In 1779, he ran for the North Carolina legislature. He lost, or maybe he did, it’s hard to know. But he convinced authorities that voting fraud had taken place and won another election. Through this entire election cycle, both sides were noted for their use of violence-fists, knives, sometimes guns. But Blount won in the end and then went to the Continental Congress in 1782. Like most of these yahoos, he refused to take governing seriously in the context of actually building a nation. The main issue of the day was raising revenue. Would the Congress actually allow a government to raise revenue, especially considered any bill required unanimous support from the states. Moreover, for a lot of Americans, “no taxation without representation” really amounted to “no taxation ever.” So there were ideas on how to fund the government. What if there was a poll tax? Or a liquor tax? For people such as Blount, all taxes were bad. And so Congress was unable to pass any way to raise money. Now, what Blount was OK with was North Carolina giving away its western claims to satisfy its massive debts to Congress. That is what became Tennessee. This was where Blount actually lived and it was just nothing but opportunity for him. Imagine, a whole new state with a tiny population where few would have more power than he?
The creation of Tennessee was quite controversial and led to the North Carolina secessionist movement called the State of Franklin. But Blount saw it through. As this was happening, he remained in Congress and was primarily concerned with halting any treaty that did anything for the Native population at all. He primarily took on the Treaty of Hopewell with the Cherokee, which he hoped to defeat in order to take even more from them, though he failed to do that. See, the treaty gave a bunch of land that western speculators had already invested in and traded and illegally sold back to the Cherokee. They lost all that speculation back to the tribe. But he won in the end of course as whites would do everything possible to steal everything from the Cherokee.
In any case, Blount became governor of what would become Tennessee in 1790. He was seen as a moderate on the only issue that mattered–genocide. Sure, Blount was for this, but was he as for it as the everyday frontier farmer who wanted it RIGHT NOW!!? No, not really. Plus, they saw him as a bit of a dandy and fancy easterner they didn’t really trust. So Blount spent his time as governor working the middle between the crazy farmers and the federal government that didn’t want to pay for these wars. By the time Tennessee became a state in 1796, Blount knew that he would not win the governor position. That’s because John Sevier was even more fanatically pro-genocide. So instead, he ceded that to Sevier and hoped to go to Philadelphia as a senator.
But his time as a senator didn’t last long and that’s because Blount was up to some seriously sketchy stuff. He was deeply involved in the speculation that ran rampant on the frontier. He didn’t actually have the cash for all his purchases, assuming they were even legal. So he decided to make cash by basically committing treason. He started what became known as the Blount Conspiracy, by which he offered to get the British to take over the western frontier of the U.S. in exchange for cash and free access to New Orleans for American farmers.
This idiotic idea was about as successful as you can imagine. It did not take long for the Adams administration to hear about this. Secretary of War Timothy Pickering despised Blount, both personally and politically. When Pickering found out about Blount’s dumbass plan, he went for the kill. Timing it perfectly when Blount was out on a stroll, Pickering had the material about Blount presented to the Senate. Then when Blount got back from his walk, he was immediately confronted with it. Sounds like a good movie scene. Blount asked for a delay on his response, then headed for a ship and tried to flee to North Carolina. That didn’t work. He then denied all the charges and was expelled from the Senate by 25-1 vote. Facing criminal charges, he jumped bail and returned to Tennessee. George Washington wanted him impeached even though he had resigned and spoke out publicly against him. Given Washington’s personal antipathy toward politics of this nature, that was a big deal. This incident really did increase the growing animosity between the political parties at the time when they were developing. Abigail Adams said she wished Blount was guillotined.
If you thought this somehow would hurt Blount back in Tennessee, you’d be wrong. In fact, there was a parade for him in Knoxville. He ended up back in the state Senate, returning to power, engaging in his many personal feuds, and pushing for more aggressive western expansion. Then an epidemic of some kind hit Knoxville, Blount got sick, and died. He was 50 years old. Who knows what nonsense he would have engaged in with another twenty years.
William Blount is buried in First Presbyterian Church Cemetery, Knoxville, Tennessee.
If you would like this series to visit other senators who entered office in 1797, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. William Cocke, who was the other guy Tennessee sent to Washington, is in Columbus, Mississippi and Isaac Tichenor is in Bennington, Vermont. In fact, I am heading to the South tomorrow for a number of grave visits and if you like these posts about crazy evil southern politicians doing crazy evil things, well keep the series going through helping to fund these posts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.