Guest Essayist: The Honorable Robin Smith


Who knew that the land mass of Tennessee was represented at the signing of the Declaration of Independence? Who knew that the geography that has earned the moniker, the Volunteer State, was first governed by another state’s constitution?

That’s right. Tennessee was first part of North Carolina. Looking at the map[i], deduction proves accurate noting the “Overmountain Region” that formed western North Carolina until the area had ample population to seek statehood. America’s sixteenth state at its founding was comprised of a small number of counties that formed the District of Washington in the now northeast portion of Tennessee and an area called Davidson, which included today’s Sumner County, helped form the County of Tennessee in 1788 along with modern-day Montgomery, Stewart, Dickson, Robertson and Cheatham Counties. The District of Washington spawned several other counties, such as Sullivan, Greene and Hawkins. The remaining expanse of Tennessee was identified as “Indian Lands.”[ii] But, the organization of inhabitants in the Appalachians credited to have the first constitutional government west of the mountains, dates back to 1772 with the Watauga Association, a frontier pact, that lasted just a few years but became the basis of the District of Washington of North Carolina.[iii]

It’s now understandable why the Tennessee Historical Magazine of 1915 features a writing entitled, “The Development of the Tennessee Constitution” with the subtitle, “The North Carolina Constitution of 1776” with the first line to read: The constitutional history of Tennessee properly begins with the adoption by the revolutionary congress of North Carolina, in 1776…[iv] The appointed governor of Tennessee immediately following the acceptance of the cessation papers by the U.S. Government in 1790 was William Blount, who served from 1790 until official statehood in 1796 in what was deemed the “Southwest Territory.”

During this time a 4-week convention comprised of 55 delegates was held in Knoxville to establish the first constitution of a new state. Upon completion, the governing document was sent to Philadelphia, home to young America’s seat of governance, for review by the U.S. Congress and ultimately signed by President George Washington giving Tennessee immediate statehood on its day of birth, June 1, 1796. It would be later said by Thomas Jefferson of Tennessee’s Constitution, based on its North Carolina’s parent and Pennsylvania’s, to be “the least imperfect and most republican of the state constitutions” as it featured specifics on rights, taxes and legislative authority.[v]

The first Tennessee Constitution, handwritten in ink, included provisions related to suffrage that awarded the right to vote to men, without reference to color. A foreshadowing of Tennessee’s stance on slavery in the Civil War to come, Article III, Section 1 enumerated that all freemen (white and black) who were twenty-one years of age and owned a freehold or who had resided in the county six months the right to vote. The document also provided that men serving in the state militia had the right to elect their own officers.[vi]

But, the newly formed state, led by its first elected Governor John Sevier, would not provide that same right to women at its founding. But, fear not. True to its independent spirit, the story of women’s suffrage in Tennessee would prove not just important to its own citizens, but historic to all of American women.

Despite states efforts to award suffrage to females beginning in the late 1840s for local and state elections, the same right to vote had eluded them for federal elections. Finally, on May 21, 1919, the U.S. House voted 304-89 to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that featured 39 words that would forever change American politics if thirty-six states, the requirement at the time to amend the U.S. Constitution, voted to support the 19th Amendment. It wasn’t until June 4, a few weeks later, that the U.S. Senate finally followed suit with a 56-25 vote margin. [vii] The effort then ensued to reach that needed thirty-six states to reach the constitutional threshold to amend the U.S. Constitution.

While Wyoming was the first state to award women the right to vote in 1890, the first states to pass the necessary legislation to ratify the U.S. Constitution following Congressional action were Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan in 1919. As the Woman Suffrage Movement organized, mobilized and energized state legislative leaders with their efforts to pass the needed enabling ratification proposals, the Summer of 1920 shaped up to be a made-for-the-big-screen drama.

Coming down the homestretch to obtain the threshold 36 states for ratification, Delaware’s state body voted in opposition on June 2, 1920. All eyes and efforts turned to Tennessee to obtain the last needed state with hope fading. Suffragists key to the success in Tennessee who worked with their national leader Carrie Chapman Catt were Ann Dallas Dudley of Nashville, Abby Crawford Milton of Chattanooga, and Sue Shelton White of Jackson.[viii]

A special session was called in the summer of 1920 by then Governor Albert H. Roberts, a Democrat seeking re-election in August of the same year. Both the Suffragists and the Anti-Suffragists set up their headquarters at The Hermitage Hotel that featured a frequented watering hole that afforded women access for their lobbying efforts. Adopting roses to don the lapels of legislators to serve as emblems of support or opposition, roses – either yellow or red – became the sign of Tennessee’s War of the Roses.

Quickly passing the Senate Chamber, the battleground was set in the TN House Chamber comprised of 99 members. Men wearing the yellow rose boutonnière were counted as supporters and those sporting the red rose were in the camp of the “Anti’s.” A couple of weeks of motions and parliamentary maneuvers with efforts to table the legislation since defeat was not as simple as anticipated by the majority of Democrats in the chamber, recorded the youngest member of the General Assembly, Harry T. Burn (R-Niota), elected at 22-years-young, voting with the Anti’s while wearing his red rose boutonnière.[ix]

On August 18, 1920, Rep. Harry Burn took the floor of the Tennessee House with a letter in his coat pocket from his mother, Phoebe Ensminger Burn – Febb to her friends. As the votes were cast, the 24-year-old stood, red rose and all, to cast his vote for the yellow rose caucus – he supported women’s suffrage. After a few moments of confusion, House Speaker Seth Walker changed his vote in support to attempt a parliamentary move that would allow subsequent debate and votes. Nevertheless, a stunned crowd watched the momentum shift with little notice.

According to varying accounts, some a bit more dramatic than others, Burn was the recipient of much anger and, tales being tall, was chased up the stairs of the Capitol to find refuge after scurrying out a window, inching along a ledge to safety. Neither historical documents nor interviews with the famed legislator prior to his death in 1977 hold these same details, but the monumental nature of the vote could certainly have generated such high drama.[x]

So, exactly what was written in the seven-page letter that accompanied TN Rep. Harry T. Burn to the House floor on August 18, 1920? His mom had composed a passing notation, squeezed between references to rain and a house and farm purchased by various locals: “Hurray and vote for suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt.” On page six, as the letter seems to draw to a close, Mrs. Febb, a widow declares, “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. ‘Thomas Catt’ with her ‘Rats.’ As she [is] the one that put the rat in ‘ratification.’ Ha, no more from mama this time. With lots of love…” The postscript, as any mom will do, was a request for a music selection she wanted her city-going son to pick up to bring home.[xi]

Governor Roberts, formerly opposed to the suffrage amendment, signed the passed legislation into law on August 24, 1920 and transmitted the document to Washington. [xii]

As women look to 2020 to celebrate the Centennial of the Women’s Right to Vote on August 26, the influence of a mother’s love, grassroots activity and yellow roses prove not just a part of history, but historical. Tennessee’s slogan proves true. The Volunteer State, rich with a pioneering spirit and people who’ve been leaders across the years is certainly “America at its best.” From its founding to its future, Tennessee is home to our greatest treasure…her people.

Robin Smith represents the 26th district of Tennessee in the House of Representatives. She chairs the Life and Health Insurance Subcommittee. Before serving for the people of Tennessee, she owned her own business and was the GOP State Chair.

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[i] Photo source:,_comprehending_Maryland,_Virginia,_Kentucky,_Territory_sth_of_the_Ohio,_North_Carolina,_Tennessee_Governmt.,_South_Carolina,_%26_Georgia_(4584052548).jpg