The three men cited in the Tennessee Constitution

Published 9:50 am Tuesday, February 7, 2023

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Can you name the three people whose named appear in the Tennessee Constitution?

If you guessed George Washington, John Sevier, and Andrew Jackson, you’d be wrong on all three counts. Article X, Section 4 of the Tennessee Constitution mentions Ben Posey, William Summers and Thomas Wooton.

The three men are cited in the description of the boundary between Marion and Grundy counties. They appear in a long sentence that cites the Nickajack trace, Ben Posey’s property line, the Tennessee Coal Railroad, Holy Water Creek, a bridge crossing the Big Fiery Gizzard, Raven Point and the “pocket near William Summers across the Little Gizzard Gulf at the corner of Thomas Wootons [sic] field.”

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Article X, Section 4 of the Tennessee Constitution is about county boundaries, and its main purpose is to state the minimum size of new counties (275 square miles). Since new counties would have to be carved out of existing ones, the constitution also states that existing counties have to remain at least 500 square miles. But then the document lists several exceptions to this rule, citing, among others, Obion, Sumner and Macon, Smith.

It is then that the Tennessee Constitution goes into legalistic detail about the border between Grundy and Marion counties.

I’ve asked several knowledgeable people about this, and no one can give me a clear explanation of why it was necessary to describe the boundary line between Grundy and Marion counties in such detail in the state constitution. Janelle Taylor of the Grundy County Historical Society was able to tell me where two of the three men were buried. Legislative librarian Eddie Weeks knows more about Tennessee legal and legislature history than anyone I know. But even he can’t fully explain why the members of the 1870 Constitution felt obligated to cite the Grundy/Marion County boundary in such detail.

In any case, I’m not the first columnist to notice this.

In 1898, the Memphis Commercial Appeal implied that the inclusion of these three names was simply a matter of small mindedness. “The achievement of the delegate who succeeded in getting the names of his constituents, Ben, Bill and Tom, in the constitution . . . was of far more importance to him and them than any question with respect to roads, taxation, the administration of justice or any other such small consideration as these.”

A half century later, in 1949, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Tennessee native Charles Puckette about the hopelessly outdated Tennessee Constitution. Puckette cited the Constitution’s dueling ban, its $4 maximum pay for legislators and its authorization of the poll tax (which had been declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court four years earlier). He also recited the document’s bizarre description of the boundary between Marion and Grundy counties.

“Presumably Ben Posey, William Summer and Thomas Wooton have long been gathered to a state of rewards and punishments in some other life, and the bridge over the Big Fiery Gizzard has decayed,” Puckette wrote. “But Article X, Section 4, preserves their memories.”

Tennessee’s Constitution can be altered in two manners — convention and referendum methods. Both are very time consuming and require endorsement by consecutive General Assemblies.

Tennessee amended its Constitution via the constitutional convention method in 1953, 1959, 1965, 1971 and 1977. It has amended its Constitution via referendum method several times in recent years. In fact, just a few months ago, the Tennessee Constitution was amended to get rid of the ban on “ministers of the gospel” from serving in the General Assembly — one of four changes made to the document at that time.

During the run-up to the November 8 election, I read many editorials and heard quite a bit on the radio about how the electors were simply “cleaning up” Tennessee’s governing document.

Be aware: There is a lot more where that came from. Tennessee’s 153-year-old Constitution didn’t fall from the sky and land on the state Capitol. If you pick it up and read it, you’ll find more cleaning up to do, courtesy of Posey, Summers and Wooton.

(Bill Carey is the founder of Tennessee History for Kids, a non-profit organization that helps teachers cover social studies.)