Over the years, boundary disputes between political divisions within the United States have been common. However, these disputes have seldom led to landmark court decisions. Macon County, Tennessee was involved in a dispute that led to such a historic decision.
In 1870, Tennessee drew up a new Constitution. This new Constitution included provisions for creating several new counties. Article 10, Section 4 of the document stated that a new county would be drawn “Out of fractions of Sumner Macon and Smith Counties; but no line of such new County shall approach the Court House of Sumner or of Smith Counties nearer than ten miles, nor include any part of Macon County lying within nine and a half miles of the Court House of said County nor shall more than twenty square miles of Macon County nor any part of Sumner County lying due west of the western boundary of Macon County, be taken in the formation of said new County. ”
On June 21, 1870, the Tennessee Legislature passed “An Act to establish the County of Trousdale.” The rather lengthy bill covered several topics, but Section 2 caused controversy:
“BE IT FURTHER ENACTED, That said county of Trousdale shall be bounded as follows, to-wit: Beginning on the north bank of Cumberland River, near the house of Dr. James Alexander, in Smith County; running thence in a northeasterly direction on an arc ten miles from Carthage to a stake on the Hartsville and Carthage Turnpike, near the house of Mrs. Bradley; thence north 45 degrees east to Mou’s Hill; thence with the meanderings of said hill to a stake in the Macon County line near Raglan’s; thence with said line some ten miles to where said line crosses the middle fork of Goose Creek, near Ephraim Parsley’s; thence with the meanderings of said creek to the mouth of the west branch of the middle fork; thence up said branch with its meanders to James Barnley’s, at the mouth of “Love Hollow;” thence due west to the Macon County line; thence with said west boundary line southward to a mulberry tree, and south-west corner of Macon County; thence on a continuation of the south boundary line of Macon County, due west to where said line intersects the east fork of Bledsoe’s Creek, near George Brown’s; thence south to the Cumberland River, crossing the Gallatin and Hartsville Turnpike ten miles from Gallatin, between Hallum’s shop and the old toll-gate; thence up said river with its meanders, to David Jackson’s in Wilson County; thence eastward on an arc eleven miles from Lebanon, to Cumberland River at the mouth of Everett’s branch; thence up the river with its meanders to McDonald’s warehouse; thence eastwardly on an arc eleven miles from Lebanon, near Fred Terry’s and Whitson’s, to a point in the Smith County line between James Calhoun’s house and Henry Ward’s; thence on an arc ten miles from Carthage, to the beginning.”
The law engendered anger among many living in Macon and Smith Counties. They felt that by drawing “meandering” lines instead of straight lines, the legislature took a larger portion of their counties than the Tennessee Constitution envisioned. Leaders of Macon and Smith counties filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the legislation and the question eventually made its way to the Tennessee Supreme Court. The High Court heard the case during its December 1872 term.
M.N. Alexander argued the case for Macon County. Alexander was one of the longest serving – and best attorneys Macon County. A political and civic leader, at one time or another, Alexander served as Macon County Circuit Court Clerk, as Superintendent of Macon County schools, and as Chancery Court Judge. Alexander reasoned that since the Constitution limited the portion of Macon County taken in the formation of Trousdale County to twenty square miles, it was impossible to use meandering lines zigzagging along an indeterminate course to calculate an exact measurement. Alexander argued that only straight-line surveys could produce reliable measurements. Thus, Alexander held that the law establishing Trousdale County was unconstitutional.
After considering the case, the justices rendered a unanimous decision. Associate Justice Peter Turney delivered the opinion of the court. Turney (who would later serve as Governor of Tennessee) admitted that the court could find no American precedents upon which to base a decision. He wrote, “The question is a new one in this country, made perhaps for the first time in this case.”
The Tennessee justices did locate and consider several court decisions dealing with similar questions – in England! All the English decisions held that straight-line measurements were necessary for the establishment of correct boundary lines. The Tennessee judges concurred with those decisions. In addition, the Tennessee High Court added a healthy dose of common sense. Turney wrote that the “term ‘miles’ used in the Constitution, derives some aid in the interpretation we have given from the term ‘square miles’ used in the same instrument, the latter meaning an area which can only be ascertained by straight line measurement, and we infer that the use of the two terms in the same instrument and same clause of the instrument must have an affinity of meaning.”
Although it agreed with Alexander’s contentions, the court did not vacate the entire law in question. Instead it ruled, “The act of the legislature, so far as it merely established the county of Trousdale, is valid, but so far as the boundaries prescribed, it has entrenched upon the counties of Macon and Smith, lessening their Constitutional area, it is void.”
The Supreme Court then ordered the Chancery Courts in the counties affected to supervise new straight-line land surveys made in accordance with the ruling. That is what happened.
Thus, Macon County was materially involved in establishing a legal rule that American courts still rely upon today.
Baxter, Jere, editor. Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Tennessee for the Middle Division at the December Term, 1872-3. Nashville: James Brown, Steam Printer, 1878.
The History of Sumner, Smith, Macon, and Trousdale Counties, Tennessee. Chicago: Goodspeed Publishing Company, 1887.
Blankenship, Harold G., History of Macon County, Tennessee. Tompkinsville, Kentucky: Monroe County Press, 1986.
Whitney, Henry D., editor, The Land Laws of Tennessee. Chattanooga, Tennessee: J. M. Deardorff and Sons, Printers and Binders, 1891.
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