It happened today - May 13, 2016

Image: The Tennessee Encyclopedia Yikes! This is the anniversary of the Cumberland Compact signed on May 13, 1780 establishing the fundamental law of a region that would later become part of Tennessee. And I don’t just say lend me your ears. You might lose them outright.

The first horse thief convicted under the new laws did. He was put in the stocks in 1793 for an hour, given 39 lashes in return for both ears, and his cheeks were branded with an H and a T. So at least they could spell. Sort of. One of the 256 signers of the Compact just put down an X.

In fact that thief, John McKain Jr. was lucky. Less than a decade later they had their first capital case. One Henry Baker was hanged for stealing a horse.

They didn’t mess around in Cumberland. A woman caught stealing soap and thread was stripped to the waist and given nine lashes which, I assure you, were not gentle. But here’s the thing.

The people there took a very dim view of property crimes. They wanted law to be harsh in this regard. Possibly they had a point; it’s noteworthy that either the horse thieves were very good at it or rather rare since it is 13 years between the signing of the compact and that case. And they didn’t just lynch people. At least not always. The Cumberland Compact provided that people charged with capital crimes would be taken to North Carolina for formal trial until Tennessee became a state, which it did in 1796, before Henry Baker’s case came up.

The main thing is that it was done via popular sovereignty. Even hillbillies in what was then the back of beyond established a government not merely by writing down the laws, but by gathering in a kind of primeval state of equality and drawing up a social contract. Philosophers like to imagine such a thing happening in theory. But in the British colonies in North America, before and after the Revolution, it happened in practice, from the Mayflower Compact to this one and beyond.

It’s easy to scoff at rubes who provided that the 12 judges elected by all men 21 and over were to be paid in deer skins (1,000 per year), while county clerks were to get 500 raccoon skins and so on. But at least they were electing their governors unlike, say, the French nobility. And they had the right to recall any of the judges they decided weren’t up to the job, the first such recall provision in the United States.

So yes, they said “ain’t” and cut people’s ears off and paid them in hides. But they understood self-government. And if you sneer at that, a posh accent just makes it worse.