Understanding County Government in Tennessee
The State of Tennessee is divided into 95 counties*. Technically speaking, there are 92 county governments in Tennessee and 3 counties with a consolidated form of government where the county and city governments have been combined**. The other 92 county governments are essentially the same in structure except that two of those counties have adopted a charter form of government***.
Legal Structure of Counties
County Government is a creation of the State of Tennessee. The skeleton of county government is established in the State Constitution, providing a basic framework for governance. For those elements not spelled out in the Constitution, the Tennessee Code builds upon the framework set out in the Constitution and starts putting the “meat on the bones.” In addition to the Tennessee Constitution and the Tennessee Code, there are other acts of the Tennessee General Assembly called “private acts” which are adopted by the State Legislature and ratified locally by either the voters or the county legislative body. These private acts cannot conflict with the general state law, but can provide additional details in areas where the state laws are silent. Private Acts may establish the structure of certain departments (such as a highway department) or set forth county procedures for budgeting or purchasing. Operating out of this basic legal structure, the 95 counties serve every resident of the State and provide citizens some of the most basic governmental services.
Historical Origins of Counties
The area that is now known as Tennessee seceded from the State of North Carolina and organized under is first constitution in 1796. But some counties in Tennessee are older than the state itself. While still a part of North Carolina, six counties were formed out of what was then the western frontier: Washington, Sullivan and Greene in east Tennessee and Davidson, Sumner and Tennessee County (no longer extant****) in Middle Tennessee*****. The settlers of these far western territories of the State eventually became dissatisfied with North Carolina and broke away to form the State of Franklin. The State of Franklin was never admitted to the United States and existed only four years, from 1784 to 1788, before it was re-acquired by North Carolina. During this time and up until the creation of Tennessee in 1796, five additional counties were formed by carving territory out of the others. These were Hawkins, Knox, Jefferson, Sevier and Blount.
The first Constitution of the State of Tennessee was effective on June 1, 1796, concurrent with the state’s admission to the Union. After the establishment of Tennessee and the election of the General Assembly, residents in areas that were remote from the county seat would petition the General Assembly for the creation of a new county. Over half of Tennessee’s counties were created in the early part of the 19th century. Twenty-two new counties were formed between 1806 and 1819, and twenty-five between 1820 and 1840*****. The last two Tennessee Counties to be created were Chester County in West Tennessee and Pickett County on the Cumberland Plateau, both created in 1879. Apart from Tennessee County which was divided into other counties the same year Tennessee became a state, the one county in the history of Tennessee that no longer exists is James County. It was created from portions of Bradley and Hamilton County in 1871. It was dissolved and reincorporated into Hamilton County by a vote of the citizens after going into default in 1919.
Differences Between Counties and Municipalities
The other primary form of local government in Tennessee is municipal government. Tennessee has over 340 municipalities. These cities and towns can incorporate in a number of different ways, may expand their boundaries through annexation and may choose to expand or contract the services they provide over time. Municipalities may perform some of the same functions as a county or may layer additional services, or higher levels of service, upon the basic service the county provides. Counties do not have the same flexibility and are much more static. Since much of the structure of county government is established by the State Constitution, it takes much more time and effort to change. Municipal annexations happen regularly and until the adoption of a comprehensive growth policy that set limitations on the creation of new municipalities in 1998, new incorporations were not that rare either. On the other hand, there have been no new counties established in Tennessee in more than a century.
*For a map and listing of the 95 counties, click here.
**The three consolidated counties are Metropolitan Nashville/Davidson County, Metropolitan Moore County/Lynchburg and Hartsville/Trousdale County. These consolidated counties reflect very different demographics. Davidson County, the first in the state to consolidate, is the second largest county in the state by population, while Trousdale County and Moore County were ranked 85th and 93rd in population respectively according to the 2020 census.
***Shelby and Knox county - our first and third largest counties by population - have adopted a charter form of government as authorized under the State Constitution. By adopting a charter, the voters in those two communities are authorized to approve certain changes to the structure and governance of their counties. For instance, both of those charters have a provision to establish term limits for certain county officials.
****In 1796, the territory of Tennessee County was divided into Montgomery and Robertson Counties.
*****Wikipedia: History of Tennessee
******The Tennessee Blue Book offers a comprehensive history of the state.