[NOTE: My last post was about Georgia Governor Wilson Lumpkin (1831-35), whose heavy-handed justification for championing removal of the Cherokee Indians from Georgia makes his autobiography, the cleverly named The Removal of the Cherokee Indians from Georgia, a real slog for anyone with an ounce of modern sensibility. Lumpkin’s political rival, whom he defeated in the 1831 governor’s election, was George Rockingham Gilmer. Like Lumpkin, Gilmer produced a memoir, Sketches of the First Settlers of Upper Georgia, of the Cherokees, and the Author (1855), which defended his role in the Indian removal controversy of the 1830s. When Gilmer was Governor of Georgia, between 1829-1831 and 1837-1839, getting rid of the state’s Cherokee inhabitants was Job #1 on his to-do list.
Gilmer opens his book with warm, fuzzy sketches of some of the early settlers of the Broad River valley of Georgia who, along with Gilmer’s own family, had come from Virginia after the American Revolution. Next, Gilmer offers a series of portraits of emigrants from North Carolina who settled in Wilkes County, Georgia. Gilmer looks down his “aristocratic” Virginia nose at this latter group, picturing their way of life in graphic, unflattering terms. Not surprisingly, the Virginia clique eventually produced members of the Crawford/Troup “party” to which Gilmer himself belonged, while the descendants of the scruffy North Carolinians dominated the political opposition, headed by General (and, later, Governor) John Clark and, eventually, by Wilson Lumpkin. The last half of Gilmer’s Sketches focuses on his own life and political career, especially his part in bringing about the removal of the Cherokees from Georgia.]
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Born in Georgia in 1790, George R. Gilmer studied at Moses Waddel’s famous academy in Willington, S.C., leaving at age 18 to teach school for a year before beginning to read law under Stephen Upson in Lexington, Ga. He took a break from his legal studies to serve as a militia officer in a regiment engaged against the Creeks during the War of 1812, then returned to Lexington to practice law in 1818. That same year, the young attorney was elected to the legislature from Oglethorpe County, launching a career in politics that would span more than two decades.
Though he professed to have a low opinion of the state’s political factions, Gilmer did admit that he was a “friend” of William Crawford–and, the way politics worked in the state at the time, that made him an “enemy” of John Clark. Over the next several years, Gilmer alternated between serving in Congress and representing Oglethorpe in the state legislature. He was re-elected to Congress in 1828, but his seat was declared vacant on a technicality by Governor John Forsyth. Following a debate in the state press between Gilmer and Forsyth couched in the high falutin’ language of “Southern honor,” Gilmer “retired to private life” but that period of repose proved short-lived.
At the 1829 college commencement in Athens, the annual epicenter of Georgia politics, Gilmer was asked by his “friends” to run for Governor, despite the fact that another member of the Crawford Party, Joel Crawford, had already announced for the office. Because Gilmer and his “friends” believed that Joel Crawford’s candidacy had been engineered by outgoing Governor John Forsyth, the man who had declared Gilmer ineligible to hold the congressional seat to which he had been elected in 1828, Gilmer entered the gubernatorial race. In a very confusing campaign, even by Georgia standards, Gilmer and Crawford both ran as Crawfordites, much to the chagrin of party leaders, while the Clark Party supported Gilmer rather than run a candidate of their own. Gilmer was elected.
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On the morning of his inauguration, Gilmer wrote, a Clark Party newspaper editor demanded that he split state patronage between the Crawford and Clark forces as a reward for Clarkite votes during the gubernatorial campaign, but he refused. This meant that Gilmer entered the governorship having earned the enmity of both factions, the Clarkites because of his refusal to offer them patronage and the Crawfordites because he had defied party leaders by opposing Joel Crawford. As Gilmer summarized his situation, “I soon found that to be chief magistrate of the State, when party politics are violent, without party support, is to run barefooted over a thorny way.” (245)
In his memoir, Gilmer made two things clear: he had a very low opinion of the state’s Native American population; and, with Andrew Jackson now in the White House, he believed that the new President would be on Georgia’s side on the Indian removal question. Gilmer had been in office only a few months when he received a letter from former U.S. Attorney-General William Wirt, informing him that the Cherokees had retained Wirt to push their suit against Georgia before the U.S. Supreme Court. (270-272) Gilmer was livid, and replied with biting sarcasm and white-hot, state-rights fueled anger. (273-275)
For example, the Governor responded to Wirt’s praise of the “civilized and well-informed men” on the Cherokee delegation in Washington by asserting that they were “not Indians, however, but the children of white men” who lived among the Cherokees. “The real aborigines” (i.e., those without “white blood”) had “become spiritless, dependent, and depraved, as the whites [among them] and their children have become wealthy, intelligent, and powerful.” These mixed-blood leaders, the Governor thundered, had “destroyed the ancient laws, customs, and authority of the tribe, and subjected the natives to that most oppressive of governments, an oligarchy.” And that development, in turn, “rendered it obligatory upon the State of Georgia to vindicate her rights of sovereignty, by abolishing all Cherokee government within its limits.”
Finally, the Governor maintained, for Georgia willingly to participate in settling the controversy before the Supreme Court would endanger the efforts of “the friends of liberty and the rights of the people,” who were “endeavoring to sustain the sovereignty of the States.” George Gilmer was consistent in his attitude toward the Supreme Court, refusing to recognize its authority in two important cases, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832).
Once a law extending Georgia’s control over the Cherokee territory took effect on June 1, 1830, Governor Gilmer was concerned with enforcing that authority. The Cherokees and the gold in their territory both needed to be protected from greedy whites, the Governor believed, but the only force authorized to keep the peace there was the U.S. Army, which aroused Gilmer’s state rights scruples. Consequently, he secured the withdrawal of federal troops and the creation by the legislature of a forty-man unit, the Georgia Guard, to police the area.
This group of “patriotic” good ol’ boys soon earned a reputation for harassing and intimidating the residents of the Cherokee territory. They especially enjoyed rousting white missionaries who refused to take an oath of loyalty to Georgia as required by state law, arresting them and dragging them in chains to the state penitentiary. In the face of angry criticism of the Guard’s conduct from outside the state, Governor Gilmer defended their actions in letters to religious leaders, but he also warned the unit’s commander to avoid excessive brutality.
When Gilmer ran for re-election in 1831, he lost to Wilson Lumpkin by 1500 votes out of 51,000 cast, in a nasty campaign highlighted by debate over Gilmer’s “aristocratic” ways, the continuing schism in the ranks of the Crawford Party, and Gilmer’s Indian policy (e.g., his refusal to include Cherokee gold mine properties in the lottery used to dispose of the lands).
Following his defeat, Gilmer’s party threw him a public dinner, where he “was called upon to say how, and why, I had contrived to deprive those by whom I was surrounded of the public offices to which they considered themselves entitled.” (359) In his speech, Gilmer claimed that his most unpopular decision, refusing to order an immediate survey and distribution of the Cherokee lands, had been made for two reasons: “what I considered justice to our Indian population”; and a belief that, given President Jackson’s support for the state’s Cherokee policy, Georgia should not aid Old Hickory’s political enemies by doing anything to put Georgia on a collision course with the federal government, when the President was already dealing with the Nullification issue in South Carolina. (360)
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In Gilmer’s second gubernatorial term (1837-1839), the deadline approached for the Cherokees to leave the state, and things got pretty tense. White Georgians were eager to see the Cherokees depart, the sooner the better, while Principal Chief John Ross was in Washington, trying to negotiate an extension of the deadline for removal with the Van Buren Administration. To Gilmer’s chagrin, Ross’s stalling tactics seemed on the verge of success.
Governor Gilmer refused to countenance any further delay in executing the Treaty of New Echota (1835), stubbornly insisting the Cherokees must go, and, if the federal government would not act, he vowed that Georgia would. Of course, the Cherokees did go, on the infamous “Trail of Tears,” where thousands of them died, before Gilmer retired from office.
Gilmer’s final assessment of his own role in Cherokee removal was that he “felt it was something to have overcome, by directness of purpose, and the means at my command, the power and subtility [sic] of [President Martin] Van Buren and John Ross, and to have secured to the State and the people the great good which has followed what was done.” (431)
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Like Wilson Lumpkin, George R. Gilmer’s perspective on Indian removal was heavily tinged with racism. He believed that all of the “advances” made by the Cherokees were attributable to Cherokees who had “white blood”; yet, that very taint supposedly led those modernizers to oppose removal. According to both Gilmer and Lumpkin, Cherokee opponents of removal did not represent the views of “the real aborigines” (Gilmer’s phrase). In fact Gilmer believed, again like Lumpkin, that Principal Chief John Ross and his allies were only interested in money and did not care what happened to the majority of the tribe. Ironically, that dismissive view of Cherokee leaders opposed to removal could also be said to fit members of the so-called “Treaty Party” like Major Ridge, John Ridge and Elias Boudinot, who signed the Treaty of New Echota and would eventually forfeit their lives for having done so.
The “Treaty Party” represented the views of only a small minority of the Cherokees, but President Jackson and leaders of the state of Georgia nevertheless regarded the treaty as valid, and it was ratified narrowly by the U.S. Senate. This blatant hypocrisy made it easier for men like Gilmer and Lumpkin to congratulate themselves on their roles in driving the Cherokees west of the Mississippi, where, they professed to believe, the “aborigines” would be “protected” from whites and allowed to preserve their tribal way of life in an edenic setting, in perpetuity. As Gilmer wrote, the time had come for whites to celebrate “the great good which has followed what was done,” and, after the “Trail of Tears,” there was no need to invite the Cherokees to the party.
For those interested in reading more about Georgia History, here are links to my books on the subject:
Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)