Antebellum Georgia’s Dueling Memoirists, Wilson Lumpkin and George R. Gilmer (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 6)

[NOTE:  Two previous posts (here and here) have looked separately at memoirs by antebellum Georgia governors George R. Gilmer and Wilson Lumpkin, focusing on each man’s role in the removal of the Cherokees.  This time, I want to consider other aspects of their careers and personalities, as well as elements of antebellum Georgia’s political culture revealed in their writings.]

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George R. Gilmer

Wilson Lumpkin





George Gilmer, who valued things Virginian above all, came from a family with roots there but was himself born in Georgia. Wilson Lumpkin, whom Gilmer in his memoir grouped with the lower-class North Carolinians who formed the Clark party, actually was from a Virginia family and, unlike Gilmer, had been born in the Old Dominion.  Moreover, while Lumpkin did wind up in the Clark party, he began his political career, like Gilmer, as a member of the Crawford/Troup party.  Both men’s fathers served as local magistrates.  Gilmer studied at Moses Waddel’s academy in South Carolina and read law under the distinguished lawyer Stephen Upson in Lexington, Georgia, while Lumpkin got what education he could locally, then polished his skills by helping his father with his duties as clerk of the superior court.

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In his autobiography, Lumpkin remarked, “Political parties fifty years ago in Georgia, and indeed long since, turned more upon popular leaders–more on men than on measures.”  William Harris Crawford and John Clark were “personal enemies,” Lumpkin conceded, and each controlled a “considerable portion” of each house of  the legislature, “while perhaps a majority of the members, like myself, desired to keep aloof from the personalities of these gentlemen.” (Lumpkin, I,14)  Lumpkin wrote that Crawford and his supporters referred to the Clark party as “the Federal party,” because some Clarkites had held office under John Adams, and also charged that some Clarkites had participated in the Yazoo land fraud (1794-1795).  Yet, Lumpkin asserted, “Clark and most of his leading friends of that day professed to be, and in many respects sustained well, the character of real Democrats, if not Red Republicans.” (Lumpkin, I,14)

George Gilmer also claimed to have a low opinion of political factions, but he admitted that he entered public life as a “friend” of William Harris Crawford, which, of course, made him an “enemy” of John Clark. Moreover, during his initial campaign for the state legislature, Gilmer had to fight off charges of “Federalism” aimed at him by the Clark party. (Gilmer, pp. 201-202)

Lumpkin worked to secure removal of the Cherokees from Georgia because he believed that was his “particuliar mission,” while Gilmer did so because he saw Indian removal as in the best interests of (white) Georgians and because dealing with that issue was part of serving  in the state legislature, in Congress, and, eventually, in the Governor’s chair.

Both men also “bucked the system” when it was in their political interests to do so. For example, Lumpkin throughout his career was portrayed by his political enemies as without firm political principles, largely because he had abandoned the Crawford/Troup party for the Clark party, and because he supported Andrew Jackson for President in 1824, when the leader of the faction to which Lumpkin belonged at the time, William Harris Crawford, wanted the presidential nomination for himself.

Gilmer, in his turn, successfully challenged Joel Crawford for the Crawford/Troup Party gubernatorial nomination in 1829, despite the fact that Crawford had announced for the nomination first, which, under the party’s usual practice, should have made him the nominee. When Gilmer won the election, supported by some members of the Crawford party and by the Clark party, he pledged to govern in the interests of all the people, not those of one party.  Yet, because he successfully challenged Joel Crawford and refused to offer patronage appointments to the Clark party in return for their support during the campaign, Gilmer was beset on all sides during his term in the Governor’s chair by angry members of both parties.

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Wilson Lumpkin comes across, at least in his memoir, as a “democrat,” a believer in the power of “the people” to act in their own best interests if given the necessary information. For instance, when Congress in 1816 passed the Compensation Act, changing pay for congressmen from a per diem basis to a salary, the popular uproar was tremendous. Even members who, like Lumpkin and his fellows on Georgia’s House delegation, had voted against the measure, were sent packing.  Looking back on the furor a generation later, Lumpkin claimed it proved to him that, while “the people” might err, they could nevertheless be counted upon to regain their equilibrium eventually.  (Lumpkin, I,30)  Lumpkin seems to have been humorless, though that might be because his modern editor shaped his manuscript autobiography to focus on his political career.

In his memoir, George Gilmer seemed a self-styled “aristocrat,” quite capable of peering archly at “the people” or their self-appointed champions (i.e., Lumpkin and other members of the Clark Party) when he thought they were wrong, which, evidently, was quite often. In contrast to Lumpkin, Gilmer possessed a sharp sense of humor, though one heavily conditioned by a sardonic feeling of noblesse oblige.  Thus, his story about how John Clark, drunk and on his way to Milledgeville to chastise Governor David Mitchell for a perceived insult, was found “asleep upon a log which projected over a precipice, where a turn the wrong way would have precipitated him below, and probably killed him–the recklessness of his temper and his desire to fight Mitchel [sic] having put him into the humor to hunt for danger.”  (Gilmer, p.159)  And then there was Gilmer’s ironic lament that, at a dinner given by his supporters in his “honor” after his defeat for re-election, 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.”  (Gilmer, p.359)

Gilmer published his memoir in 1855.  Lumpkin wrote his in the early 1850s, but it was not published during his lifetime, which was to Lumpkin’s advantage: he was able to “correct the record” in his manuscript whenever something was said or printed about him with which he disagreed (i.e., he was, in a sense, a “blogger” before blogging was cool). Lumpkin did this, for example, after  Gilmer’s book appeared, and after George White issued a new edition of Statistics of Georgia, because both included interpretations of Lumpkin’s Indian policy that he believed wrongheaded. In criticizing Gilmer’s book, Lumpkin got off a zinger that applied just as well to his own memoir:  “[Gilmer] can neither speak nor write of those with whom he differs, without manifesting a superlative degree of prejudice.” (Lumpkin, II,300)

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Our dueling memoirists also furnish insights into Georgia’s political culture in the early antebellum period.  About his initial nomination for the state legislature, Gilmer modestly noted that, “Whilst I was temporarily absent from Lexington [his home town], . . . it was determined by some of the leading politicians of the county that I should be a candidate.” (Gilmer, p.201) Gilmer also recounted an episode revealing the bitterness of the rivalry between the Crawford and Clark parties.  An ardent Crawford supporter, Baptist preacher Jesse Mercer, delivered a sermon at the funeral of Governor William Rabun, a member of the Crawford party, with newly-elected Governor John Clark in attendance. According to Gilmer, Mercer “enforced the doctrine with great zeal, that when the Lord taketh away a good and righteous man [Rabun], he does it on account of the sins of the people, and will punish them by putting wicked rulers [Clark] over them, and ended by saying Georgia had reason to tremble.”  (Gilmer, p.214)  Gilmer also denied that his decision to challenge Joel Crawford for Governor was motivated by personal ambition, claiming instead that his “friends” had convinced him he was the better candidate.

Wilson Lumpkin, too, commented on the power of  political “friendship,” asserting that, while he preferred to remain in Congress, his “friends” in Georgia pressed him to run for Governor against Gilmer in 1831, arguing that, as Governor, he could work more effectively on behalf of  his “particular mission,” Cherokee removal.  (Lumpkin, I, 90)  Lumpkin knew that his candidacy would anger Gilmer’s supporters, and, he was not sure he could defeat the incumbent.  But he was “forced to become a candidate,” he wrote, “Because nothing else would satisfy my beloved friends and constituents who had stood by me through evil and good reports, for upwards of thirty years.” (Lumpkin, I, 91; II, 302-03)  And, reminding us that being a “good loser” was no more popular in antebellum Georgia than it is today, Lumpkin told how, after his inaugural address, Gilmer escorted him to the Governor’s office, but then he and all but one of his staff left the new Chief Executive to find his own way–and to locate papers called for by the legislature! (Lumpkin, I, 92)

By 1826, public opinion in Georgia had embraced Andrew Jackson as a presidential candidate for 1828, but, according to Wilson Lumpkin, some members of the Crawford/Troup party were too pushy in jumping on the General’s bandwagon, alienating members of “the old original panel of the Jackson party,” by which he meant members of the Clark party like himself. (Lumpkin, I, 41) In his memoir, George Gilmer remarked that “All in Georgia were Jackson men whilst Gen. [sic] Jackson was in office, the Clark party from choice, the Crawford party from necessity, so that the old factions began to lose their lines of demarcation, and new parties to be formed upon the general principles which divided the people of the United States.” (Gilmer, p.438)  The Crawford/Troup/State Rights party of which Gilmer had been a member became the Whigs shortly after he retired from public life, while the Clark/Union party to which Lumpkin belonged morphed into the Democrats, with Lumpkin himself playing a key role in making that happen.

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Wilson Lumpkin, derided by his political foes for his lack of consistency, always had an answer.  For example, after admitting that he had supported the broader vision of the federal government’s role in guiding the nation’s destiny that emerged after the War of 1812, he added that he had “long since repudiated these votes” and was “firmly resolved that no necessity whatever should ever induce me to contribute my mite to the enlargement of the powers of the Federal Government one hair’s breadth beyond the limits of the Constitution.” Lumpkin even claimed (in 1852) that he had “long believed . . . that the consolidating tendency of the Federal Government is the great rock upon which our glorious union of states will be sundered to fragments.” (Lumpkin, I, 24-25)

George Gilmer also was quite capable of boxing the political compass without a blush.  For instance, in 1832, responding to voters interested in his stand on Nullification, Gilmer wrote that he did not believe a state could nullify an act of Congress, but he disagreed with the group’s opinion that the recently passed tariff was an improvement over previous ones.  Moreover, he informed his constituents, he rejected their statement “that the evils of the tariff have been greatly exaggerated,” and disagreed that the tariff question should be left to state legislatures, preferring that the issue be decided by a popularly elected state convention; yet, he also asserted that any recommendations by such a convention could not be binding until approved by a popular referendum. (Gilmer, pp.361-62)  Can I get an “a-men!” for this effort at political obfuscation?

Ironically, had it not been for the controversy stirred by the removal of the Cherokees, it is unlikely either man would have  written a memoir. Gilmer and Lumpkin attempted to place their actions in a historical context that made them appear founts of wisdom and restraint in dealing with the “backward” Cherokees, their irrational northern supporters, and feckless administrations in Washington. Establishing that context led them to consider their broader political careers. For anyone trying to understand the political culture of antebellum Georgia , these dueling memoirs are more useful than either George Gilmer or Wilson Lumpkin probably intended.


For those interested in reading more about Georgia History, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

About georgelamplugh

I retired in 2010 after nearly four decades of teaching History at the "prep school" level with a PhD. My new "job" was to finish the book manuscript I'd been working on, in summers only, since 1996. As things turned out, not only did I complete that book, but I also put together a collection of my essays--published and unpublished--on Georgia history. Both volumes were published in the summer of 2015. I continue to work on other writing projects, including a collection of essays on the Blues and, of course, my blog.
This entry was posted in Cherokee Indians, George R. Gilmer, Georgia History, History, Research, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Wilson Lumpkin. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Antebellum Georgia’s Dueling Memoirists, Wilson Lumpkin and George R. Gilmer (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 6)

  1. admiral17 says:

    Well, well, well! The twenty-first century politician has nothing on the Jacksonians when it comes to making sure everyone knows that HE is the voice of the people. Gilmer seems to have brought new meaning to Hamilton’s and Madison’s worst nightmares about “democracy”. Yet, the world wonders why solid citizens like David Crockett were elected to the U.S. Congress.

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