What follows is the substance of a lecture delivered at Oxford College of Emory University in Covington, Georgia, at the behest of my best friend in graduate school, the late Dr. Arnold M. Shankman, who had fetched up there after earning his doctorate. It is based on the first chapter in my 1973 dissertation.]
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In 1763, Georgia hardly seemed ripe for revolution. The colony depended on British troops to control the Creek Indians on its western frontier. The youngest colony in British North America had no long tradition of self-government. Crown officials in Georgia were paid directly by Parliament, so the colony’s House of Assembly lacked leverage that control of the purse strings provided lower houses in other British colonies. Finally, the colony’s royal governor, Sir James Wright, was a popular, conscientious public servant who owned 24,000 acres of land there. Wright understood Georgia’s problems, took an interest in her welfare, and had a stake in her future.
Yet, even a colony as seemingly insulated as Georgia could not remain oblivious to repercussions of British imperial policy after 1763. The House of Assembly protested the Sugar and Stamp acts, but, unlike other colonies, did not question Parliament’s power to levy taxes; rather, the Assembly claimed that the colony’s meager resources could not support the additional financial burden. Aided by “outside agitators” from Charles Town, friends of colonial liberty gradually increased their influence in Georgia until, by September 1775, the Whig faction had taken over most of the functions of the provincial government. Governor Wright departed in March 1776.
The initial success of Georgia’s revolutionary movement resulted from efforts by a number of individuals working together in uneasy harness. Even before Wright sailed for Britain, events had been set in motion that would put Georgia’s new “governors” at each other’s throats. It is but slight exaggeration to say that, in Georgia during the American Revolution, Whigs devoted more time to squabbling among themselves than to battling the forces of King George III.
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Georgia’s new leaders were inexperienced, but supremely confident about being able to guide the colony until independence was attained. Georgia Whigs also were ambitious, which created problems, especially for two men: Button Gwinnett, leader of the more radical faction, a planter from St. John’s Parish with a talent for shady financial practices and political maneuvering; and Gwinnett’s main rival, Lachlan McIntosh, a Scot from St. Andrew’s Parish, an early adherent to the patriot ranks who attracted more conservative Whigs to his support.
In 1775, Gwinnett organized a radical pressure group, the Liberty Society, to rouse outlying districts against obstructionists in and around Savannah. Gwinnett’s actions to prod the Provincial Congress and whip up public opinion on behalf of the patriot cause angered more cautious Georgians, who believed the radicals were motivated by “Ambition Avarice & their own circumstances.”
In January 1776, Gwinnett was appointed commander of Georgia’s first Continental battalion. No sooner had he been named colonel than he resigned and was promptly elected to the Continental Congress. Lachlan McIntosh was chosen to replace Gwinnett as colonel of the Georgia Continentals.
Six months later, having signed the Declaration of Independence–and thereby attaining immortality, at least among collectors–Button Gwinnett returned to Georgia, bringing word that the state’s Continental contingent was to be expanded to a brigade, so a brigadier general must be chosen. Before leaving Philadelphia, Gwinnett had been maneuvering to secure the post for himself, and, even if unaware of this ploy, more conservative Whigs still suspected he was seeking some form of political or military preferment.
Regardless of Gwinnett’s machinations, Colonel McIntosh was promoted to brigadier of the Georgia Continentals. Relations between the two men deteriorated rapidly following McIntosh’s promotion. Yet, Gwinnett’s frustrated military ambition was not the sole cause of this.
The conduct of two of the General’s brothers also was at issue. Lieutenant-Colonel William McIntosh commanded a troop of horse tasked to protect the colony’s frontiers against Tories and Native Americans. Following complaints from frontier settlers that his cavalry was not doing its job, William McIntosh took a leave of absence from his command and eventually resigned.
Another of the General’s siblings, George McIntosh, a member of the Georgia Council of Safety, became involved with a shipment of rice that was sold for supplies that eventually wound up in St. Augustine, headquarters of the British garrison in East Florida, though McIntosh denied any part in the affair.
In February 1777, Button Gwinnett was elected president of the Council of Safety, but George McIntosh refused to sign his commission. Later that month, Gwinnett, acting on an intercepted letter implicating George McIntosh in shipping supplies to St. Augustine, ordered his arrest.
Not surprisingly, General Lachlan McIntosh viewed the charges against his brothers as part of a plot by Gwinnett to discredit him. Unfortunately, the bad feelings between the colony’s political and military leaders ratcheted up when they were compelled to work together to plan an invasion of Florida, and they were asked to return to Savannah.
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In 1777, Georgia adopted a new constitution providing for election of a Governor by the legislature; Button Gwinnett offered for the post but was not chosen. Yet, the same session of the Assembly that had rebuffed Gwinnett’s gubernatorial aspirations supported him in his festering dispute with General McIntosh.
During an investigation of the East Florida fiasco, Lachlan McIntosh reportedly called Button Gwinnett “A Scoundrel & Lying Rascal.” Gwinnett challenged the General to a duel; they met on May 16, 1777. Both men fell, and Gwinnett’s wound proved mortal.
After Gwinnett’s death, the Liberty Society launched a coordinated campaign to have Lachlan McIntosh removed from command of Georgia’s Continental forces. The Society was supported by the Assembly, which also chose two of the Society’s members, Joseph Wood and Edward Langworthy, to represent Georgia in the Continental Congress.
General McIntosh was ably defended in Georgia by John Wereat and in Congress by George Walton of Georgia and Henry Laurens of South Carolina. Mainly through the efforts of Walton, General Washington agreed to transfer McIntosh northward in the summer of 1777.
Although factional strife subsided following McIntosh’s departure, the fortunes of war began to run against the state. Savannah was captured by the British in 1778, and Governor Wright returned, re-establishing royal government in Georgia. The state’s Whig government found itself on the run, and by mid-1779, the patriot cause was at low ebb.
General McIntosh was ordered back to Georgia, where he found his enemies waiting. In a stunning reversal, the Liberty Society had a new leader, George Walton, formerly one of General McIntosh’s most effective defenders in Congress.
By the end of 1779, two extra-legal bodies competed for the dubious distinction of “governing” the small portion of Georgia (Augusta and vicinity) remaining under Whig control. One, the “Supreme Executive Council,” was presided over by John Wereat, staunch supporter of General McIntosh and leader of the state’s conservative Whig faction. The other was a rump Assembly that elected George Walton as both Governor and delegate to Congress.
Governor Walton, Council president Richard Howley, and George Wells, upcountry leader of the Liberty Society (and Gwinnett’s second during his fatal encounter with McIntosh), did all they could to undermine public confidence in Wereat’s Supreme Executive Council, charging that it was an illegal body composed of Tories. They also sent documents to Congress calling for McIntosh’s removal from command, claiming that state and Continental troops in Georgia were dissatisfied and refused to continue serving under him. On the strength of this “evidence,” including an address from the Georgia Assembly supposedly signed by Speaker of the House William Glascock, Congress relieved General McIntosh from command in February 1780.
For the next three years, McIntosh strove to clear himself of the charges in Walton’s letter to Congress. Speaker Glascock denied signing the Assembly address, labeling his purported “signature”a flagrant forgery. While a prisoner of war at Charles Town, McIntosh collected affidavits from other officers refuting charges against him. Freed in an exchange of prisoners in the summer of 1781, McIntosh carried the affidavits to Philadelphia, where, despite the presence of George Walton and Richard Howley in Congress, he was reinstated on active duty.
McIntosh next shifted his efforts for vindication to Georgia. On February 1, 1783, the Assembly, acting on evidence compiled by an investigating committee, declared that Speaker Glascock’s signature on the Assembly’s anti-McIntosh petition had been a forgery and that charges brought against the General by Walton in 1779 had been without foundation.
The Assembly also instructed the attorney-general to take legal action against those involved in defaming General McIntosh’s character, but no prosecution was undertaken. One day before the issuance of these instructions, the Assembly had elected as Chief Justice of Georgia, and the jurist who would preside over legal action on McIntosh’s behalf, none other than George Walton!
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The clashes between Button Gwinnett and Lachlan McIntosh and between George Walton and McIntosh were only the most spectacular in a long string of incidents during the Revolution in Georgia. Naturally, Whigs seldom lost sight of the goal all claimed to seek, independence. In trying to explain their inability to unite to prosecute the war effort, however, factional leaders arrived at strikingly different conclusions.
Gwinnett and his supporters asserted that one of the principles for which patriots were fighting was civilian control over the military; soldiers like McIntosh claimed civilians were attempting to hamstring the army. Radical Whigs accused conservatives of toryism, while conservatives charged that radicals were more interested in securing property confiscated from Tories than in defeating the British.
The opposing Whig factions also used different weapons. The radicals, who believed they were in tune with “the people,” made their case against conservatives like Lachlan McIntosh and John Wereat primarily through petitions signed by “respectable” citizens or military units whose commanders supported the radicals, which led McIntosh to claim that Gwinnett and his supporters were undermining army morale. Conservative Whigs sought shelter in the state judiciary, using grand jury presentments to denounce the “greed” of radicals towards lands and other possessions of more affluent Loyalists and moderate Whigs.
When the last British transports sailed from Savannah in July 1782, the future of Georgia seemed bright. All good Whigs could now join ranks to solve common problems. Yet, wartime factional strife had been bitter; postwar co-operation would depend on how quickly they resolved issues that divided them during the war.
The only question settled by the termination of hostilities was control of the military. Other sources of wartime friction remained: the fate of Loyalists; the disposition of their property; and the Constitution of 1777, which conservative Whigs felt vested too much power in Georgia’s one-house legislature.
Many of the principal Whig leaders had passed from the scene by 1783, but there would be no shortage of younger men hoping to replace them. When this new generation turned to the problems of a war-shattered frontier state, they adopted many tactics developed and tested by the factious Whigs of the Revolutionary era.
SUGGESTED READING (Series)
Abbot, William W. The Royal Governors of Georgia (Chapel Hill, 1959).
Cashin, Edward J. “‘The Famous Colonel Wells’: Factionalism in Revolutionary Georgia,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 58 (Supplement, 1974): 137-156.
Coleman, Kenneth, General Editor. A History of Georgia, 2nd edition (Athens, Ga., 1991).
_____________. Colonial Georgia (New York, 1976).
_____________. The American Revolution in Georgia, 1763-1789 (Athens, Ga., 1958).
Davis, Harold E. The Fledgling Province: A Social and Cultural History of Colonial Georgia (Chapel Hill, 1976).
Jackson, Harvey H. “Consensus and Conflict: Factional Politics in Revolutionary Georgia, 1774-1777,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 59 (Winter, 1975): 388-401.
_____________. Lachlan McIntosh and the Politics of Revolutionary Georgia (Athens, Ga., 1979).
Killion, Ronald G., and Charles T. Waller. Georgia and the Revolution (Atlanta, 1975).
Lamplugh, George R. “‘To Check and Discourage the Wicked and Designing’: John Wereat and the Revolution in Georgia,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 61 (Winter, 1977): 295-307.
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)