[NOTE: This post carries the story of political factions and parties in Georgia from the end of the American Revolution through the death of the state’s first “party boss,” James Jackson, in 1806 [for earlier posts in the series, see here, here, here, here, and here]. Spoiler Alert: It also basically summarizes the book that came from my doctoral dissertation. But, for die-hard fans, that book, Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986), last time I looked was still available on amazon.com., though at a price that makes mere mortals–including the author–blanch!]
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During the American Revolution in Georgia, the new state’s Whigs devoted at least as much time to fighting among themselves as they did to waging war against Great Britain. [Go here.] Issues abounded, of course, but, more often than not, they were used by factional leaders as weapons to discredit members of the opposing clique. In short, men, not measures, early formed the basis for political divisions in Georgia.
The conclusion of hostilities certainly did not bring an end to political differences among the victors. There was the question of how to treat defeated Loyalists and dispose of their property; the war had shattered the state’s economy; and, while Georgia’s frame of government during the Revolution, the Constitution of 1777, had survived, there was no guarantee it would be adaptable to postwar conditions, especially considering opposing views of conservative and radical Whigs about the document.
Many of Georgia’s factional leaders either did not survive the Revolution or else became politically inactive after 1783, but tactics devised during the war would be passed on to a new generation of Georgia politicians. One such weapon was the appeal to sectionalism, pitting the “upcountry” against the “coast.” Postwar political contests also featured the use of labels like “Tory” or “Radical” to discredit the opposition. Both the state militia and the grand jury system continued to be manipulated for partisan purposes. And, as a last resort, political opponents still repaired to the so-called “field of honor” to settle matters with pistols.
At the end of the American Revolution, Georgia claimed nearly 100,000,000 acres of public lands, including 62,000,000 acres of “western lands” in present-day Alabama and Mississippi. This legacy of the Revolution was sure to attract immigrants from throughout the new nation. By the same token, policies adopted by Georgia to dispose of the public domain touched off a frenzy of land speculation.
Speculators were especially attracted to the state’s “western lands,” and the legislature was eager to dispose of them, because the state’s claims to the territory were disputed by the Creek Indians, the Spaniards in Florida, and the Continental Congress; and because Georgia was too weak to defend her right of possession. Better to get rid of the lands quickly, then let the chips fall where they might.
In 1788, Georgia attempted to cede her western lands to Congress, but the deal foundered over terms. The following year, the legislature sold the western territory to several private companies of speculators, in the first of two controversial “Yazoo sales.” (Georgia’s western territory was referred to as the “Yazoo lands” because the Yazoo River flowed through part of it.) Yet, no sooner had the state agreed to sell the Yazoo lands than legislators had a change of heart. The price suddenly seemed too low, and the purchasing companies tried to pay with worthless paper currency from the Revolutionary era rather than specie. As a result, the legislature refused to accept the proffered paper, torpedoing the sale.
Under the Constitution of 1777, post-Revolutionary politics in Georgia amounted to a rough approximation of the style usually termed “deferential.” A handful of leaders directed state affairs from positions in an all-powerful one-house legislature. Legislators were re-elected regularly, with minimum effort on their part. A number of them were “versatile Georgians” who served their constituents in other capacities, including justice of the peace and militia officer.
Throughout the 1780s, strong-willed factional leaders were almost continually embroiled in controversy, so the end of the war brought no real calm to the state. Georgia’s weak and exposed position on the southern frontier led Georgians to welcome the Federal Constitution produced by the Philadelphia Convention in the summer of 1787. The new national government also served as a model for a stronger state constitution adopted in 1789, which reduced the number of seats for each county in the legislature. This forced politically ambitious Georgians to campaign more actively for office.
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The Federalist consensus in Georgia was short-lived, but for reasons unrelated to the schism developing in Congress during the 1790s between supporters of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. George Washington’s Administration alienated Georgians by adopting policies in two areas of vital interest to the state. First, the President and Congress claimed that Georgia had had no right to dispose of the state’s western territory in 1789. Yet, although Georgians had disagreed over the terms of the 1789 sale, even opponents of the transaction believed that the state had the authority to sell the lands without first asking permission in the nation’s capital.
The President’s Indian policy, as embodied in the 1790 Treaty of New York with the Creeks, also angered Georgians, especially those living in the back country. President Washington probably shared with most white Americans the belief that various Indian tribes must eventually give way before the advance of “superior” white settlements; his major concern was to ensure that this process was peaceful and orderly. Georgians, attracted by lands beyond the state’s temporary boundary line, took the terms of the Treaty of New York at face value and assumed that the pact would permanently bar expansion to the west.
So, by 1793, Georgians were firmly anti-Federalist, though they had not yet become rabid Jeffersonians. The partisan divisions developing in Congress between followers of Hamilton and Jefferson still seemed to mean little in the state. Between 1789 and 1794, the motive force in Georgia politics remained faction, not party.
Ambitious Georgians battled to gain or to keep control of a town or a county, and, once that objective had been achieved, they trooped off to the legislature, where they forged alliances, either with Jeffersonian Congressman James Jackson or with Federalist U.S. Senator James Gunn, and divided state patronage among their adherents. Still, a crude form of party rivalry was beginning to evolve out of Georgia’s incessant factional strife. By 1794, the only aspect of a party system missing in the state was ideology, which would be injected, not by national issues, but by the concern uppermost in the mind of many Georgians, the fate of the western territory.
The Federalist Party never secured a firm foothold anywhere in the South, and in Georgia its supporters were doomed from the outset because of the unpopularity of President Washington’s Indian policy and his opinion that Georgia did not have the right to dispose of its western territory. Administration supporters in Georgia were dealt a blow from which they never recovered by the second “Yazoo sale” (1794-1795). The sale’s chief strategist was Georgia’s highest-ranking Federalist, Senator James Gunn.
To avoid a repetition of the legislative change of mind that had doomed the 1789 Yazoo sale, Gunn and his associates made available to members of the state legislature shares in the purchasing companies, and also distributed tracts among other influential Georgians, counting on the power of “deference” to tamp down popular hostility to the sale. The real significance of the latter Yazoo sale lay not in its effects on Georgia’s Federalists; rather, it marked the beginning of the end of the habit of “deference” among Georgia voters.
Despite careful preparations, the Yazoo purchasers had underestimated the ability of Congressman James Jackson, who exploited anti-Yazoo sentiment so adroitly that, after he had spearheaded a successful effort to rescind the sale, he stood pre-eminent in the state, though not unchallenged. To ensure that speculators did not make a new attempt to rob Georgians of their “birthright,” Jackson perfected the political organization he had created to destroy the Yazoo sale.
Jackson’s task was made easier because Georgians felt betrayed by those in whom they had reposed their confidence. Beginning in 1796, voters were less interested in the demonstrated ability of candidates for public office than in their opposition to land speculation. Moreover, as party lines became more clearly defined in the nation’s capital, Georgians also insisted that their public servants support Thomas Jefferson.
And yet—James Jackson’s political organization was beset by internal contradictions. Most of his followers were opposed to large-scale speculation, but many, especially those in the upcountry, had an insatiable hunger for land. Jackson’s low country supporters, unable to forget that their region had been forced to relinquish control of the state to the upcountry in 1786, frequently worked uneasily with their supposed upcountry allies. Jackson’s foes attempted to exploit these weaknesses at every opportunity, and only his forceful, able leadership kept the anti-Yazoo coalition from disintegrating.
Jackson’s opponents attacked him both for his campaign against Yazoo and his role as Georgia’s leading supporter of Thomas Jefferson; by 1798, his fiery Republicanism was the more inviting target. Following Jefferson’s victory in the election of 1800, anti-Jackson forces abandoned Yazoo altogether and espoused a bitter, last-ditch defense of Federalism.
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Public expressions of political partisanship in Georgia were more frequent after 1801, with militia units, public celebrations, and newspapers becoming either Federalist or Republican. Yet, this did not mean that a true two-party system had emerged in the new nation’s southernmost state.
No matter how many Georgians attacked James Jackson in print or drank toasts to his enemies on the Fourth of July, few were willing to contest at the polls the right of Jeffersonians to monopolize public offices. A more accurate description of Georgia politics is that there was but a single “party,” the Jeffersonian-Republicans, with the opposition provided by a loud and vindictive, but politically impotent, Federalist faction.
Ironically, the unchallenged supremacy of the Jacksonian coalition evetually proved its undoing. Lack of a serious threat from the Federalists bred complacency and fostered decentralization of party machinery. The land lottery system, adopted as the “final solution” to the problem of disposing of the public domain, split the Republicans between those who wanted land sold to raise revenue and those who wished it widely dispersed at a nominal fee to encourage “independence” and “republicanism.” Ultimately, Jackson’s opponents found a new leader, John Clark, who was cast in the mold of deferential politics, unhampered by ideology, and unwilling to play second fiddle to anyone, even James Jackson.
Had Jackson lived, none of these developments might have proved fatal to Georgia’s first political party. Unfortunately, he died in 1806, worn out by dissipation and by wounds from duels, in his fiftieth year. In the aftermath of Jackson’s demise, factionalism quickly reasserted itself, with some Republicans following Jackson’s handpicked successors, William Harris Crawford and George M. Troup, and others aligning themselves with General John Clark.
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Between 1783 and 1806, personalities, not issues were primarily responsible for shaping the contours of Georgia politics. Issues were not completely irrelevant, but until 1801, Georgians were more interested in the fate of their western territory than in debates in the national capital. The political system in Georgia, therefore, bore little resemblance to those that had emerged in other states, at least initially. A two-party system would take root there only when each camp had a leader as forceful and as politically astute as James Jackson had been. In 1806, that time had not yet come.
Lamplugh, George R. Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806. Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1986.
For those interested in reading more about Georgia History, here are links to my books on the subject: