[NOTE: During the years of the American Revolutionary Bicentennial, when I had just begun to teach at Atlanta’s Finest Prep School (AFPS), I found myself in demand as a speaker, to a modest degree anyhow. My dissertation had included a hefty chapter detailing the ins and outs of factional infighting among Georgia’s Whigs during the conflict, and I actually got a few opportunities to hold forth on the topic before more or less interested audiences. One of these occasions was at a small cable television in Augusta, Georgia, thanks to a scholarly acquaintance, Dr. Edward Cashin of Augusta College, who invited me to participate in a panel discussion of “The Meaning of Liberty in Revolutionary Georgia.” This post is based on skeletal notes I made to prepare for that appearance. Note, though, that I have added an “s” to “Meaning” here.]
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In thinking about the impact of the American Revolution, we should focus on the ideals for which the colonists claimed to be fighting, and the degree to which they were put into practice, not merely memorize those principles as though the “Founding Fathers” had somehow solved the Cosmic Riddle. This is a large task, so let’s simplify it by looking at one of those principles, “liberty,” and at some of the ways that notion was understood in one rebellious colony, Georgia.
First, some background. John Locke’s Two Treatises of Civil Government (1690) emphasized the importance of the ruler’s obligation to protect the “life, liberty, and property” of his subjects. In Locke’s view, “liberty” and “property” were intimately connected.
In the Declaration of Independence (1776), Thomas Jefferson took Locke’s dictum one step further, enshrining “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as “inalienable rights” of citizens. Jefferson’s substitution of “the pursuit of happiness” for “property” can be explained, at least in part, by the essentially propagandistic nature of the Declaration: Which would you rather fight and die for, “property” or the “pursuit of happiness”?
Yet, educated Americans living in Georgia, like those in other colonies, did not agree on what constituted “liberty” during the Revolutionary era; their debate still resonates today.
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Sir James Wright (1716-1785)
Commenting on the confiscation measures passed by Georgia’s Whig government, Georgia’s former royal governor, Sir James Wright, who re-established his rule in the colony following the fall of Savannah to the British in late 1778, emphasized the closely-related rights to liberty and property. Wright charged that patriots had seized lands and estates from Tories “for no other reason, than [the Tories] endeavoured [sic] to discharge their duty with integrity, and to support the good people of this province in peace and the enjoyment of their rights, their liberties and properties. . . .”
In Governor Wright’s opinion, the Revolution was being promoted “principally by a few individuals of little or no property, but whose pride and ambition prompted them to mislead and hurry the people into rebellion, without any cause whatever but merely to aggrandize themselves. . . .”
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James Habersham (1715-1775)
James Habersham, the son of an English dyer and innkeeper, arrived in Georgia in 1738, only six years after the colony’s founding. Over the next generation, he was able to rise from his humble beginnings to become a member of Georgia’s elite, prospering first as a merchant, then as a planter. He served as a member of the Governor’s Council and even as acting Governor of the colony. For Habersham, “liberty” and “property” also were intimately related. He believed that the British colonial system had furnished him with “liberty” sufficient to acquire a sizable amount of property. This helped to determine his response to British colonial policy after 1763.
As it did in other colonies, the Stamp Act (1765) created a furor in Georgia. Initially, James Habersham opposed the measure, though not because he felt that Parliament had no right to tax the colonies. Rather, he believed that the Stamp tax would ruin Georgia financially, and that Parliament had enacted the measure without taking the interests of the American colonies into consideration.
Yet, as a member of Governor Sir James Wright’s Council, and, in the early 1770s, as acting Governor, James Habersham had a responsibility to see that Britain’s various colonial taxation measures were enforced in Georgia, and he was appalled by the popular demonstrations against them. In the case of the Stamp Act, for example, Habersham’s belief that colonial resistance could not secure its repeal meant that he was forced to defend a measure with which he disagreed. His stance made him extremely unpopular among certain elements in the colony, especially the Sons of Liberty, who had been organized to oppose the Stamp Act and other British taxes and intimidate those who supported them.
Habersham’s response suggested that his view of “liberty” differed drastically from that held by the growing opposition. He admitted that his stance made him unpopular: “[A] Man that will dare deliver his free Sentiments for Moderate Measures is threatened to be mobbed. . . . Thus are we almost deprived of thinking, by those who call, or rather miscall, themselves the Sons of Liberty. . . .” In another letter, Habersham wailed that “Dreadfull [sic] it is to find one’s Person and Property at the disposal of a giddy multitude. . . .”
To James Habersham, then, the tactics adopted by Georgia’s Sons of Liberty and their ilk threatened the very existence of “liberty”: “O Liberty whither art thou fled? Surely we can no longer be said to have a Shadow of [liberty], than while the Law can freely operate to protect us. . . .” Thus, those who espoused “liberty” but opposed the Mother Country’s taxes were hypocrites.
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Naturally, Georgia patriots disagreed with James Habersham, yet they also argued among themselves over the meaning of that “liberty” they were trying to gain and protect. There were at least two distinct views on the question: radical and conservative.
Button Gwinnett (1735-1777)
Early in 1775, a hitherto obscure Georgian, Button Gwinnett, organized the “Liberty Society,” hoping to seize control of the revolutionary movement from more moderate patriots around Savannah. Gwinnett soon came to believe that Georgians were only at “liberty” to agree with his radical views of the nature and purposes of colonial resistance to British policy. He and his allies labeled fellow patriots who refused to follow Gwinnett’s lead as “Tories,” or supporters of the Crown.
Yet, it would perhaps be unfair to be too harsh on Button Gwinnett. He was largely responsible, for example, for drawing up the Constitution of 1777, one of the most “democratic” of the new state frames of government. The right to vote was widely distributed; and the legislative, or popularly-elected, branch of state government was dominant. In one sense, then, to radicals like Gwinnett, “liberty” presupposed an active role for “the people” in government.
Moreover, Gwinnett and his successors as leaders of Georgia’s more radical patriots also helped assure that residents of the upcountry (frontier) region would at last play an active (and, eventually, a dominant) role in governing the state, seizing power from more moderate Whigs in Savannah and Augusta. Yet, it was also true that the radicals were embarrassingly eager to confiscate the property of real or alleged “Tories.”
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John Wereat (1733-1799)
Although conservative patriots agreed with radicals like Gwinnett on the end they were seeking, independence, they disagreed over the means necessary to attain it. The most articulate spokesman for conservative Georgia Whigs, John Wereat, shared the belief of Loyalists like James Habersham and Governor Sir James Wright that liberty and property were closely linked.
To such men, the amount of property they held established the degree of respect to which they were entitled. In their view, the liberty of every Georgian depended on the continued control of the government by men of property, or the “better sort,” like themselves. Propertied Whigs like John Wereat, who opposed British measures and who,until 1777 at least, directed the revolutionary movement in Georgia, fully expected to take over leadership positions once royal officials were displaced.
On the other hand, radical Whigs like Button Gwinnett contested the right of conservative patriots to rule and controlled the new state government between 1777 and 1779. During this period, Georgia’s very “democratic” constitution was written, and the Liberty Society emerged once more after Gwinnett’s death to direct affairs of state. The Liberty Society labeled Wereat and his conservative Whig allies as “Tories” and attempted to remove from command of the state’s Continental troops Wereat’s good friend, General Lachlan McIntosh, who had killed Button Gwinnett in a duel in 1777.
John Wereat denounced what he saw as the high-handed tactics of the Liberty Society’s leaders, asserting that radical patriots seemed “to be void of every sentiment of honour [sic], & truth is a stranger to their proceedings, they bellow Liberty, but take every method in their power, to deprive the best part of the community of even the Shadow of it.”
Thus, like James Habersham more than a decade earlier, Wereat viewed with suspicion those who wrapped themselves in the mantle of “liberty.” He believed that, at best, they were misguided; at worst, hypocritical. They were motivated not by patriotism but by greed, a lust to possess the property of the “better sort.”
In John Wereat’s eyes, the Revolution in Georgia was fought to win independence, but an “independence” characterized by the concept of “ordered liberty,” where each man would be secure in the possession of his property, whether that property was threatened by a tyrannical central government or by greedy fellow citizens.
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All in all, this is not exactly a soul-stirring portrait of those who led Georgia during the American Revolution, on both sides. “Liberty” was a key idea that Georgians seemed prepared to fight and to die for, even if they frequently differed among themselves and sometimes perished at the hands of either their reputed allies or their enemies.
The passage of almost 250 years probably has made the fears of James Habersham and John Wereat about how “liberty” could be used to deprive men of their property seem exaggerated. Moreover, many Americans today might agree with Button Gwinnett that “liberty” must be firmly rooted in the “control of the government by the people.” And yet, each generation of Americans necessarily redefines “liberty” to fit its own values and perceived needs.
Modern-day issues might seem to bear little resemblance to those confronting the Founding Fathers, but they still have to be faced. Whether, in facing these modern challenges, one chooses to follow the forthright path of James Habersham; the skeptical approach of Royal Governor Sir James Wright; the zealous one of Button Gwinnett; or the grimly determined conservative strategy of John Wereat, Americans today are not free of their ambiguous legacy.
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)