[NOTE: I first met John Wereat in the late 1960s, while researching Georgia politics in the era of the American Revolution. (By that time, he’d been dead for about 175 years!) I soon found him fascinating, because almost nothing had been written about him in standard secondary sources. Yet, the deeper I got into my research, the more primary sources I found about Mr. Wereat (as I usually call him). Consequently, over the past half century I became his biographer, publishing three articles about him, as well as sketches of his career in two reference works.
What I’ve discovered is that, like some late eighteenth-century Georgia version of the fictitious “Forrest Gump, John Wereat made his presence felt during the most significant events in the state’s history from the outbreak of the Revolution until his death in 1799.
In this two-part post, I’d like to introduce Wereat to a wider, general audience, and explain what drew me to him as a biographical subject over the course of my career.]
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What first caught my attention about Mr. Wereat was his last name, which I still don’t know how to pronounce. (But as the possessor of an odd name myself, I suppose I shouldn’t complain!) My best guess: “Weer-ee-at.”
Then there was his distinctive handwriting, beautifully wrought, as befits a person who began his career as a diligent merchant’s clerk in England and eventually joined a mercantile firm in Georgia. Here’s a sample:
Finally, a portrait of John Wereat has survived. I first saw it at the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah around 1970. The head of the Society ushered me down to the basement to show me the painting, apologetically explaining that there was not enough wall space upstairs to display all the art in the Society’s collection. (Her implication seemed to be that only pictures of important people were displayed on the main floor, and since Mr. Wereat’s portrait had been consigned to storage, he must not have been a significant figure in Georgia’s history.) In the vernacular of the times, though, it was “pretty cool” to have a face I could attach to his odd name as we became better acquainted over the next fifty years.
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Wereat was born circa 1733 in the village of Road, Somerset, in the southwest of England. In 1759, he and his wife, the former Hannah Wilkinson, arrived in Georgia, where he joined a Savannah mercantile firm headed by William Handley, a relative of Mrs. Wereat.
Between 1760 and the outbreak of the Revolution, financial problems blighted Wereat’s career as a merchant and forced him to dispose of almost three thousand acres to satisfy creditors. The lands he saved, however, along with his slaves, served as collateral for additional loans that improved his holdings along Georgia’s rice coast. Despite those earlier setbacks, then, John Wereat was a man of property by 1775.
Wereat’s entry into politics coincided with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. He represented St. Mary’s Parish, and then the town of Savannah, in provincial congresses prior to the drafting of the state’s Constitution of 1777 and served briefly on the Council of Safety. A trip to Philadelphia in July 1776 secured his appointment as Georgia’s “continental agent,” representing the state in dealings with Congress, a post Wereat would hold throughout the Revolution. As continental agent he was responsible for provisioning American vessels that called in Georgia ports; disposing of captured enemy ships; and furnishing cargoes for a continental mail vessel that sailed regularly between Savannah and Philadelphia. (Obviously, his career as a merchant and the contacts he’d made in various colonial ports stood Wereat in good stead in this role.)
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During the Revolution, Georgia’s Whigs, those working for independence from Britain, were divided into bickering factions. John Wereat emerged as a spokesman for the conservative Whigs, in opposition to the radicals, who were led by Button Gwinnett. In private letters, grand jury presentments, and pamphlets, Wereat charged that Gwinnett and his allies espoused “patriotism” only to mask their ambition and greed.
Wereat claimed that Gwinnett and his minions in the so-called “Liberty Society” labelled conservative opponents like himself and his friend General Lachlan McIntosh “with the hateful name of Torey [sic], . . . in order to raise themselves fortunes, & political fame upon the ruins of the real Friends of their Country and the American Cause.” He blamed the Constitution of 1777 for this situation, arguing that it reflected the views of Button Gwinnett and his allies: increased county representation provided in the new frame of government, Wereat believed, had combined with reduced property requirements for voting to render helpless the “best part of the community,” thereby creating a situation in which “neither Liberty, or [sic] property are secure.”
Relations between General McIntosh and Button Gwinnett deteriorated, until they resolved their differences with pistols. On May 16, 1777, they met outside Savannah; both were wounded in the exchange of shots; Gwinnett’s wounds proved mortal.
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After the fall of Savannah to the British in December 1778, Mr. Wereat sought refuge in South Carolina, but he shortly returned to Georgia following the withdrawal of British forces from Augusta. Remnants of the colony’s House of Assembly gathered there and chose a “Supreme Executive Council” to govern the small part of the state still in Whig hands. On August 6, 1779, that Council elected John Wereat as its president. The loss of Savannah to the British, the dispersal of the state’s constitutionally elected officials, and the dire need for congressional assistance had transferred the reins of Whig government from the radical to the conservative faction; thus, Wereat found himself the de facto Governor of Georgia.
To show that they acted out of selfless patriotism rather than the selfish opportunism they ascribed to radical Whigs like Button Gwinnett, the members of the Supreme Executive Council agreed to serve without pay, and pledged to exercise neither legislative nor judicial powers. They also circulated petitions in the upcountry seeking popular approval of their actions until elections for a new House of Assembly could be held. Lacking constitutional sanction, however, Wereat’s regime was short-lived.
During the unsuccessful Franco-American siege of Savannah, President Wereat negotiated with British authorities for an exchange of prisoners, but to no avail. Upon his return to Augusta, Wereat set December 1, 1779, as the date for the election of a new House of Assembly. Presumably to avert a resurgence of the radical faction, he also published in a South Carolina newspaper a proclamation informing exiles from the Georgia low country, the center of conservative Whig strength, of the scheduled poll.
Before the election could be held, however, George Walton, a former conservative ally, arrived in Augusta and formed an alliance with two prominent radicals, George Wells and Richard Howly. They and their supporters formed their own “House of Assembly” and elected Walton both governor of Georgia and delegate to Congress.
Walton had brought with him a letter from Continental Army General Benjamin Lincoln, suggesting that an Assembly should be organized as soon as possible, which gave Walton’s actions at least a shadow of legitimacy. Moreover, most of Georgia’s influential conservative Whigs, Wereat’s natural allies, had abandoned the state, found sanctuary in neighboring South Carolina, and had not returned. Thus, Walton’s maneuver succeeded.
Wereat claimed that the exodus of conservative Whigs from Georgia had left men like himself virtually powerless “to check and discourage the wicked & designing whose principles & policy is to raise themselves to wealth & opulence on the ruins of honest & inoffensive individuals & of the whole state.”
The new government, dominated by radical Whigs, promptly secured the suspension from Continental command of Wereat’s friend and political ally, General Lachlan McIntosh. For the remainder of the war, Wereat worked with McIntosh to clear his name and secure his reinstatement in command.
Wereat was captured when the British returned to Augusta in the summer of 1780 and sent to Charleston, where he joined McIntosh as a prisoner of war. Following their release from captivity a year later, the two friends journeyed to Philadelphia, McIntosh to try to restore his reputation and Wereat to settle his accounts as Georgia’s continental agent.
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The end of the war was in sight by the time Mr. Wereat returned to Georgia in 1782. He estimated his financial losses during the Revolution at almost 2400 pounds. In submitting his account to the state, though, he commented bitterly, “I don’t expect to be reimbursed a Shilling of it.” Instead, he urged his attorney to push matters through the courts “immediately.”
As the war wound down, John Wereat did what he could to help restore order in the upcountry. Battles and skirmishes had disrupted agriculture, and the situation around Augusta was particularly acute. In March 1782, Wereat journeyed to South Carolina, where he procured “a small supply of Rice” that would “enable the people in the back part of [Georgia] to subsist ‘til the Crops of Wheat comes [sic] in.”
In the summer of 1783, Georgia Governor John Martin sent Wereat and two others to British East Florida to negotiate with Royal Governor Patrick Tonyn an end to raids by military forces across the St. Marys River. The Georgia emissaries met a cool reception in St. Augustine, and, while they awaited Governor Tonyn’s reply, Wereat renewed his acquaintance with several exiled Georgia Loyalists who had taken up residence there.
In a poignant letter to one such former Georgian, Wereat recalled a discussion they’d had during the heady days before the outbreak of hostilities: “I have in the course of this business found your prediction fully verified,” he wrote, “and cannot pretend to say that every Man who has been professedly an American was actuated by a regard for justice or an inviolable attachment to the rights of this Country, and that many who had very little pretention [sic] to public trust and confidence, have wormed themselves into appointments of the first consequence, and into great fortunes, while others more deserving have been reduced very considerably.”
Based on his own experience, then, John Wereat believed that the American Revolution had permanently altered the world he had known. Once the loyal colonial “establishment” had been ousted, well-to-do Whigs like Wereat assumed that direction of affairs would pass smoothly to men of property like themselves, but they had reckoned without the ability of the radical Whig leadership.
The fabric of an ordered society dominated by the “best part of the community,” which Wereat and other conservative Whigs had hoped to preserve amid revolution, lay in tatters. With time, the gains of independence became evident enough; yet, given his conservative perception of the course of the American Revolution in Georgia, Mr. Wereat could not help thinking wistfully in 1783 of what had been lost.
End of Part 1
Copyright 2020 George Lamplugh
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: