John Wereat and Georgia, 1775-1799, Part 2 (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 33)

[NOTE:  This is the second, and final, post about John Wereat, who turned up at almost every crucial event in Georgia’s history between the outbreak of the American Revolution and his death in 1799 Part 1 followed him from his arrival in Savannah from England through the end of the War for Independence. This installment traces Mr. Wereat’s role in Georgia’s post-Revolutionary history until his death in 1799.

For Part 1, go here.  A list of sources is appended to this post.]

* * * * *

John Wereat (Wikipedia)

In 1783, after the end of the Revolutionary War, John Wereat served as Auditor-General of Georgia, charged with the unenviable task of putting the state’s war-shattered finances on a sound footing.  That he was re-elected annually by the legislature for a decade testified to the esteem in which his efforts were held.

Wereat was the natural choice for this arduous post: as Georgia’s continental agent during the Revolution, he had demonstrated an impressive grasp of finance, earned a reputation for probity, and, not least important considering the state’s tangled obligations to Congress, had made a number of influential friends in Philadelphia.

Further evidence of the respect Wereat commanded in Georgia came in December 1787, when he was chosen president of the state convention that unanimously ratified the newly written Constitution of the United States.  As the session concluded, delegates voted Wereat their thanks “for his able and impartial conduct in the chair.”

* * * * *

Georgia in 1790

Once the new national government began to function, Georgia’s tangled financial obligations to the federal government required attention.   Perhaps not surprisingly, in December 1790, the legislature unanimously elected Auditor-General John Wereat as its agent for settling Georgia’s outstanding financial claims with the new United States. Wereat remained at his post in Philadelphia until early August 1793.  His long stay in the temporary national capital meant that his funds would be exhausted before he could conclude his business.   Moreover, Wereat, his daughter Nancy, and his granddaughter arrived in the city during an outbreak of smallpox and promptly joined others in seeking refuge in New Jersey.

To ensure the continued operation of the state auditor’s office during his absence, Wereat appointed his nephew, Thomas Collier, to act for him in Georgia.   Unfortunately, Collier’s high-handed conduct during his uncle’s absence created ill-feelings towards Wereat.  Either because of this, or because Wereat had had all the fun he could stand trying to resuscitate the state’s finances,  he was not re-elected auditor in 1793.

At least partly as a result of Wereat’s efforts as the state’s agent in Philadelphia, the national government agreed to assume $246,030 of the debt Georgia had contracted during the Revolution, out of the $300,000 maximum permitted by law.  Moreover, the final report of the federal board of commissioners ruled that the national government still owed Georgia $20,000.

* * * * *

Following his retirement from politics, John Wereat, his financial situation ravaged by the War and by the unstable economic conditions before ratification of the new federal Constitution, engaged in land speculation.  On November 12, 1794, he made the first bid to the state legislature to purchase a tract of Georgia’s western territory, the so-called “Yazoo lands,” on behalf of three wealthy acquaintances in Pennsylvania.  When his offer was rejected, Wereat joined three other Georgians to form the Georgia Union Company, which hoped to purchase the Yazoo lands desired by the Georgia and Georgia Mississippi companies, but, because the rival companies had swept the state clean of hard currency, Wereat and his associates were unable to raise sufficient funds to convince the legislature of the sincerity of their bid.

Yazoo Land Grants, 1795

Nevertheless, Governor George Mathews vetoed this Yazoo Act.  Wereat briefly thought that the proposal of his Georgia Union Company might have another chance, but that was not to be.  Instead, the General Assembly passed a revised version of the law, and the successful purchasing companies greased the measure’s passage by distributing money and lands to pliant legislators, public officials, militia officers, and newspaper editors, virtually every person of influence in the state who could keep the lid on popular discontent over the Yazoo sale.

During the ensuing controversy over the so-called “Yazoo Fraud,” the successful Yazoo companies impugned the motives of Wereat and other organizers of the Georgia Union Company, accusing them of trying to torpedo the sale after the legislature had rejected their inferior bid.  Wereat responded that, “As the [Yazoo] Act has doubtless been obtained by corruption and fraud, will not the [state constitutional] Convention who are to meet in May [1795] have it in their power to declare it null and void?”

Mr. Wereat’s prominence in that May 1795 state constitutional convention, which ordered anti-Yazoo petitions transmitted to the next session of the General Assembly, lent credence to the successful purchasers’ accusations against Wereat and the Georgia Union Company. Nevertheless, using anti-Yazoo petitions and other evidence of corruption accompanying the law’s passage, the legislature in 1796 passed the Rescinding Act, nullifying the sale.

* * * * *

Following the Yazoo controversy, John Wereat retired to his home in coastal Bryan County, but his hopes for peace and tranquility were short-lived. He soon found himself embroiled in a bitter family squabble that forced him once more into the public eye and dragged on for nearly six years after his death.

The disagreement erupted after Wereat announced that he was offering for sale five-hundred acres of land that had once belonged to his brother-in-law, the late Reverend John Collier.  Collier’s son, Thomas, who had served as deputy auditor under Wereat and been disgraced by accusations of corruption during his tenure, promptly inserted a notice in the press asserting that those lands were not Wereat’s to sell.  According to Thomas Collier, the lands should have passed to his brother John Collier, Jr., and, when his brother died, to Thomas himself.  Instead, Thomas Collier argued, “Mr. Wereat, administrator of the estate, thereby obtained possession, and still retains them; whether fraudulently or otherwise must be determined by a jury of Chatham County.”

Wereat replied a month later, charging that Thomas Collier’s publication had been intended to injure his reputation.  He termed Collier’s assertion that he had “obtained possession of certain papers as administrator of your brother’s estate,” a “base falsehood,” and claimed to welcome the investigation into the matter promised by his nephew.  Wereat added that “any further publication you may think proper to make will be treated with silent contempt.”  Collier fired another shot in this newspaper war, maintaining, among other things, that Wereat consistently had practiced “dissembling flattery. . . [for plunder] towards me and your sister’s family.”  True to his word, John Wereat remained silent, even after Thomas Collier sued to recover the disputed tract of land.

Although he had chosen to ignore his nephew’s accusation in public, Wereat drew up a new will on April 1, 1798, following the death of his daughter.  The new document provided that, upon Wereat’s death, Thomas Collier was to receive but “One Spanish milled dollar.”  Moreover, Wereat vowed that, even if his chief beneficiary, his granddaughter Elizabeth Fishbourne, died before reaching the age of twenty-one, “Thomas Collier shall receive no more than his dollar.” Collier’s suit against Wereat was taken up by Collier’s sister and her husband, Jacob Isaacs, after both Collier and Wereat died. It was finally dismissed by the courts in 1805.

* * * * *

John Wereat died at his Bryan County home on January 25, 1799, at the age of sixty-five.

His death deprived the state of one who had served Georgia well from the outbreak of the American Revolution until his retirement from the Auditor-General’s post in 1793.  A reluctant leader of the conservative Whig faction during the war, Wereat had helped the fledging state grapple with the manifold financial problems accompanying independence.   While it is tempting to describe him as an eighteenth-century bureaucrat, Wereat saw the matter in a different light: to him, his career was neither a “profession” nor a “job,”  but instead, it was “the duty of every good Citizen.”

John Wereat’s involvement in the Yazoo sale, which was motivated by friendship, personal connections, and a desire for financial gain, was unsuccessful.  However, his opposition to the corrupt purchasers eventually redounded to the state’s benefit, though perhaps at some cost to Wereat’s reputation.

Although unsuited by temperament for the rough give and take of Georgia politics, John Wereat nevertheless proved himself a capable, conscientious public servant.  Quiet and reserved by nature, Wereat preferred to avoid controversy; ironically, he found no peace short of the grave.

* * * * *

Wereat Estate Records (excerpts)

Wereat’s Will, dated April 8, 1798—His daughter, an only child, had just died, so Wereat made changes in his will.  His major beneficiary was now his granddaughter, Elizabeth Fishbourn. His daughter Ann (Nancy) had married Dr. Michael Burke after Benjamin Fishbourn’s death.

One odd provision: Wereat awarded his nephew, Thomas Collier, “one Spanish milled dollar (was his mother alive I would give her a good many). . . .”  Wereat added that, if his granddaughter did not live to reach age twenty-one, “Thomas Collier shall have no more than his dollar, nor have I any other relation by blood in America.”   

Wereat listed his estate as follows:

Plantation and tract of Land on the river Ogeechee in Chatham County;

Unimproved tract of Land in Bryan County called Pengathly;

Four lots in the township of Hardwick, in Bryan County;

1400 acres of land on the Great Satilla River;

Two tracts of land in Burke County of five hundred acres each;

Tract of land near Augustine’s Creek;

A confiscated estate in Columbia County called Daverill [?]—three tracts of land, along with sixty adjoining acres;

House and lot in the town of Savannah;

Also in Savannah, a lot fronting St. James’s Square, for use of granddaughter Elizabeth Fishbourn.

Wereat transferred his Columbia County plantation, Mount Hope, to his son-in-law Dr. Michael Burke.

Appraisal of John Wereat’s personal property, dated Hardwick, March 1799:

56 Negroes                                                                    $14,000

30 Head black cattle                                                            150

6 Horses                                                                                 480

50 Head of sheep                                                                 100

2 Feather Beds & bedding                                                  100

6 Chairs, Crockery ware, & household furniture             60

Plantation Carpenters & Blacksmith Tools                      60

1 Sulkey & Harness                                                               40

1 Gun                                                                                       12

__________

$14,922

* * * * *

SOURCES

George R. Lamplugh, Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (Newark, DE, 1986).

______________, “‘To Check and Discourage the Wicked and Designing’:  John Wereat and the Revolution in Georgia,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 61 (Winter, 1977): 295-307.

______________, “‘The Duty of Every Good Citizen’:  John Wereat and Georgia, 1782-1793,” Atlanta Historical Journal 27 (Spring, 1983): 87-94.

______________, “John Wereat and Yazoo, 1794-1799,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 72 (Fall, 1988): 502-517.

______________, “John Wereat,” Kenneth Coleman and Steve Gurr, eds., Dictionary of Georgia Biography (Athens, GA, 1983).

______________, “John Wereat,” John Inscoe, ed., New Georgia Encyclopedia (https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/john-wereat-ca-1733-1799).

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP Cover

Rancorous 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 American History, American Revolution, Education, Georgia History, History, History Curriculum, History graduate school, History Teaching, John Wereat, memoir, Philadelphia Convention (1787), Research, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Stephen Calt, Teaching, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to John Wereat and Georgia, 1775-1799, Part 2 (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 33)

  1. admiral17(RB) says:

    Boss, Mr. W was an interesting man. I could not help but note the unsurprising reality that produced a backdoor to your annual MLK piece. To wit, Wereat’s slaves were worth more than all of his other property combined.
    RB

  2. Ah! Funny thing about that, eh, Rick? Thanks for the comment.

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