[Note: This is the second of two posts on the evolution of political parties in Georgia from 1807 to 1845 (for the first, go here).
Between 1831 and 1837, the tariff issue became increasingly divisive in Georgia. Some members of both the Troup and Clark parties were lured by the siren song of John C. Calhoun’s Nullification scheme. Yet, each party continued to operate as though nothing new had happened, until that blinkered vision proved impossible to sustain. The turning point came in December 1832, when President Andrew Jackson issued his Proclamation to the People of South Carolina, terming Nullification unconstitutional and its ultimate step, secession, as treason.
Jackson’s Proclamation resounded like a thunderclap throughout the South; in Georgia, it sparked a political reorganization. The Clark and Troup parties dissolved, re-forming on the basis of support for, or opposition to, Nullification. Most Troupers, and some Clarkites, organized the State Rights Party, which favored Nullification; most Clarkites, along with some Troupers, opposed to the Carolina doctrine, formed the Union Party.]
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The newly-organized parties slugged it out for political supremacy, with the Union Party in control over much of the next decade, primarily because it proved adept at “waving the bloody shirt” of support for the Union and President Jackson. Consequently, the State Rights Party began to distance itself from Nullification, though without much success at first. What ultimately helped resolve the issue was the formation in Congress of an anti-Jackson party, the Whigs.
Georgians opposed to Andrew Jackson, strongly influenced by Congressman (and later, Governor) George M. Troup’s doctrine of state rights and Calhoun’s theory of Nullification, initially were reluctant to adopt the Whig name because of the influence of strong Unionists like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and former President John Quincy Adams among its members, but they still gravitated towards the new party because it opposed the President. Consequently, politics in Georgia continued to baffle uninitiated observers.
The State Rights Party recouped some of its fortunes after the Democrats nominated Martin Van Buren as Jackson’s successor in 1836, a decision that went to the heart of a key event in the history of the Clark party (which formed the core of the Union Party). In 1824, Van Buren had been campaign manager for Georgian William H. Crawford, the bitter rival of John Clark, when Crawford unsuccessfully challenged Adams, Calhoun, Clay, and Jackson for the Republican presidential nomination. Consequently, many former Clarkites in the Union Party, now Jacksonian Democrats in all but name, were reluctant to support Van Buren in 1836, even though he was Jackson’s hand-picked successor. Eventually, the State Rights Party backed Hugh Lawson White of Tennessee, one of the Whigs’ regional nominees. White carried Georgia with support from many “Clark Union men,” although Van Buren, supported in Georgia by the Union Party, won the presidency.
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Georgia’s dealings with the Cherokees were increasingly strained in the 1830s. According to critics, Georgia opposed Nullification in response to the protective tariff but practiced it by refusing to recognize the jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court in cases involving Cherokee affairs, and there was some truth to that charge. Meanwhile, the Cherokee Phoenix, founded in 1828 by Elias Boudinot, presented the Cherokee case to a wider public. Boudinot’s eventual decision to support Cherokee removal, despite principal chief John Ross’s continuing opposition, led to his resignation as editor in the summer of 1832.
Boudinot’s successor, Ross’s brother-in-law Elijah Hicks, enlisted the Phoenix for Whig presidential candidate Henry Clay in 1832, in a final, desperate effort to block Cherokee removal, but to no avail. The Phoenix folded in May 1834, and the so-called “Treaty Party,” including Boudinot, Major Ridge, and John Ridge, signed the Treaty of New Echota in December 1835. The “Trail of Tears” in 1838 put paid to the issue, and white Georgians at last controlled all the former Native American lands within the state’s boundaries.
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During the 1820s and 1830s, Georgia congressmen became ever more defensive about attacks on slavery, especially those launched from the Northeast, home of the dreaded Abolitionists. The situation was further complicated by publication of David Walker’s Appeal (and its role in the ouster of Elijah Burritt as editor of the Milledgeville Statesman & Patriot, which was succeeded by the Federal Union as the leading organ for the Clark/Union Party); and by the Nat Turner revolt in August 1831. Georgia congressmen became favorite targets of Massachusetts Representative (and former President) John Quincy Adams and his abettors, who fought to secure repeal of the hated Gag Rule. Like many southerners, Georgians saw attacks on slavery hidden in every political disagreement, from the protective tariff to the annexation of Texas, and efforts to mollify them inevitably failed.
In the late 1830s, the Union Party nearly imploded over Federal Union editor John Cuthbert’s attack on Georgia’s Central Bank, whose board was chaired by Tomlinson Fort, the wizard behind the curtain of the Union Party and owner of the Federal Union. Ultimately, this vendetta cost Cuthbert his post at the Union, but before he left Georgia he repaid the Union Party’s leadership in spades, publicly supporting the State Rights Party’s George Gilmer in the 1837 gubernatorial election, which was won by Gilmer.
Thereafter, the Union Party evolved into the Democratic Party, while most members of the State Rights Party, eventually joined by a few disgruntled Union Democrats, embraced the Whig label, though with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The Georgia Democracy was increasingly influenced by Troup’s doctrine of state rights, aided by the migration to its ranks of former State Rights/Whig Party members Mark Cooper, Walter Colquitt, and Edward Black, who claimed to be so steeped in the principles of state rights that they could stomach neither Whig policies nor their presidential candidate in 1840, William Henry Harrison. The Democrats welcomed them with open arms, and Cooper, Colquitt, and Black soon acceded to prominent positions in the party hierarchy, much to the chagrin of some long-time members.
The irony was striking: Georgia Whigs had evolved out of the anti-Jackson State Rights Party yet, in the end, defended the Union; Georgia Democrats, whose party had developed from the pro-Jackson, anti-Nullification Union Party, became ardent champions of state rights in the 1840s. Once again, outside observers trying to understand Georgia’s party politics scratched their heads in stupefied wonder.
The pull of state rights and Nullification became so pervasive among Georgia Democrats that most of their editors worked for John C. Calhoun’s nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate in 1844. Whigs, on the other hand, although reminding voters of their State Rights Party roots and their continuing belief in that party’s doctrines, began to speak in terms of what was good for the nation as a whole rather than for the South or Georgia. Even John Berrien, who had boxed the political compass from Federalism to the Democracy (including a post in Andrew Jackson’s Cabinet), State Rights, and finally, the Whig Party, began to sound like a national statesman compared to increasingly angry, provincial state rights Democrats like Cooper, Colquitt, and Black, and later, Absalom Chappell.
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One of the most important aspects of political party development in Georgia in the first decades of the nineteenth century was the spread of newspapers and the work of skilled editors in setting the political agenda, ushering in another era of bitter partisan journalism. No longer were editors merely artisans skilled in setting type; most were attorneys by training, adept at interpreting current events through the prism of ideology, and supported by increasingly sophisticated organizations. They played active roles in party affairs, developing campaign strategy, participating in public meetings and debates, occasionally even running for office themselves.
Most often, however, it was the steady stream of editorials explaining the political world through the lenses of partisanship that made local editors indispensable. In Milledgeville, Seaton Grantland founded two papers, the Georgia Journal and the Southern Recorder, which, over time, gravitated from the Crawford/Troup party to the Whigs. Elijah Burritt created the Statesman & Patriot for John Clark, and, after Burritt’s disgrace and flight from the state, John G. Polhill, in conjunction with John A. Cuthbert, established the Federal Union to echo the views of the Clark faction of the Union Party. Thomas Haynes moved the Standard of Union from Sparta to the capital, where it became the mouthpiece of Troup Union men.
Michael Kappel was instrumental in setting up pro-Clark papers in Milledgeville and Savannah. Myron Bartlett founded the Macon Telegraph and made it successively the voice of the Clark, Union, and Democratic parties in middle Georgia, while his peripatetic brother, Cosam Bartlett, had a hand in founding Clark, Union, and Democratic papers in Milledgeville, Macon, Columbus, and Savannah. Albon Chase steered the Athens Southern Banner from the Troup party to the Union party during the Nullification Crisis, and to the Democracy thereafter. In Augusta, P.C. Guieu made the Constitutionalist the staunch Union/Democratic voice of the upcountry, despite angry protestations from his neighbor, Augustus Longstreet, at the State Rights’ Sentinel. The voice of the State Rights/Whig Party in Columbus, the Enquirer, continually struggling for its financial life, was kept afloat thanks to energetic, articulate editors like R.T. Marks, Samuel Flournoy, and James Calhoun, as well as their frequently harried financial backers.
During the presidential election campaign of 1840, each party published a separate newspaper dedicated to its presidential standard-bearer. And, in 1844, when the staunchly pro-Van Buren Macon Telegraph refused to join the Milledgeville Federal Union in singing the praises of John C. Calhoun, the Carolinian’s middle Georgia supporters bankrolled the establishment in Macon of the American Democrat.
Political organizations also became tighter. Each party gathered in the capital when the legislature met, and later in Athens at the state college graduation, to hash out pressing issues and nominate candidates. In response to the political excitement of the late 1830s and early 1840s, parties emphasized personal contacts between candidates and the electorate through various “public discussions,” debates, meetings, and conventions.
Even if those contacts were sometimes more apparent than real, the net result was that voters were energized and trooped to the polls in large numbers. Both parties also replicated tactics originally developed by the Whigs in 1840 to attract voters: parades, festive meals, drinking parties, “liberty poles,” special election-season newspapers; you name it, one or both of Georgia’s parties trotted it out, beginning in 1840.
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In the decades after James Jackson’s death (1806), in other words, Georgia politics evolved from a personal operation to one based more on issues, from “men to measures,” with the rise of Nullification the catalyst for the establishment of the State Rights and Union parties. The final steps came between 1843 and 1845: another political reorganization produced two parties that mirrored, at last, those on the national level. The 1844 presidential campaign sparked impressive efforts by both parties to attract voters, this time without confusion or evasion about party names, although some uncertainty about party principles remained. This movement climaxed in 1845, when each gubernatorial nominee ran as a candidate of one of the national parties, with no ifs, ands, or buts.
By the end of 1845, then, political parties in Georgia finally had adopted national party names as their own and begun to reshape their principles accordingly. Georgia politicians had been declaiming for decades that their supporters adhered to “principles, not men,” but this became a reality only because of the Nullification Crisis. Moreover, which men believed what principles was not always clear, especially on Nullification. Eponymous labels (Troup/Clark), those indicating support for a key issue (State Rights/Union), and those combining the two (Troup Union/Troup Nullifiers, Clark Union/Clark Nullifiers) became things of the past. After more than half a century on the periphery of political developments in the United States, Georgia was, at long last, floating in the mainstream.
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Unlike modern historians, antebellum Georgians could not know what would happen later, cataclysmic events like the Compromise of 1850, for example, and how that would affect political parties in the state. Perhaps it’s just as well. The effort in Georgia to support the Compromise of 1850 would lead to yet another party reorganization, with the Whigs and Democrats breaking up and reforming into the Constitutional-Union (pro-Compromise) party and the Southern Rights (anti-Compromise) party.
In the end, the Constitutional-Union party triumphed: Georgia supported the Compromise, but warned the nation that the state considered the Compromise the “final solution” to the question of the expansion of slavery. And yet, the efforts of Howell Cobb, the leader of the Constitutional-Union party, to drag Union Whigs into the ranks of a moderate Democratic Party in the wake of the Compromise, failed. According to a veteran Democratic operative, this was because party names meant everything in Georgia politics by that point. Former Whigs who supported the Union would willingly have joined a permanent Constitutional-Union party, but were unwilling to follow Howell Cobb into the national Democratic Party
By 1845, though, Georgia’s political parties finally bore the names of the national ones, even if their principles made less than perfect sense in historical context, their enmities remained “rancorous,” and their partialities “blind.” Hezekiah Niles would have been proud.
[Note: The author apologizes for the sweeping nature of this two-part post, but, since they summarize Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1807-1845, in four thousand words, that is perhaps to be expected. Anyone interested in learning more about the events, individuals, and (especially) the “hairy-dog stories” treated in these posts, please check out the book (see below).]
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject: