[Note: Tignall, Georgia, is about 125 miles east of Atlanta, in Wilkes County, only a few miles from the Savannah River. In 2002, when I arrived there to deliver a lecture, “downtown” Tignall consisted of a couple of gas stations; a combination police station and city hall; a café open daily from 6:00 am to 2:00 pm; some nondescript shops; an auto repair place; and the site of my lecture, the North Wilkes Library, a converted bank building at the far end of town.
That Tignall still existed was due primarily to the efforts of Dr. Sophia Bamford, an 88 year-old retired physician and the organizer of the lecture series of which my talk was a part. A Tignall native, Dr. Bamford had returned to her hometown after a distinguished medical career in Boston. Determined to keep Tignall on the map, Dr. Bamford stirred up interest in the region’s history, and her strategy apparently worked. The 2002 lecture series was the seventh she had put together since returning from Boston—and, so she told me—her last.
When I agreed to talk about the Yazoo Land Fraud and its impact on the politics of the Georgia upcountry, I hoped to do something that I had not been able to accomplish thus far: to examine for an audience, in some detail, how Yazoo affected political developments in Georgia on a local or regional level. I hoped I could create a picture that would transcend the sorts of broad generalizations that had characterized my previous efforts to discuss Yazoo. Surely I would be able to trot out examples from my ample stock of anecdotes (AKA, “hairy dog stories”) that would reveal something of the human aspect of the great land fraud.
If the “Yazoo Land Fraud” is not ringing any bells in your historical memory at this point, I suggest that you visit (or revisit) my attempt to summarize the origins of the Yazoo sale in 1795 through 1802, when Georgia ceded her western lands to the federal government in exchange for money and, more importantly, a promise from the national government that it would, when it could be done peacefully, remove the Creek and Cherokee Indians from the state. This compact would prove significant to the further development of political parties in Georgia, and it would also affect the development of national political parties and the course of the United States over the next six decades, through the Civil War.]
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Georgia in 1790
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Let’s look more closely at how the Yazoo Fraud affected politics in upcountry Georgia, around Augusta and environs. First, it is important to understand that land hunger was endemic there. In fact, one of the four successful Yazoo purchasers in 1795, the Georgia Mississippi Company, was made up of Augusta residents, including veteran Richmond County legislator and militia leader General Thomas Glascock. Moreover, virtually all upcountry legislators who voted for the Yazoo Act had accepted either sub-shares in the purchase or money from the organizers.
Judge William Stith of Warren County figured prominently in passing out money and other favors to legislators in return for their votes. Upcountry Congressman Thomas P. Carnes, who had received land from at least two of the purchasing companies, and Richmond County legislator Robert Watkins, the only member of the lower house to vote for Yazoo without accepting either money or land (though several of his relatives did), were staunch defenders of the sale throughout the late 1790s. George Walton of Richmond County, one of Georgia’s signers of the Declaration of Independence, former governor, and veteran jurist, joined Carnes and Watkins in penning newspaper essays defending Yazoo and attacking the motives of those who voted to rescind the sale.
In order to ensure the support of influential Georgians who were not in the General Assembly, the prospective purchasers distributed sub-shares in the purchase to prominent men throughout the state. Among the upcountry recipients were militia leaders Elijah and John Clark, and Alexander M’Millan, proprietor of the Southern Centinel, one of Augusta’s two newspapers. The involvement of these prominent upcountry men in the Yazoo sale and its defense apparently did not weaken their political influence in the region. Watkins and Glascock continued to represent Richmond in the General Assembly, and both men were elected to the 1798 constitutional convention. George Walton was returned to the bench by the legislature. According to James Jackson, who had led the ultimately successful campaign to repeal the Yazoo Act, the political strength of Thomas P. Carnes and William Stith remained formidable in the piedmont; it was all he and his supporters could do to keep those Yazooists out of the U.S. Senate, the national House of Representatives, and the governor’s chair between 1798 and 1801.
The legislature even appointed Robert Watkins and his brother George to compile a new digest of Georgia laws. When the brothers included the Yazoo Act in their compilation, however, Governor James Jackson refused to pay them and saw to it that William Harris Crawford and Horatio Marbury were put in charge of the project. The resulting Marbury and Crawford digest did not include the Yazoo Act; the defiant Watkins brothers had their volume, Yazoo Act and all, printed out of state.
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Even most of the upcountry men who joined James Jackson in opposing the Yazoo sale were not averse to land speculation. Either they opposed on principle the corruption that had lubricated the sale, or, if one believes their Yazoo critics, they were motivated by disappointment at their inability to force themselves into the companies organized by the successful purchasers. William Few of Columbia County and General John Twiggs of Richmond County, who allegedly organized a raucous demonstration in the streets of Louisville, the state capital, in an unsuccessful effort to convince Governor George Mathews to veto the Yazoo sale, had also been members of the Georgia Union Company, a late-blooming organization whose bid for the western territory had been rejected by the legislature because it offered too little, too late. Another opponent of Yazoo, Richmond County legislator James McNeil, had dabbled unsuccessfully in land speculation in the early 1790s. Among Jackson’s upcountry allies, the one who showed the least interest in land speculation was probably Congressman Abraham Baldwin, a native of Connecticut who resided in Wilkes County.
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Surely the most determined supporter of Yazoo and, thus, the most vigorous opponent of James Jackson in Georgia, was Richmond County’s Robert Watkins. The ink had hardly dried on the Yazoo Act before Watkins leaped to its defense in the pages of Alexander M’Millan’s Southern Centinel, and he later used the columns of Augusta’s other newspaper, the Chronicle, to attack the arguments in Jackson’s pamphlet, The Letters of Sicilius, which served as the Bible of the anti-Yazooists in the campaign to overturn the sale.
The pugnacious Watkins was one of only three representatives to vote against the Rescinding Act in 1796. In February 1797, the Richmond representative introduced in the state House a bill that would have ceded the state’s western territory (and, of course, the Yazoo claims) to the federal government; the measure was defeated overwhelmingly.
As a member of the 1798 state constitutional convention, Robert Watkins signed the revised frame of government under protest, arguing that adding the Rescinding Act to the state constitution amounted to an ex post facto law that impaired the obligation of contract. Convention delegates Thomas Glascock and James Gunn, who had been leading lights among the Yazoo purchasers, flatly refused to sign the revised constitution. Because Watkins, Glascock, and Gunn also were high-ranking militia officers and, thus, required to defend Georgia and its constitution, an angry Governor James Jackson convinced the legislature to require all militiamen to sign an oath promising to support the revised state constitution. The ensuing “loyalty oath controversy” kept the state’s military arm in turmoil for several years.
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Robert Watkins did not confine his opposition to James Jackson to the halls of the legislature or the convention. After the adjournment of the General Assembly in February 1796, he accosted Jackson in the streets of Louisville and asked him “how he could reconcile it to his own feelings to have headed a vile party during the [legislative] session to the general injury of the whole state, and in unfounded attacks upon the reputation of a number of good men.” That kind of question, Jackson later recalled, “flesh & blood of such texture as mine would not bear.” In the ensuing scuffle, the two men fought with whips, pistols, bayonets, and fists before they were separated.
Jackson and Watkins clashed again several months later, this time in the streets of Savannah. Most of the lawyers gathered there to attend the federal court session reportedly snubbed Jackson, but Jackson considered Watkins’ conduct particularly galling, for when he accosted the Augusta attorney near the bay, Watkins merely laughed in his face. Jackson brooded over this insult for an hour or so, complaining to his friends and vowing his “determination of caning Watkins the first place he should meet him.” He then set out to find his antagonist. When the two finally met, they took up where they had left off in Louisville, pummeling each other with fists and sword canes. According to an eyewitness account by a Watkins partisan, Watkins was “drubbing [Jackson] pretty soundly when they were parted by the magistracy.”
End of Part 1
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: