[Note: This is the conclusion of a two-part post about the impact of Georgia’s notorious Yazoo Land Fraud (1795-1796) on a region of the state that was rife with land hunger. For Part 1, go here.]
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Even as Robert Watkins was doing his best to oppose James Jackson’s efforts in Georgia repeal the Yazoo sale, Congressman Thomas P. Carnes and Senator James Gunn were working assiduously, if unsuccessfully, in Congress to smooth the way for the Yazoo speculators. Meanwhile, the state legislature, spurred on by James Jackson, passed the Rescinding Act and a series of resolutions designed to punish those who had worked to secure passage of the Yazoo bill. One of the resolutions charged that, because Senator Gunn “did attempt to corrupt and unwarrantably influence some of the Members” of the 1795 legislature to vote for the Yazoo Act, he had “lost the confidence of this Legislature.” Hence, the Georgia congressional delegation was instructed to work for an amendment to the federal Constitution “authorizing the Legislature of any state to recall a Senator in Congress therefrom whenever the same may be deemed necessary.”
Either because of this resolution or because of a speech by Georgia Congressman Abraham Baldwin on March 2, 1796, castigating the activities of land speculators, Senator Gunn demanded from Baldwin the right to peruse “any paper from the State of Georgia intended for public use” in his colleague’s possession. When Baldwin refused, Gunn challenged him to a duel, only to have one of Baldwin’s fellow congressmen accuse the Senator of a breach of privilege. After the Georgia senator and his “friend” in the affair, Senator Frederick Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, apologized for their conduct, the House Committee on Privileges ruled that “any further proceedings thereon are unnecessary.” When he learned of this exchange, James Jackson commented smugly that “if I had not pushed [Baldwin] at Philadelphia . . . and here . . .with the papers—the speech [of March 2] would never have been made nor the correspondence [between Gunn and Baldwin] have taken place—. . . but enough—I am satisfied as it has turned out, it will answer the best of purposes.”
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Since state officials were elected annually, most of those implicated in the Yazoo fraud were swept from office by the angry voters in 1796 and replaced by others who had opposed the sale. For example, Peter Van Alen, a New York native who had settled in Petersburg to practice law, had testified against the Yazoo speculators before Jackson’s legislative investigating committee; Van Alen was chosen one of the state’s solicitors general.
As Jackson consolidated his political control of Georgia in the wake of the Rescinding Act, he insisted that appointees and legislative hopefuls unite their opposition to Yazoo with a firm commitment to Jeffersonian Republicanism. This policy not only allowed Jackson to reward experienced politicians, but it also enabled him to attach political newcomers to his party, including a rising young attorney in Lexington, William Harris Crawford. As Jackson wrote to an ally in 1801, “we must take some of those Friendly young men by the hand.”
James Jackson also was not averse to stirring dissension among Yazooists. For example, in March 1795, Jackson urged General John Twiggs to “humour young Genl [John] Clark,” who had recently quarreled publicly with Senator James Gunn over the latter’s refusal to deliver a promised share in the Georgia Company to him. Like his father Elijah, John Clark was a powerful figure among the transplanted North Carolinians in the Georgia upcountry, and trying to neutralize his influence on the Yazoo question made good political sense to Jackson. As he wrote at the time, “all is fair play & if we heartily go to work we will upset their dirty work.”
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James Jackson’s desire to establish Republican newspapers in the state’s major towns also affected the upcountry. At the time of the Yazoo fraud, there were two papers in Augusta: the Chronicle, which clung to the old-fashioned notion that an editor should publish pieces on all sides of controversial issues; and the Southern Centinel, whose editor, Alexander M’Millan, had received a sub-share of 28,000 acres of Yazoo land from the Georgia Company and opened his columns mainly to bitter foes of Jackson. During his governorship, Jackson helped to drive M’Millan out of business by refusing to pay him for services supposedly rendered the state. Upcountry men opposed to the Governor did not lack an outlet for their venom, however, for several months before M’Millan closed his business, George F. Randolph and William J. Bunce established the pro-Yazoo, anti-Jackson Augusta Herald.
The Herald was soon engaged in a no-holds-barred struggle in partisan journalism with the Governor’s newly established sheet in Louisville, the Republican Trumpet. Jackson and his associates were convinced that the Herald had a “secret editor,” New England expatriate William J. Hobby, who had parlayed his uncompromising Federalism into the postmaster’s position in Augusta. Once he had been elected to the U.S. Senate in 1801, Jackson persuaded Postmaster General Gideon Granger that Hobby was mixing political partisanship with his federal duties, and Hobby was removed from office. Although his firing freed Hobby to join the Herald officially, Jackson was able to checkmate his editorial efforts, at least to some extent, by procuring the services of an experienced Jeffersonian editor, Dennis Driscoll, to take over the rival Augusta Chronicle in 1803.
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Disputes growing out of the socio-economic differences between the coast and the upcountry had been a constant feature of Georgia politics since before the Revolution. This divisive sectionalism was something James Jackson could not afford to ignore as he extended the influence of the Jeffersonian Republican party across the state. Thus, even as Jackson and his associates killed Yazoo, they also attempted to satisfy the land hunger of frontier residents by exerting constant pressure on the national government to secure additional land cessions from the Indians. This policy was to become both bipartisan and permanent in the decades ahead.
Upcountry men also chafed at the fact that most members of the state’s congressional delegation hailed from the coast. As one piedmont resident wrote sarcastically in 1798, “It is certainly a great stretch of political indulgence, to us poor ignorant backwoods people, that any man above Chatham or Effingham [counties], could be found having sense enough to go to Congress.” In deadly earnest, he added that “From numbers and respectability,” upcountry residents were “justly entitled, to an equilibrium in the political balance. Our complaisance to the eastern members has been so great, that for some years they have had three members in Congress, and the back country but one; whereas the scale ought to be reversed.” In response to such complaints, James Jackson and his upcountry supporters apparently worked out a division of responsibility: after 1801, upcountry Republicans received a majority of the state’s congressional seats, while the governorship was conferred regularly upon Jackson’s low country lieutenants.
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The most significant effect of the Yazoo land fraud on the politics of upcountry Georgia was the role it played in the emergence of the rivalry between William Harris Crawford and John Clark, which produced political factions that would dominate the state for almost four decades. Crawford rose rapidly in Jackson’s Republican party, becoming the leader of the upcountry Jeffersonians. His associates included several Broad River Virginians, like Charles Tait, an Elbert County lawyer, and William Wyatt Bibb, a Petersburg physician with political aspirations.
Although John Clark is usually portrayed as the champion of “democratic” frontier farmers, a sort of Georgia version of Andrew Jackson, the inner circle of the faction he headed was composed of lawyers and professional men, many with roots in North Carolina, who yearned for public office but refused to acknowledge the supremacy of James Jackson. Clark’s brother, Elijah Clarke, Jr., was a perennially unsuccessful candidate for Congress. The General’s brothers-in-law included Duncan Campbell; John Griffin; and William J. Hobby of the Augusta Herald, whom Republicans suspected, probably correctly, of serving as the unlettered Clark’s ghost writer during his frequent newspaper wars. Other notables in the Clark faction were John M. Dooly, like Clark the son of a noted Revolutionary partisan, and, after Jackson’s upcountry allies had frustrated his hopes for a seat in Congress, Petersburg attorney Peter Van Alen.
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Although rivalry between the Virginia and North Carolina cliques was a traditional feature of politics in the Broad River Valley by the 1790s, the impact of Yazoo lifted it out of its regional context and incorporated it into an emerging state party system. John Clark had procured shares in at least two Yazoo companies, which put him at odds with Jackson’s insistence that political preferment be extended only to those opposed to the great land fraud. On two occasions in November 1801, following his first election to the General Assembly, Clark seemed to side with the disappointed Yazoo speculators on issues before the legislature. Furthermore, numbered among Clark’s relatives and supporters were men who were tainted, at least in Jackson’s opinion, by Yazoo or Federalism, or both.
Thus, almost from the first, William Harris Crawford, Jackson’s chief upcountry lieutenant, set his face against the political pretensions of Clark and his supporters. The rivalry between Clark and Crawford turned violent in 1802, when Crawford killed a Clarkite—and former Jackson supporter—Peter Van Alen, in a duel. In 1803 and again in 1804, Crawford successfully backed his old friend Charles Tait for a judicial appointment against Clark’s brother-in-law, John Griffin.
During these campaigns Clark and Crawford engaged in such a heated correspondence in the press that a duel between them was averted only by the decision of a “court of honor” appointed by Governor John Milledge. Matters came to a head in 1806, when Judge Tait witnessed a deposition that seemed to implicate Clark in passing counterfeit money. Clark demanded Tait’s impeachment, but a committee of the legislature, for which Crawford served as spokesman, exonerated the judge. The full house adopted the committee report, and Clark, convinced that Crawford and Tait had conspired to damage his reputation, challenged Crawford to a duel. The two men met in December 1806; in the exchange of shots, Crawford was wounded. Clark challenged Crawford again in July 1807, but Crawford refused to meet him. Clark vented his anger by flogging Judge Charles Tait in the streets of the new state capital, Milledgeville.
Following James Jackson’s death in 1806 and Crawford’s election to the U.S. Senate in 1807, leadership in Georgia’s Republican party passed to Jackson’s Chatham County protégé, George M. Troup. There was no perceptible diminution of partisan strife with Troup’s elevation to head of the state’s Jeffersonians. Clark’s influence, which had been concentrated at first in the upcountry, spread gradually over the entire state until, after the War of 1812, Georgia had its first two-party system (go here and here), which looked so different from the one developing in the rest of the country that understanding it baffled contemporaries and continues to puzzle modern historians.
End of Part 2
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: