[Note: Between 1807 and 1845, the political system in Georgia underwent a reluctant, clumsy, and—to outsiders—baffling evolution. Georgia politics seemed so bizarre that Baltimore editor Hezekiah Niles was wont to look down his increasingly Whiggish nose and mutter something along the lines of, “We know not what they differ about, but they do violently differ.” Of course, Niles made almost no effort to try to understand Georgia politics; it was easier, and perhaps more satisfying, to publish yet another scathing criticism about how things were done by those Georgia bumpkins. Yet, as was the case for Georgia’s previous political generation, it is possible to understand what Georgians “differed about” in the first half of the nineteenth century, even if one must agree with Niles that, no matter why Georgians “differed,” they continued to do so “violently.”]
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When Georgia’s first “party boss,” James Jackson, died in 1806, there was a Republican consensus, thanks to Jackson’s skill at yoking avid support for Thomas Jefferson with angry opposition to the role of Senator James Gunn and other prominent Georgia Federalists in the infamous Yazoo Land Fraud. Although Georgia historians have long argued that leadership of the state’s Republican interests passed smoothly to Jackson’s designated political heirs, the story is more complicated. John Milledge, long a Jackson lieutenant, and Governor of Georgia in 1806, was elected to fill the remainder of Jackson’s Senate term and subsequently won a full term for himself. However, he resigned the seat because of his wife’s health and retired from politics.
Once Milledge left the stage, Georgians were divided between two more-or-less “Republican” factions: one was headed by a rising upcountry politician, William Harris Crawford, and by Jackson’s low-country protégé, George M. Troup; the other by General John Clark, an adamant foe of Jackson, Crawford, and Troup but a self-proclaimed “republican” nonetheless, even if his foes believed he was a Federalist. Yet, Crawford was already launched on a career of national significance and Troup was occupied in Congress, so the real leader of the “Crawford [or Jeffersonian Republican] party” in Georgia was David Mitchell. Mitchell fought a defensive, rear-guard action, as prominent supporters, for various reasons, sought greener pastures in Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, even as John Clark successfully extended his “party” across the state.
The Yazoo Fraud, which had dominated Georgia politics during the final decade of James Jackson’s life, continued to roil those waters after his demise. Although transferring Georgia’s Yazoo lands to the national government in the Compact of 1802 was supposed to settle the long-simmering controversy over the state’s western territory, it did not. To most white Georgians, the key to future growth lay in the national administration’s willingness to compel the Creeks and the Cherokees to surrender their claims to Georgia lands as provided in the 1802 agreement. Yet, the government in Washington proved unable, or unwilling, to do that, at least at a pace satisfactory to land-hungry Georgians.
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The original Yazoo purchasers disposed of their lands to reputedly “innocent” buyers, who demanded that the national government satisfy their claims. Aided by Virginia’s John Randolph, a vocal cadre of Georgia congressmen, led by George Troup, opposed the new purchasers and pressured Washington to live up to the 1802 agreement. Despite determined opposition from Randolph, the Georgians, and their allies, Congress finally reached a compromise with the “innocent” Yazoo purchasers in 1814, but echoes of Yazoo continued to bubble up from the state’s political memory during campaigns into the 1840s, a rhetorical gift that kept on giving.
In the context of defending Georgia against pressure from Yazoo purchasers, Congressman George Troup honed a state rights philosophy that would become his trademark in the 1820s. Rather than satisfy the demands of corrupt land speculators, Troup thundered, the general government should eliminate Native American land claims in Georgia, as provided in the Compact of 1802; but, if Washington were unwilling or unable to do that, then Georgia must act unilaterally, he argued.
Most Georgians strongly opposed settling “corrupt” Yazoo claims, but the state’s “Republican” consensus divided bitterly over two other issues. The first was the enactment by the state legislature, in 1808, after passage of Jefferson’s Embargo by Congress, of the Alleviating Act. This measure was intended to ease credit terms for planters driven into debt by American attempts to use commercial pressure instead of warfare to settle disputes with Britain and France. Georgia Republicans supported this concept in 1808, 1809, 1812, and 1813, despite increasingly angry opposition from creditors. In 1814, however, Governor Peter Early, who had signed the 1813 measure, vetoed its successor and was denied a second term, then watched, with other Republicans, as the Crawford party was damned by irate debtors, and its members ousted from office.
As if Crawford Republicans were not in enough trouble, several members dealt the party another blow in 1816, when they supported the Compensation Act, which altered the method of paying members of Congress from a flat annual rate to a per diem basis. This change unleashed a storm of criticism of this supposed “salary grab,” cost William Bibb his Senate seat, and evicted most of the state’s congressmen as well. By 1816, the Crawford party was reeling.
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The bitter climax of the David Mitchell-John Clark rivalry came after the War of 1812, when Mitchell resigned as Governor to serve as American agent to the Creeks, just as the “Clark party” emerged as Georgia’s dominant Republican faction. Agent Mitchell became involved in a slave-smuggling scheme, and Clark, elected Governor in 1819, grimly pursued allegations against him and publicized the results. Clark’s determined campaign, bolstered by his political alliance with Andrew Jackson, sparked an investigation by the Monroe Administration and led to Mitchell’s removal from office in 1821, further embarrassing the Crawford party.
The collapse of the Crawford Republicans was halted—and, to some extent, reversed–by the fiery George Troup, who returned from Congress to assume leadership of the organization, soon referred to as the “Troup party.” Troup and John Clark opposed each other for Governor three times between 1819 and 1825, with Clark winning in 1819 and 1821 by joint votes of the legislature. Troup defeated Clark lieutenant Matthew Talbot on a joint legislative ballot in 1823, and faced Clark again in 1825, when Georgia voters first elected a Governor directly.
Ironically, in 1825 “the people” chose the more “aristocratic” Troup, not the supposedly more “democratic” Clark, with Troup’s rapidly evolving “state rights” stance seemingly the deciding factor. As Governor, Troup used the national government’s apparent reluctance to fulfill the Compact of 1802 as a whetstone, further honing the aggressive state rights philosophy he had developed in Congress, and, perhaps unwittingly, helping lay the groundwork for acceptance by many in Georgia of John C. Calhoun’s doctrine of Nullification in the 1830s.
Exploiting his relationship with his cousin, Chief William McIntosh, Troup secured remaining Creek lands in Georgia through the Treaty of Indian Springs (1825). When the new John Quincy Adams administration disavowed that agreement on the grounds of corruption, Troup sparked an angry confrontation that, although it seemed at first to threaten civil war, eventually secured Creek lands for Georgia peacefully, thanks to two additional treaties (Washington, 1826; Fort Mitchell, 1827). With the Creeks finally divested of their Georgia lands, a Milledgeville editor smugly noted, the turn of the Cherokees had come, and the even uglier process of Cherokee removal began.
END OF PART I
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject: