Today, faith in government belongs to the nostalgia for a vanished American past.
- David Wise, 1972
How many times during the recent election campaign did you hear the following: If our forefathers knew what was happening in politics today they would roll over in their graves?
According to scores of election-weary residents, candidates are less qualified today, campaigns are dirtier, and politics get more corrupt every year. Angry voters made more resolutions last week than they do on New Years Eve: Im voting all the incumbents out! Id never support that man again! Im not even sure Ill bother to vote again!
But if you are familiar with early American and Georgia history, then you know the above perceptions are wrong. Politics are not getting worse. In fact, if the generations could somehow be reversed and the politics of today had preceded theirs, this generation would be groaning in our graves, not theirs.
The ink was hardly dry on the treaty to transform the Declaration of Independence from statement to fact before all that land between Georgias latter 18th-century settlements and her presumed new boundary, the Mississippi River, shone like diamonds to greedy, saucer-eyed land speculators in and around the state.
Called The Yazoo Lands, and named for a river that ran through the territory, the area which would one day become the states of Mississippi and Alabama was also identified by less flattering names, like monstrous fraud, colossal scheme and, a more flagrant case of wholesale legislative corruption was never known.
After several unsuccessful schemes, by 1795 four Yazoo Companies convinced the Georgia Legislature to sell them nearly 50 million acres of unsettled land - for the shameful price of less than 2 cents an acre. Bribes of huge tracts of land, or part ownership in the land companies, helped with the convincing. By the time the Yazoo Act was passed, most of the lawmakers or members of their families were personally involved.
One person not involved was one of Georgias U.S. Senators, James Jackson. Incensed at the news that the Yazoo Act had passed, Jackson resigned his Senate seat and returned home to correct the growing blight against his state. With Jacksons fiery temperament, and the assistance of men like Augustas John Twiggs and Columbia Countys own William Few, by the next year (1796) enough repentant legislators had been found to rescind the dastardly Act.
But it would take years to undo the damage. Before the second Act was passed, much of the land had already been sold to third and fourth parties, none of whom were willing to part with their purchase. Even at increasingly higher prices, resales at still bargain prices created profits no one wanted to lose. Then, when the new owners took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, the court ruled that Georgia didnt have the right to rescind the original Act after the land had been sold. Litigation continued until Congress appropriated $4 million to buy out the landowners and take possession of Georgias western lands. (Georgia was willing to part with the land in exchange for the governments promise to remove the remaining Indians from her remaining lands. But thats another story - and scandal - for another time.)
Meanwhile, few Yazooists were harmed politically. Thomas Cummings, whose home had been the headquarters for one of the Yazoo companies, became Augustas first intendent (mayor), and six of the eight legislators who signed the Act were re-elected.
Our hero, James Jackson, would continue his political career, too, first as governor and then in a return to the Senate seat he had previously resigned. He would also die at the age of 49, some say, because of injuries he incurred in the 23 duels he fought during the course of his principled, political life.
Another governor (and Yazooist), John Clark, called politics, peacetime war. The son of Revolutionary War hero Elijah Clarke, should know. His duels and feistiness are well-documented, too. In another era he would become a life-long rival of Columbia Countys best-known national politician, William H. Crawford.
But that, too, is another story.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer and author of As Long as the Rivers Run, a work in progress on the history of Columbia County. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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