We know not what they differ about, but they do violently differ.
- Hezekiah Niles, on early 19th-century politics in Georgia
If Dr. Ellis Coulter had taught history somewhere besides the University of Georgia, the setting of his book, Old Petersburg, might have been different. But its doubtful any book about early American politics would have varied much from what happened in Georgia. Still, knowing what did happen here 200 years ago may alter your opinion about the nature of politics today.
The two-party system was alive and well in most of the newly independent states, but so many Georgians claimed to be Jeffersonians, or Democrat-Republicans, that the low-rated Federalist Party barely had a presence here. But what sounds like political heaven didnt quite materialize.
Coulters description of the - literally - deadly competition which occurred within that dominant political party in the backcountry of Georgia (Augusta to Petersburg, the little tobacco town that once stood where the Broad River meets the Savannah) is at best a fascinating read, and at least an antidote for the pre-election blahs of today.
It all started with the Yazoo land fraud. Georgia, which before the Revolution covered not much more than a narrow strip of land hugging the Savannah River, now stretched to the Mississippi River, and it didnt take long for clever heads to realize how profitable all that real estate could be.
Almost immediately a group of well-connected men here in the backcountry constituted one of four Yazoo companies (named for a river in the western lands) which sprang up across the southeast. Before they could make their scheme work, however, the companies first had to acquire some of that state-owned land for themselves. But that wasnt hard. Many of the Georgia legislators were members of the land-speculation companies anyway, and the rest were easily bribed.
The congenial, one-party politicians soon passed the Yazoo Act of 1795, which allowed the sale of 35 million acres of land to the Yazoo companies for about 1 cent an acre. Even if the land resold at the bargain price of 10 cents an acre, the landholders would soon realize great wealth.
The citizens of Georgia were outraged that public land had been usurped by a conspiring few. Georgia Sen. James Jackson was so incensed he resigned his congressional seat to come home and help repeal the despicable act. Since Jackson was from Savannah and would need a backcountry assistant, he chose William Crawford, the prominent politician from Oglethorpe County who had spent his early life in Columbia County.
The resolution of the Yazoo story will have to be told at another time, but this fiasco created a wrenching split in Georgias one-party system. Jackson and Crawford became the Crawfordite wing, while John Clark (son of Revolutionary War hero, Elijah Clark) and associates called themselves Clarkites, although the other side called them Yazooists, or worse: Federalists.
From then on, any public or political transaction could lead to dire consequences. When attorney Charles Tait, a Crawfordite, prosecuted suspected embezzler George Cook, the defendants attorney, Clarkite Peter Van Allen, spent more time attacking Tait than he did Cook.
Tait was so angry he challenged Van Allen to a duel. Van Allen declined the challenge because he didnt consider Tait anywise a gentleman, and the purpose of a duel was to defend a gentlemans honor.
Tait countered this insult by attacking Van Allen for his public defamation of both himself and his friend and ally, William Crawford.
I will not call you an insidious rascal, a corrupt villain, or a dastardly communicator, Tait wrote to Van Allen, but perhaps, with all imaginable ease, I can prove as such.
That did it. Now Van Allen challenged Tait to a duel, and it was Taits turn to refuse.
But the quarrel went on. Finally, Van Allen insulted Crawford and challenged him to a duel. Crawford accepted - and felled Van Allen with his second shot.
There were many duels in those days, perhaps as Coulter writes, because duels were convenient ways to get rid of political opponents. But when the two party leaders, Crawford and Clark, were ready to fight a duel with each other, they were dissuaded by allies on both sides, all of whom realized the devastating prospect of losing the leadership of one or both sides.
In 1809 dueling was outlawed in Georgia, but so deeply embedded was the custom that for more than half a century thereafter a few duels were being fought.
Now, dont you feel better about the Walker-Burns-Barnes-Perdue-Cleland-Chambliss verbal duels?
(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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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