"His unselfishness... thrilled the entire commonwealth (and) reached to the utmost limits of the continent... Georgia's good name was redeemed... chiefly due to the patriotic purse of George W. Crawford."
-- Lucian Lamar Knight
George W. Crawford was born at Belair Plantation in Columbia County on December 22, 1798 where, except for political service, he would remain for most of his life.
Much of his education occurred there, too, in the well-stocked library of his father, Columbia County's first Clerk of Courts Peter Crawford, who was also his son's early mentor and life-long role model. He continued his education at Princeton before returning home to study law in Augusta.
By age 24 the young lawyer had opened his own practice, and at 29 was appointed attorney general for the Middle Judicial District of Georgia to fill an unexpired term. Two years later he was re-elected to that office in his own right.
But George Crawford did more than follow in his father's political and professional footsteps. He carried on the business of Belair Plantation so effectively that before long he was the wealthiest of all the Crawfords. Later, when he was at the peak of his political career, he would make a magnanimous gesture with part of his wealth that made an enormous impact on all Georgians.
Crawford left politics after two terms as attorney general, but he wouldn't be just a planter for long. In 1837 he was elected to the state Legislature, remaining until 1842 when he was appointed to Congress to fill a brief, unexpired term. The next year he returned to Georgia to run for governor, and easily won the first of two successive, two-year terms. He was Georgia's only Whig governor, and the only person from Columbia County to this date to occupy the state's highest chair.
Gov. Crawford inherited a budgetary mess. In fact, his victory at the polls was considered a protest against the growing Democratic surge across the county, and the belief that Whigs were more financially sound than Democrats.
The governor's first move in addressing this urgent problem stunned his own people and reverberated across the country: He offered $150,000 of his own fortune to ease the state's badly impaired credit, then continued his crusade to improve Georgia's economic plight.
Crawford reduced the budget, liquidated the inefficient Central Bank, established sound currency and paid off much of the state's indebtedness -- in just four years. He also is credited with accelerating construction of the state-owned Western and Atlantic Railroad and, after years of wrangling about how it should be done, establishing the first State Supreme Court.
The railroad delay had been caused by the state's inability to obtain credit, but Crawford secured financing from private donors -- likely including himself -- and used slave labor to complete the project. By launching the Supreme Court, he brought uniformity to judicial decision-making across Georgia for the first time.
When his second term ended in 1847, Crawford once again retired to his law practice, plantation and a new interest: real estate investing. But his success as governor had brought him to the attention of the national Whig Party, and in 1849 he became secretary of War under Whig President Zachary Taylor.
Unlike his famous cousin William, however, his would not be a lengthy Crawford stay on the national scene. When President Taylor died suddenly the next year, this Crawford returned to Georgia and to the private world he expected to enjoy the rest of his life. But privacy would elude him, first by a long and eventually discounted claim that his wealth had been achieved by less-than-honorable means, and later for circumstances beyond the borders of his plantation, his state or his ability to control.
Most Georgians remained fond of their former governor, and though he was reluctant to leave private life to do their bidding, when tensions peaked across the South over slavery, economics and states' rights, Crawford accepted the reins of public service for one last time. In January 1861, delegates from Georgia's existing 132 counties gathered at the state Capital in Milledgeville to consider seceding from the United States. George W. Crawford was their unanimous choice to serve as president of Georgia's Secession Convention.
Despite the tribute he left on the tombstones of his parents, Peter and Mary Ann Crawford, there is no glowing epitaph on the grave of their loyal son. Following the former governor's death in 1872, he was buried in Augusta's Summerville Cemetery near the grave of John Milledge, another Georgia governor. An iron railing surrounds the unadorned grave, with no marker except the name, George W. Crawford, attached to the gate.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. This column is an excerpt from As Long As The Rivers Run, her work in progress on the early history of Columbia County. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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