I have always been confused about Patrick Henry. He is famous for saying, “Give me liberty or give me death”, a bold statement that should have gotten a lot of press and yet, nobody at the time recorded him saying it. He also supposedly said “If this be treason, let us make the most of it”, another bold statement which, again, nobody wrote down at the time. What is fact is that he was a lawyer, whose most famous trial was defending the colony of Virginia against a greedy minister. Patrick was a three time governor of Virginia, and so suspicious of the power of government that we largely have him to thank for the Bill of Rights, today a beacon of freedom for billions of people world wide. But then there was his time as CEO of the Virginia Yazoo Company, when he sold swamp land to unsuspecting suckers – the American taxpayers.
My guess is the Yazoo Indians were only joking with French explorer Robert de La Salle, but maybe the gag was lost in translation. In 1682, when la Salle asked about the water at the edge of their town, they told him it was a river; ha, ha. But before fifty years of back breaking clearing of undergrowth, followed by two centuries of unending and expensive flood control, that “river” did not so much flow to the Mississippi, as it seeped. In an hydrological provenance this 100 mile wide by 180 meandering mile long sponge on the east bank of the Mississippi River is more correctly described as a flood plain. However there have been far drier places in America which the natives have more honestly refereed to as a swamp. But the last laugh was on the Yazoo Indians because La Salle named the “river” after them.
If the Yazoo River - slash swamp - was owned by anybody in 1789 besides the natives who lived there, it was Charles IV, King of Spain. Of course, an absentee landlord is an invitation to fraud, and it wasn't long before the confidence men showed up. And since nobody would be interested in buying a section of the Yazoo Swamp, in their advertising these con men called it the Yazoo Lands. And it was this fraud that Patrick Henry, patriot and ex governor of Virginia, put his name on. In his defense, he needed the money. And his company had company.
Besides Patrick Henry's Virginia Yazoo Company, there was the Tennessee Yazoo Company and the Carolina Yazoo Company, all wanting to sell a swamp they did not own. They formed the first American lobby firm, the Combined Society, whose secretly stated purpose was “By means of certain influences...to obtain from the State (of Georgia) large grants of land...for the end of making a large sum of money...” They were certain they could obtain a deed from Georgia, because Georgia not only needed money, it also needed people.
Now, by “people”, I mean white men with property. In this new American democracy the people living on the land, the Yazoos, the Creek and the Shawnee, did not count as people. They were savages. And the dark skinned souls forced to literally slave in Georgia, were 'simple darkies'. And neither were white women. They were hysterical. And neither did white men who did not own property. They were lazy, stupid alcoholics. No, this little fraud was conceived, packaged and sold exclusively by morally superior rich white men. But don't worry, the people who ended up paying for it were sexually and ethnically a very diverse group; everybody else. And the people the rich white men started by fleecing were the war veterans.
See, after the revolution the rich white men running Georgia saw the veterans as young hotheads – we might even call them “revolutionaries”. The state had promised them rewards, either cash, which it did not have, or land, which would give the hot heads the right to vote which the powerful did not want to share. What seemed to be the solution to this conundrum popped up in 1784, going by the name of Colonel Thomas Marston Green. Green had been living in the woods out near the Mississippi River, when suddenly a bunch of Spanish soldiers and bureaucrats showed up. Spain had a new treaty from France giving them property rights to the area - again, nobody asked the Indians - and the new owners wanted to do inventory. Well, Colonel Green realized that after the inventory would come the taxes. And he hated paying taxes. So that fall he showed up in the state capital of Louisville in Jefferson County, demanding that Georgia take over the Yazoo territory, forming the largest county in the young United States around his plantation. He would run this new Bourbon County, of course. He had no objection to collecting taxes. And since this would swallow up all those troublesome veterans, on February 7, 1785, the rich white men running Georgia passed the Bourbon County Act. Snap: problem solved.
Unfortunately, it didn't work. Green went home and told the Spanish that Georgia was now running things and they could just get out. The Spanish authorities threw him in jail. And as long as Georgia was taking that attitude, the Spanish decided Americans could no longer use the port of New Orleans to ship their produce to market. That made the settlers in Kentucky and western Georgia, very unhappy. They needed New Orleans to reach their customers; no customers, no money. In 1788 the state of Georgia backed down and repealed the Bourbon County Act. But that still left the problem of all those veterans.
The next answer they tried in the fall of 1788 was the infamous Pine Barren Land Speculation, in which about thirty million acres of Georgia were awarded to a dozen rich white men, who surveyed it (badly) and sold it off (quickly). The only problem was that Georgia at the time contained only nine million acres in total, which meant a lot of veterans and speculators were granted duplicate titles, and pretty much left to fight it out amongst themselves. When the would-be farmers realized the level of fraud, land prices went from sky high to bargain basement overnight, inspiring a fake advertisement, offering, “ Ten millions of acres of valuable pine barren land in the province of Utopia, on which there are several very sumptuous air castles, ready furnished”.
It was a great scandal, and lots of people (including a lot veterans) were financially broken in the scam. But like the Savings and Loan debacle of the 1980's, nobody learned a thing from it. Just a year later, in 1789, the state of Georgia, under the governorship of an arrogant fire plug named George Mathews, did it all again, only bigger. And this was where Patrick Henry got into the game – which was rigged, of course. And by him, of course.
It was enough to make you wonder why the American people continue to have such childlike faith in capitalism, considering how often they keep end up getting screwed by it. It's a morality play, of sorts, if the moral is "they never learn"..