I hope that on election day, Tuesday, 10 November, 1794, the members of the Georgia legislature did not realize the forces they were unleashing when they voted to return James Gunn to a second six year term in the U.S. Senate. But the entire rational for relying on politicians to select Senators, rather than voters, was that members of the legislature were better informed and more civic minded than hoi polli – a word from the ancient Greek democracies defining the general populace. However to even qualify as a voter you still had to be a white male property owner. So the distinguished members of the Georgia legislature were supposed to be the best of the best, brightest of the brightest, the most responsible of the responsible. Thus, I can only assume their willingness to return this amoral selfish bully to power was a conscious decision to sell their reputations to him - which they promptly did..
In the flunkies defense, it must be pointed out that Senator Gunn and his co-conspirators had been preparing for this moral yard sale for at least three years. Having bought up the Virginia Yazoo Company in late 1791, Gunn and his “Yankee” partners - Pennsylvanians Robert Morris, John Nicholson and James Greenleaf - had renamed it the "Upper Mississippi Company", to avoid the impression they were “foreign invaders”. Wade Hampton and his South Carolina Yazoo Company had gone even further, renaming their land grab "The Georgia-Mississippi Company". The Tennessee Company felt no such compunction to verbally pander for approval. But members of all three companies agreed to act as one, and cross traded in each others stocks. And as a joint committee of the Georgia legislature began to consider their bids, it was seen as politically expedient to form a fourth company, to be called "The Georgia Yazoo Company", from which land bribes might be more palatable to the locals. But the bylaws for this new bidder were written by Georgia judge Nathaniel Pendleton, who was an original shareholder in the "Virginia Company with Senator Gunn.
The partners even put it down on paper, agreeing in writing that it was “expedient to dispose of a considerable quantity” of the land they were offering to buy “to diverse persons...to effect the purchase”. In other words, the men behind all four Yazoo companies were willing to share what they were buying so cheaply from the citizens of Georgia, with the officials who were selling it to them so cheaply. In legal circles this is known as a kick back. And at the very center of this web of graft loomed the hulking frame of James Gunn.
After he was safely re-elected, Gunn warned Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, who owned 25,000 shares of the Upper Mississippi Company, “We have taken measures which will ensure Success. But...they are to be executed by men whose want of talents may ruin every thing.” And by talents he meant a willingness to be bought, and by a want of talent he meant a shred of integrity. Senator Gunn had already been handing out options worth 1,000 British pounds - called 'money shares - on the Yazoo lands to merchants in Savannah, including Mayor Thomas Gibbons, who was supposed to be the richest man in Georgia. The printer of the Augusta Southern Centinal newspaper, Alexander McMillan, was given 28,000 acres of land in the Georgia Company grant, to ensure at least one favorable newspaper. The Treasurer for the state of Georgia, Philip Clayton, was given 112,000 acres, and two of Governor George Mathews' personal secretaries got options on even more land. Even Governor Mathew's son-in-law received a land donation, although he kept suffering integrity relapses. In fact, Gunn warned every politician in Georgia they would not share in the bounty if they “did not vote for the bill.”
Gunn offered the Columbia County representative, James Simm, 50,000 acres for every fellow legislator he could convince to vote for the sale. He offered state Representative Robert Flournoy and state Senator Henry Mitchell 75,000 acres each in the Georgia Company's grant. Once the joint committee recommended accepting the primary bids on Friday 28 November, 1794, and the matter went before the entire state Assembly and Senate, legislators were treated to the image of United States Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, standing in the lobby of the Georgia State Capital with “$25,000 in his hands as a ready cash payment.”
Richmond County Representative Robert Watkins received no shares for his support. But his brother Thomas got shares in the Upper Mississippi Company, and his other brother Anderson got shares in the Tennessee Company. Representative Peter Van Allen opposed the sale, and Treasurer Clayton offered him 75 British pounds to just go home until the vote was over. That offer, Clayton told Van Allen, came from “General Gunn”. A similar offer was made to Georgia state Senators John Sheppered and Henry Mitchell. Another state Senator was offered $2,000 cash for his vote. And when he had the temerity to ask where the cash was coming from, Treasurer Clayton told him, “It is nothing to you.” Yet another state Senator was offered ten slaves for his vote. Representative Thomas Raburn was offered $600 for his - and he took it – and state Senator Robert Thomas received shares in the Georgia Company, which he later sold for $5,000 cash.
After a lot of behind the scenes pushing and shoving, the bill, nobly titled "An Act for appropriating a part of the un-allocated territory of this state for the payment of the late state troops, and...for the protection and support of the frontiers of this State, and for other purposes, " passed the Georgia Assembly by 19 to 9 on 2 January, 1795, and the Senate on 3 January by a vote of 18 to 10. Governor Mathews signed it into law on 7 January, 1795. There was only one member of the entire legislature who voted for the sale, who had not been personally bought off, and that was George Watkins, the man with two brothers, who had been. Had it all been worth it? Senator James Gunn and his conspirators had just bought 35 million acres of land, an area far larger then the original Yazoo Land Grants, and where the old grants had offered Georgia 24 cents an acre, these new grants promised to pay just 1 ½ cents an acre. It was a steal. In every way you looked at it.
And there was more. Among other "goodies" hidden in the bill was the clause that “the lands....shall be free from taxation, until the inhabitants thereof are represented in the legislature...” Translation; the speculators were not responsible for property taxes, and thus they produced no income to the state until they were sold to the suckers,...er, farmers. That made the grants easier to resell, which had been the goal from day one. Three months after the bill was signed, Wade Hampton sold the Upper Mississippi Company to three Boston speculators for $120,000 ($1.5 million today). However Senator Gunn was not so fortunate. The day after the sale became law, Senator Gunn was on his way back to Washington, D.C., Within two weeks Senator Gunn resold his lands for a measly $25,000 profit ($300,000 today) . He complained he “should have made a handsome profit, but for the dishonorable interference of some of my associates.” The buyer was his own partner, James Greenleaf.
What drove Senator Gunn to hurry was that he was already being hanged and burned in effigy in several parts of Georgia. It was the already humbled David Ross who had warned him of this. The open bribery used in the Georgia legislature, Ross counseled, “will not a little embarrass the members, and, I fear, increase your difficulties.”
Ah, how true that would prove to be. If this had been a monster movie, the villagers were about to show up with their pitchforks and flaming torches.
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