I know it is unfair to judge Patrick Henry by 21st century standards. He was an 18th century man. He was a slave owner, who measured his wealth in part by how many other human beings he owned. But the hypocrisy of speaking for freedom while holding part of humanity in bondage, was not completely lost on him or Jefferson or Washington. It might be helpful to remember that all of the founding fathers were only as brave and cowardly, wise and foolish, kind and cruel, selfish and giving as any person reading these words. And they were just as guilty as current politicians and modern “money managers” of humanity's greatest sin – a lack of humility.
Which brings me to the Virginia born, pugnacious and ambitious and very un-humble James Gunn. In 1777 this “arrogant (and) ambitious” 26 year old enlisted in the Continental cavalry under “Light Horse Harry” Lee. James rose to the rank of captain, and in 1780 he was dispatched to accompany General Gates, to recover the disaster when the British captured the port of Savannah, Georgia.. However Gates produced his own disaster at Camden. The fleet footed Gates was replaced by the very different General Nathaniel Greene. And Captain James Gunn provided General Greene with his first opportunity to restore discipline. The intimidating young Gunn had stolen a race horse from a South Carolina widow, and used it to cheat his fellow officers and locals in a “fixed” race. Reprimanded, James challenged his new commander to a dual. But Greene was protected by General Washington's orders that he not engage in duels. For once Gunn had to swallow the insult.
After the end of the land war at Yorktown, in late 1781, James Gunn decided to stay in Savannah. He passed the bar. He also renewed his demand that Nathaniel Greene give him satisfaction for the war-time insult. The matter was settled when the 43 year old Greene died of sunstroke, in 1785. The next spring James Gunn was called out by the militia to put down a slave “revolt”. In fact they had just run away. What the escaped slaves' plans actually were was unclear, but it was claimed there were 150 of them (unlikely), they were all men (unlikely) and they had been trained by the British (very unlikely). In any event, Gunn marched his little army ten miles northwest of Savannah, to Zubley's Ferry on the South Carolina border. He located the runaways and dispatched just 14 men to charge their encampment. The runaways fled into Bear Creek Swamp, where the brave Georgia militia butchered most of them. From that day forward, he was known derisively as “General Gunn”.
But the assault did not hurt his reputation in certain Savannah circles. And in 1787 James Gunn was appointed to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. However he could not be bothered to show up. Still, in 1789 the 36 year old bully was selected as one of Georgia's new United States Senators. He showed up for that job, missing about 40% of his roll call votes. His only real Senate claim to real fame was when he blocked one of President Washington's appointments, because the naval officer, Benjamin Fishbourn, would not play ball with Senator Gunn and his friends. It was the first Presidential appointment blocked by a Senator. Gunn saw government service as just an extension of his personal business, and he saw world events, like the French Revolution, as a series of business opportunities.
When the mob stormed the Bastille in Paris in July of 1789, they set set off a seemingly endless series of wars, as the royal houses of Europe ineffectually sought to suppress the revolutionaries, and the revolutionaries tried to outdo each other in grotesque self destructive violence. This chaos inspired all the spare cash in Europe to start looking for deeper pockets to hide in. Senator Gunn figured American land speculation, like that old forgotten Yazoo swamp-land scheme, would look safe by comparison. The partners Gunn chose would prove no more trustworthy than the French mob, or worse, the European nobility.
Remember the Bank of North America, the financial institution which had saved the revolution? It was the invention of Robert Morris, the “Mozart of American finance”, a Philadelphia speculator and patriot. Since the revolution, Morris had founded several canal companies, a steam engine manufacturing company, built the first rolling iron mill in America, and was in negotiations to buy half of western New York state for $333, 333.33. (Morris knew as much about self promotion as Donald Trump.) Morris's long time business partner was the trusted Comptroller for the state of Pennsylvania, John Nicholson. He was responsible for collecting the state's taxes, and liquidating the estates of absentee loyalists. He quietly got rich doing that, and now owned iron and textile manufacturing firms, himself. He had shared many of these opportunities with Morris. And to connect these three wealthy men to their European investors, Gunn, Morris and Nicholson chose as their fourth partner young James Greenleaf, the U.S. Counsel to the Netherlands, who boasted he could snap his fingers and produce a million dollars of gold and silver from his dutch banker friends.
Gunn also decided he needed a couple of local Georgia front men. James Wilson had twice been elected to the Continental Congress from New York, and had been one of the original men nominated by President Washington to the Supreme Court. At the time it was such an easy gig, ( in its first decade the court heard only nine cases), that Wilson did double duty covering the Federal courts in Georgia, which officially made him a local boy. And as a “silent partner”Gunn enticed Nathaniel Pendleton to invest in his scheme. Pendleton had been Georgia's Attorney General in 1785-86. He was now the Federal Judge for the district of Georgia, and could be counted on to make legal judgments that favored his friends. That was, of course, a secret to those who appeared in his courtroom. So, with the investors in place, Gunn now needed to get his hands on the old Virginia Yazoo company.
Remember Patrick Henry's partner, David Ross? He had built his fortune by buying up abandoned properties from fleeing loyalists, including the Oxford Iron Works, which he now owned in full and had converted to a fully slave labor enterprise. By 1787, when the Yazoo swamp-land schemes had been in vogue, Ross was one of the wealthiest men in Virginia, but his fortune was built on a precarious foundation, with each new venture financed by borrowing on the last. The cancellation by Georgia of the Virginia Yazoo Companies' s project had reduced the value of company shares to almost nothing. And that had started the dominoes of Ross' empire, to falling. Creditors were now nipping at his heels, and slave iron workers were no more productive than plantation slaves. In 1791, Ross was forced to sell most of his shares in the Virginia Company, first 5% to South Carolinian Wade Hampton, (who was now running the Carolina Yazoo company) and most the rest to the rapacious Senator from Georgia, James Gunn.
Now, as mentioned earlier, the American Government had been trying to take the Yazoo lands off Georgia's hands for a decade and more. But the Peach State's politicians had repeatedly refused every offer. They were convinced there was money in 'them-there' swamps – somehow. The problem was, if they were going to find a profit in the place, they were going to have to defend it first. In 1793 the arrogant red faced fire-plug, Governor George Mathews had been elected to his second non-consecutive term, partly on a platform of defending Georgia's western border against all challengers, be it from Federal government, the Spanish or the Indians. And by the border Mathews meant the Mississippi River. But Georgia did not have the money to build the line of forts Mathews wanted, and for some reason, he couldn't get the Federal government to loan him the cash.
Logically, Georgia had no choice but to resurrect the Yazoo land deal. At least, that was the logic of Senator Gunn, and Governor George Mathews. Suddenly everything was coming together rather nicely for the Yazoo swamp land deals.