JULY 2018

JULY 2018
One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017


Sunday, October 21, 2012


I think the villain of our story is now Senator James Gunn. He was a big man, and a vulgar bully with a quick temper, who cheated the citizens of George out millions of dollars, when a million was the equivalent of today's 12 billions. And when Gunn complained about “dishonorable interference of some of my associates”, the associate he was referring to was his fellow Senator from Georgia, James Jackson. That makes Jackson the hero of this story. But if the truth be told – and that is my goal, here – the personalities of Senator Jackson and Senator Gunn were not all that different. They were both rich and arrogant men. And they were both hotheads, known to fight duels over issues of “honor”. In fact the only real difference between Jackson and Gunn, was that Jackson was nominally fighting for the rich people of Georgia, and Gunn was fighting for rich people everywhere.
Gunn started off by offering his 'associate' a bribe. The ever dutiful Supreme Court justice James Wilson approached Senator Jackson with the promise of half a million acres of prime Yazoo lands, in exchange for his support, or at least his silence on the Yazoo swamp-land sale. Senator Jackson replied that he had fought the Revolution for the people of Georgia, and “the land was theirs, and the property of future generations” At least that was what Senator Jackson said he said. But Jackson knew what he was facing. As another observer noted, there was “nothing is going on here but land speculation...by northern sharks, together with a few Georgians who only act as lackeys.”
Jackson immediately knew he needed allies. In February of 1795 President George Washington sent a copy of the Yazoo land sale to Congress, and suggested it violated a treaty his administration had signed with the Indians. Not that Washington was looking to protect native American claims to the land they were living on. Washington just wanted the Federal government to be responsible for moving them off.  And Senator Jackson helpfully offered a bill authorizing Washington to negotiate a treaty to do just that.  Like I said, the good guys and the bad guys in most situations, are not all that different, personality wise. Its who profits from their actions that matters.
As word of the bribery and the low sale price leaked out, the public outrage exploded. On 28 March, 1795,  the Augusta Chronicle newspaper called the sale “a hellish fraud”.  Inspired, an organized mob marched the 30 miles from Augusta  to the capital of Louisville, intent upon lynching the Yazoo Gang - those members of the legislature who had voted for the sale. All of the gang still in Louisville ran for the hills, and the 'Augustinians' were reduced to hanging them in effigy.  In fact every member of the Yazoo Gang state wide was forced into hiding. Some had their homes burned. A few who were caught were beaten, a few tared and feathered and run out of town on fence rails. Some were shot at. One legislator, so the story goes, was even tracked down hiding in Virginia, where he was lynched - and not in effigy.
Jackson thought about resigning his seat in the U.S. Senate to fight the sale, but Gunn's rehearsed process preceded so quickly that it was over before Jackson could move. The depressed Jackson wrote to a friend, “I have really a good mind to...turn speculator...There is a damn sight more to be got by it”  But after being encouraged by the uproar in Georgia, he took heart again, resigned from the Federal Senate, returned home and began writing anonymous letters to the newspapers attacking the sale.
“The enormous gain of the speculator,” wrote Senator Jackson, “and the magical conversion of funds of the state into the funds of the individual” were destroying peoples' faith in their government. He told the citizens of Georgia that “It remains to you to decide whether you will nip this aristocratic influence in the bud, or leave it to be torn up by your children...thus rendering them subservient to the base and servile passions of a few Nabobs…Patience and moderation are no longer virtues, but the most infamous offices, and will be detested, with their owners, as the sycophants of a venal day.”
Grand juries were convened throughout the state to investigate the bribery and attempted bribery of their local representatives. Most towns held public meetings to denounce the sale. The general population was up in arms because since 1780 Georgia had followed the “head rights rule”, under which each head of a family had the right to 200 acres of unclaimed land, plus fifty acres per family member. With land ownership came the right to vote, and a rise in social status. The truth was the vast majority of Georgia's hoi polli would never take advantage of the head right rule. It required investment in an ax, a cow or goats or pigs, and some equipment, which not that many people had the funds to buy. And even with that investment, starting a head right farm meant clearing unclaimed land, which was back breaking work, and dangerous, and most who tried it failed. But in 1795 owning land was the American dream. And the Yazoo Gang had bought that dream, and cheaply at that.
This push and pull between the “haves” and the “want to be haves”, was resulting in the first political split in the American republic. Along with slavery, it was the original wound in America, and both are scars that we keep reopening because we continue to treat them as “absolutes”; i.e.. we call them the “haves” and the “have nots”. George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, who were both land speculators, favored a strong central government, and called themselves Federalists. Thomas Jefferson, another land speculator, favored a weaker federal government, and his allies called themselves Democrats.  Senator Gunn, when he had a political philosophy, was a Federalists. Senator Jackson called himself a Democrat.  But those labels had very little to do with what had happened and what was about to happen in Georgia.  Gunn was an arrogant selfish hothead, and Jackson was an arrogant slightly less selfish hothead. The battle was between these two men who hated each other, not between doctrines.
The citizens of Georgia had already decided they needed a new Constitution, to match the new Federal one, but their constitutional convention which began on 3 May 3, 1795, was apoplectic over the Yazoo sale. The delegates could do little more than move the capital to Augusta, demand an investigation into the Yazoo sale, and then exhausted, adorned. Jackson won election to the Georgia Assembly in the fall of 1795.  In fact, in that election, all but two of the Yazoo Gang were voted out of office. The voters had spoken. In fact, the Yazoo Gang greatly strengthened the argument for universal suffrage. It turned out property owners were just as venal and prone to human failings as people who did not own property.
It was a spirit loose in the air, even in the heart of English minister and poet like Christopher Anstey. Ten years earlier this gentle man had been moved to write a long poem he called “Speculation”. “Whatever wild fantastic Dreams, Give Birth to Man's outrageous Schemes, Pursu'd without the least Pretence, To Virtue, Honesty, or Sense, Whate'er the wretched basely dare, From Pride, Ambition, or Despair, Fraud, Luxury, or Dissipation, Assumes the Name of—Speculation.” There was very little in Dr. Anstey's poem, written a decade before the French revolution, which does not apply to today's To-Big-Too-Fail bankers and hedge fund speculators.
Once in office, the new “Reform” Georgia Assembly would waste little time in dealing with the Yazoo gang. And that would open a whole new box of trouble, greed and lawyers.
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