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Sunday, November 04, 2012

GEORGIA PEACHES Part Eight

I seemed to have lost track of Patrick Henry in our story, but let me catch you up. After the original 1789 Yazoo Swamp-Land deal fell through, Patrick had sold most of his shares in the now almost worthless Virginia Yazoo Company to Georgia Senator James Gunn and the North American Land Company (Robert Morris, John Nickleson and James Greenleaf). They had renamed it the Northern Mississippi Company, and in 1795 completed the purchase of the same land (and more) from Georgia for 1.4 cents per acre. Patrick seriously considered suing Georgia, claiming he still had a legal claim to the land, but the suit was never filed. In the meantime he had developed stomach troubles, and was popping out children (11 in all) with his second wife, Dorthea Dandridge Henry.
And just as an aside; the sixth and last child of Patrick Henry's first wife, Sarah, the child whose birth had released Sarah's demons, had been named Edward, and he had grown into one of Patrick Henry's favorites. The proud father gave Needy 949 acres on the Smith River and Leatherwood creek, near the home of Patrick's sister, Martha Fontaine. Neddy had studied to be a lawyer, like his father, but in 1793, at just 23 years of age, and shortly after passing the bar, Edward Henry had died suddenly while visiting his aunt Martha. The last trace of Sarah's sacrifice was then laid to rest in sacred ground.
But back to our main story. First of the great speculators to succumb to the collapse of the North American Land Company was the young man who had promised so much and delivered so little, James Greenleaf. He was first I suspect because he just wasn't that bright. The fulcrum of his over leveraged lifestyle had finally dropped him like a sack of wet sorghum, and even unloading his personal debts on his business partners had not saved the young silver tongued seducer. Late in 1796 he was arrested, and thrown into Philadelphia's dreaded Prune Street Debtors Prison.
It was part of the larger Walnut Street jail, an imposing structure which housed 300 prisoners, but in the back, in a two story building originally designed as a work house, was the small debtors jail. All the prisoners were expected to pay for their own incarceration. It was a strange system considering the prisoners were in jail because they were broke. Those with wealthy friends willing to pay could receive better food or even a small private apartment. Still, one look at his new dismal surroundings, and a desperate Greenleaf had his lawyers petition for his immediate release. But Robert Morris' instructed his lawyers to intervene. They reminded the court that the young seducer had been granted a divorce in Rhode Island, which meant he was an out-of-state debtor, and the law required they remain in jail for at least six months. In fact James Greenleaf would remain behind bars much longer than that.
Morris may have preferred that Greenleaf was skinned alive, but actually, the debt left him and Nicholson by Greenleaf was a mere drop in a rising tide of unpaid promises. And if Greenleaf had lied about his contacts with the Dutch banks, Morris had wanted to believe those lies, and his used them as leverage in building his own empire. That empire, built by borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, was collapsing with demands for payment from both. Morris' mansion in Philadelphia was so heavy besieged by creditors, that he retreated to the country estate he called “The Hills”.
He was most repelled by the idea of sharing a cell with his old partner Greenleaf. He wrote Nicholson, “I do not want to be under the same roof with such a scoundrel.” But at last, on February 15, 1798, one venal vindictive creditor named George Eddy, aided by a local sheriff, managed to lay hands on the great speculator. The amount owed to Eddy was small (by Morris's standards), but even this pittance the largest private land owner in North America could not pay. Morris wrote to a friend, “George Eddy is the most hardened villain God ever made. I believe if I had bank bills to pay him with he would refuse them on the ground of their not being legal tender. He was positively determined to carry me to Prune Street last night, but the sheriff humanely relieved me from his rascally clutches.” It was only an overnight stay of execution. The next day, Robert Morris, signer of the Deceleration of Independence, entered the Prune Street Debtors jail. Now living under the same roof, Morris refused to even acknowledge Greenleaf's presence, studiously avoiding him in all encounters.
John Nicholson held out for another year, until the winter of 1799 when the 43 year old joined his partners behind bars. There he lost not only his fortune (creditors squeezed $8 million from his estate), Nicholson also lost his mind. He still owed $4 million His wife and eight children were now destitute. And he died in the Prune Street Jail, on December 5th, . 1800. Robert Morris survived the humiliation, supported by his wealthy sons, but he died four years later, still $12 million in debt and occasionally harassed by creditors. And James Greenleaf, the despised debonair silver tongued seducer of women and money, survived as well. Shortly after his release he married Anne Penn Allen, a lovely and wealthy Washington socialite. But this lady was more careful than Greenleaf's Dutch bride. Before the wedding Ms Penn Allen put her sizable estate in a trust, where James Greenleaf was never able to reach it. Not that he didn't continually try, until his death in 1843.
Meanwhile, the North American Land Company lived on, as did the Yazoo Companies. Remember that the day the Georgia legislature had signed the Rescinding Act into law in February of 1796, James Greenleaf had unloaded the Georgia Mississippi Company for 10 cents an acre on a group of prominent Boston speculators headed by Judge William Wetmore, businessman Leonard Jarvis Sr and Henry Hampton . One year later Judge Wetmore's group re-sold the company to yet another group which included a Boston speculator named John Peck. In 1797 Peck's group renamed it the New England Mississippi Company. They also hired a Boston Law firm which offered the legal opinion that the “Rescinding Act” by the Georgia legislature had been unconstitutional. That made it legal to sell shares in their Yazoo lands for 33 cents an acre. By 1798 the New England Mississippi Company had attracted $2 million, mostly from small investors, including 1,200 in Maryland alone, all gambling that somehow the courts would approve the Yazoo Swamp-Land sale.
James Jackson was determined that would never happen. Elected Governor of Georgia in 1798 he ensured a substantial chunk of his Rescinding Act was written into the new state constitution. And in 1802 he oversaw the sale of all of the Georgia's claims to the Yazoo lands, everything beyond the Apalachicola River to the Mississippi, to the federal government, in exchange for $1.3 million. The fact this represented a defacto recognition of Federal power over the states was ignored by the Jeffersonian-Republicans who brokered the deal. Functional politics is never ideological. And to Jackson it was an absolute that the Yazoo Swamp-Land deal was an abomination, even refusing to pay the printer who published a codification of laws under the old constitution, because the volume included proscribed laws which mentioned the sale.
It wasn't as simple as that, of course. The publisher of the codification was Robert Watkins, son of a state Representative in the excommunicated 1795 legislature. Robert had even received land in the heinous deal, and his inclusion of the interdicted laws was probably no accident. Still, they had been laws lawfully passed by the elected legislature and the historical record required their presence. But Governor Jackson stubbornly refused to pay him.
One afternoon in 1802, in the new Georgia capital of Augusta, the ex-Governor and newly elected U.S. Senator James Jackson was confronted on the street by the infuriated printer. Robert Watkins denounced Jackson as a “pygmy general” and a member of a “damned venal faction which has disgraced Georgia.” Where upon Jackson whacked Watkins in the face with his cane. Watkins returned the favor by using his waking stick to hit Jackson on the head, drawing blood. Jackson pulled a pistol, but somebody knocked it out of his hand. Watkins lept upon Jackson, and tried to gouge his eyes out. Jackson bit Watkins fingers', causing Watkins to roll away, screaming in pain. And while everybody was trying to catch their breath, Watkins pulled a pistol with a spring loaded bayonet, and stabbed Jackson in the chest. The blade missed his heart by an inch. Friends were finally able to pull the two hot heads apart.
It seemed that even five years after the Yazoo Swamp-Land Deal had been “rescinded”, it was still trying to rise from the dead, like every good movie monster.
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