I think there are times when you can say death is a release. And Patrick Henry's death may have been one of those. At the urging of George Washington, in the spring of 1799, Patrick stood for election one more time, for the Virginia House of Delegates. He ran as a Federalist. That may seem an odd political affiliation for a man who had opposed the new Federal Constitution, and Hamilton's Bank of the United States because they made the Federal government too strong. But what convinced him to join with Washington in supporting a strong central government was the threat of war with France – which never came. Patrick won his last election, but he never occupied his seat. He died of stomach cancer on June 6, 1799. His second wife, Dorothea, quickly married Patrick's friend, Judge Edmund Wilson, thus protecting the family investments from predators who might have cheated a naive widow. It is amazing to me the lengths to which men in western cultures had to go to, to avoid recognizing and treating women as equals.
George Washington, father of the nation, speculator and southern aristocrat, slave owner and builder of the American Republic, died in December of 1799. He was no less complex then any other man of his or any other age. But he had dedicated his life to service, which meant not that he forced others to do what he knew was right, but that his service enabled others to stumble toward a solution of their own, which most could agree upon. And that is the difference between those who toil for the good of the nation, and those who claim to do what is best for all, usually while serving only themselves. And that is what raised George Washington above his age, and made him the true father of our country. I think there are times when a life is gift to others. And George Washington gave us one of those gifts. Please remember to say “thank you” to him, at least once a day.
You might say something else to the memory of James Gunn. Once the details of the Yazoo Land sale became public, Senator Gunn was almost universally despised. But he still had six years to serve as a United States Senator. He spent most of that time demanding and handing out petty political favors. Most of his fellow Senators shunned him as much as possible, and toward the end of his term he announced he was “disgusted with everything connected with public life” - it was certainly disgusted with him. At the end of his term, in March of 1801, he returned to the old state capital of Louisville, Georgia and at the end of July 1801, in a room full of people, James Gunn died so quietly no one in the room noticed he was dead for several minutes. That would have galled him. One obituary called him “General Yazoo”, a reminder of his ego and those runaway slaves he had butchered so many years before. A kinder obituary hoped he was “beyond the reach of friendship, or of hatred.” I doubt that would be true, until everyone he cheated had died, which would take several more decades at least.
In January of 1798 James Jackson was elected Governor of Georgia. In his first two year term he over saw the creation of the new Georgia constitution, and personally wrote sections 23 and 24, which, again, voided the Yazoo land sales. He tried to drive a final stake through its heart by adding to the new document a proviso that “no...order shall pass the General Assembly, granting a donation or gratuity in favor of any person whatever...” except by a two-thirds vote. Jackson was elected to a second term, mostly by blaming the entire Yazoo mess on the Federalists. And with Thomas Jefferson and his Republicans winning the White House in 1800, Republican Governor Jackson guided the final disposal of the dreaded temptation of the Yazoo Lands to the Federal Government, in exchange for $1,250,000.
And when the “Prince of Duels” died on March 19, 1806, no one was more surprised and disappointed than James Jackson himself that he met his demise in bed, rather than on a 'Field of Honor'. I'm sure the constant brawls and dueling wounds contributed to his inability to fight off his last brief illness. We all die from our live's accumulated wounds. But a life spent fighting evil demands a final Homeric battle, and a Homeric conclusion, which James Jackson did not get. Death rarely offers nobility because the instant of death is the end of context.
The native American claims to the Yazoo lands they had been living on when Columbus stumbled upon America, were squeezed out of existence over the next fifty years. Washington wanted the “Five Civilized Tribes” as they were called, out of the way. Jefferson started the wholesale buying and stealing of their lands. And Andrew Jackson finished it in 1838 with the original “Trail of Tears”. The road to the next “Indian Territory” beyond the Mississippi River (now that Indiana was ethnically cleansed), was marked by a line of graves. Out of an estimated 17,000 Cherokee and their slaves forced on the trail, some 4,000 died, or in at least one case in southern Illinois, were murdered. We know of this latter episode of genocide because the murderers filed a $35 claim with the Federal Government to dispose of each their victim's bodies. Similar ethnic cleansing was suffered by members of the Chickasaw, Choctaw and Creek tribes. This people were murdered for their lands. There was no better justification for their murders.
Ninety percent of the lands beyond the Apalachicola River, what would became the states of Alabama and Mississippi, would still be bought by speculators, but from the Federal government. And the next generation of Americans would risk their fortunes to build dams and levees, to drain the Yazoo swamp lands and keep the river to a path, and would finally lay bare some of the richest agricultural soil in the world. It was here the next generation of Americans would grow cotton, which would be shipped to England and made into garments which would clothe the British Raj on the Indian sub-continent. There were profits aplenty for everybody, except, of course, for the slaves who picked the cotton.
And for the speculators who started it all. Patrick Henry,. David Ross, Robert Morris, John Nicholson, James Wilson and James Gunn, all failed to profit from their roles in the Yazoo Swamp land deal. Most lost everything. The profit making would be up to the next generation of “land jobbers” as they were called, in this case John Peck, and his partner in “the legal crime”, named Robert Fletcher.
Peck had been one of the original 1797 investors in the New England Mississippi Company, AKA the Upper Mississippi Company, AKA the Virginia Yazoo Company. And in 1803, seven years after the Georgia legislature had canceled the 1795 Yazoo land sales, Peck sold 13,000 acres in the companies' territory to Robert Fletcher for $3,000, or about 4 1/3 cents per acre. If the sale had been legitimate, it would have been about the only time in the history of the Yazoo speculation, that a seller not under threat of bankruptcy, had sold his shares for less than he had originally paid for them.
Which meant, of course, that the sale was a fraud – as the parties later fully acknowledge. It was the final act in a founding fatheres' farce designed by Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, who had died in 1798. Yes, he had risen from beyond the grave to complete Patrick Henry's swamp-land deal to the American tax payers - a capitalist hero.
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