THE MEANING OF THE REVOLUTIONARY PERIOD IN GEORGIA 1763 - 1789
WHAT were the main changes that six and one-half years of war, three and one-half years of British occupation, complete separation from Britain, and rapid physical and population growth brought to Georgia?
Throughout the period 1763-1789, much of Georgia’s thinking and action can be traced directly to the frontier with its warlike Indians, good lands, and frontiersmen’s conviction that a better day would soon arrive to compensate for the hard work and small rewards of the present. This frontier optimism can be seen over and over in actions of individual Georgians and of their government.
By 1763 Georgia had outgrown her idealistically impractical infancy and was enjoying a hardy adolescence. She was fast becoming an area of coastal rice plantations and small back-country farms. With the removal of the Spanish from the Floridas, her military security increased greatly. The movement of her boundary south to the St. Marys River and new cessions of Indian land which was opened to white settlement contributed to a rapid physical growth with a pushing back of the frontier that was to continue until the last Indians gave up their Georgia lands to the whites in the 1830s.
Within ten years the 1763 land cession was taken up, and frontiersmen—largely Scotch-Irish direct from Ireland and people from the colonies to the north—were clamoring for more of the rich lands to the north and west of Augusta. Adventurous spirits, people looking for better lands, and the dissatisfied came from as far north as Pennsylvania; but most were from the Carolinas and Virginia. In 1773 a new land cession was secured from the Creeks and the Cherokees that began filling up very rapidly and that helped the back country take on a new importance that was not fully realized by 1775.
Georgia’s colonial leadership came from her able royal governor and people of his type. Governor James Wright was an excellent example of eighteenth century conservatism at its best. He believed that everything and everybody had a place and should fall into that place naturally. Political and social leadership under the best of political systems, the British constitution, went naturally to the “better” people. Others should follow their lead without much questioning. Yet Wright was far from being a reactionary who insisted upon keeping everything as it had been. He was too close to the frontier not to know that change was inevitable. He would do his best to direct that change along acceptable lines. He carried out his orders from London, even if he often thought them not the best orders that could be given, and sent his opinions to his superiors in guarded and respectful language. Wright must have regarded Georgia somewhat as does the father of a large and often unruly but basically sound family. He lived with Georgians for fifteen years and was a close enough observer to know by 1775 how they would react.
From 1763 to 1775 the major concern in Georgia was with physical and economic growth, and considerable growth took place. At the same time came the troubles between the colonials and the British government beginning with the Sugar and Stamp acts of 1764-65. While there seems to have been some continuity of personnel in the opposition to the action of the British government, there is no indication that there was a continuing organization, like the popular party in Massachusetts, or that there was sufficient build-up of resentment against the British government to explode into rebellion. Rather it seems that each incident was separate and distinct unless in point of time it was connected with another. But by 1775 there had been enough incidents to build up considerable opposition.
Most of the basic causes of the American War for Independence had little immediate effect in Georgia. There was no extensive trading class to be concerned with the trade regulations and import duties imposed by the revenue laws. Naturally Georgians objected to additional taxes. Who does not? Georgia had few or no land speculators to object to the proclamation line of 1763 beyond which white settlement could not go. The colony had not yet settled far enough for the proclamation line to be an immediate hindrance to westward expansion. Georgia had few influential people who stayed in perpetual debt to British merchants as did the Virginia tobacco planters. The help of the British Indian Department and army against the warlike Creek Indians was certainly needed. The refusal of the British authorities to send troops when Indian war was feared in the 1770s probably hurt the British cause in Georgia and helped to bring on the actual break with England.
The question “Why did Georgia revolt?” is not easily answered. The answer lies in the fact that Georgians considered themselves Americans and were interested in and hurt by the same things that affected the other colonies. They had a sense of belonging that transcended their immediate problems and needs and caught them up in the general program of objection to British policy. They objected to the principles behind such things as the Quebec Act, the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, the Intolerable Acts—in short, to the whole attempt of the British government to acquire more power at the expense of the colonials. They were prepared to object in the same way that their fellow colonials did. The fact that Georgia almost always acted after the other colonies did and that her actions usually were similar to those of the other colonies, especially South Carolina, leads to the conclusion that Georgians would not have rebelled had they been left to themselves. To have found so small, weak, and physically exposed a colony in the forefront of revolution would have been most unexpected.
Once the fighting began, Georgia did about what could have been expected from a small, weak state close to the British garrison at St. Augustine and the British-backed Creek Indians. She could never defend herself alone, yet she occupied a frontier position, the protection of which helped the states to her north. The military fiascoes in Georgia were no worse than in other states. Georgians overthrew their colonial government and set up a state government much as did the other rebellious colonies. The state government from its very beginning was much more democratic than the colonial government had been. Effective political power passed immediately into the hands of the majority of the citizens to be used as they saw fit. Voting qualifications were low enough that practically every free man could vote, and the back country received a fairer proportion of representation in the assembly than it did in many of the older states. The fact that Whig military and political activity in Georgia kept that area within the American fold and out of complete British control was of great value to the United States when the peace treaty was written in 1782-83.
British occupation of much of the state during the fighting years limited the area over which the state government could exercise effective power and made the very existence of a state government doubtful for about a year. However, just as soon as there was enough of the state free of the British, a state government reasserted its authority. Most of the colonial political leadership had come from the coast. With the coast under British control for three and one-half years, the upcountry people made up the state government from 1779 through July, 1782, and they gained much political experience which would have been difficult to acquire in any other way.
When the British left Georgia in 1782, many of the old political leaders were dead, gone, or had acquired a Tory taint. The upcountry people did not give up their political importance acquired during the war years. Thus Georgia acquired a much better political balance between the upcountry and the coast than had ever existed before in Georgia and better than existed in older states like South Carolina and Virginia. Though a coast-upcountry political split did exist to some extent in the 1780s and into the nineteenth century, it was not nearly so serious a split as in some other states. With the rapid filling up of the upcountry, there was no chance that the coast could ever acquire real political control again. Upcountry political importance made for more social and economic equality in Georgia than had ever existed before and generally helped to bring more quickly the era of the supremacy of the common man to Georgia. Thus the War of the Revolution and the separation from Britain had a great deal to do with increasing political, economic, and social democracy in Georgia. All Georgians soon realized this changed condition, from which many of them profited.
A comparison of typical leaders in the pre- and postwar years illustrates very well this new importance of the common man. Governor James Wright and James Habersham are good examples of colonial leadership. Wright was a professionally trained lawyer from the English Inns of Court who rose on the ladder of colonial officeholding because of his own ability and not through influence at court. Habersham had come to Georgia in the days of its youth and had grown with it until he became one of the most respected men in the colony. Both men accepted without question the pattern of deference to England and the social stratification so common in the eighteenth century. After the Revolution, Elijah Clarke and George Walton were typical political leaders. Clarke was a North Carolina frontiersman who came to Georgia with almost no material goods but with ability to succeed in the rough-and-tumble society of the frontier. He was a leader in the severe back-country fighting of the war years and a real force in postwar politics. He was usually a member of the assembly, often a member of the council, and a militia brigadier general in the decade after the war. Yet his biographer does not think that he ever learned to write even his own name. Walton was a Virginia orphan who had been apprenticed to a carpenter. He came to Georgia, read law, and began to assume importance during the Revolution. He maintained his position of importance—as governor, chief justice, member of the Continental Congress, member of the Constitutional Convention, and United States senator—by an aggressive leadership that got things done and appealed to frontier voters. He was one of the most popular leaders in Georgia in the 1780s and a real force in state politics. Neither Clarke nor Walton would likely have risen to such important positions so easily in colonial Georgia. Truly, they were products of the Revolution.
Once the British were out of the state, Georgians did not think that anything could hold them back—certainly not “a few Indians.” The Creeks had more fighting men than Georgia; they had Spanish backing, and the excellent leadership of Alexander McGillivray. Yet they were never too much for Georgia frontiersmen—that is, until the Creeks were really ready to fight. Then the call for help from Georgia went out to South Carolina, Franklin, Virginia, the United States, or anybody else who might help. Advice from the more conservative Georgians to go slow was almost never heeded, and the frontiersmen usually carried the state government along with them in the effort to secure the lands they wanted from the Creeks. Frontiersmen had that supreme confidence in the right of their position and in their ability to accomplish what they wanted.
Throughout the entire period of 1763-1789, Georgia’s physical growth was fairly steady and really quite remarkable. The situation during the war years is difficult to document with any degree of certainty; but there is no doubt that there was growth between 1776 and 1782, especially in the back-country region of Wilkes County. Georgia offered unlimited political and economic opportunity for people of ability who were willing to work for what they wanted. The final removal of the restraining hand of the British government in 1782 and the absence of any other restraints, except the ability of the individual concerned, made for rapid growth in most ways.
Georgia’s postwar political democracy has long been known and praised by Georgians. Social and economic democracy, certainly as important, have not received the same amount of emphasis. Religion, education, and ease of land ownership are good examples in these fields. In the colonial period the Anglican church occupied a position of privilege not commensurate with the number of its communicants. With the loss of this favored position during the war, the Anglican church quickly lost its importance to the Methodist and Baptist churches, the churches of the frontiersman and Georgia’s leading denominations ever since. The creation of what amounted to a statewide public school system and a state university in the postwar decade was an advance that could hardly have been made in the colonial period. The struggles of George Whitefield to change Bethesda into a college prove this. The public school system did not long continue as envisioned by its creators, but perhaps the state lost its vision of human perfectibility for the common man. Confiscation of Tory estates and the removal of colonial restraints to land granting enabled Georgians to get more land—the economic basis upon which both political and social democracy were built—easier and cheaper than ever before.
Once the storm and dust of battle had cleared away, it was possible to see the changes that had taken place. The majority of Georgians accepted these changes as good. A few of the old privileged group who went along with the separation from England were not so certain. Others, like Governor Wright, must have thought their world was falling apart, as indeed it was. Wright lived to see the fall of the old Georgia that he loved and had done so much to create, but he did not survive long enough to see the new and different Georgia that emerged from the chaos and ruin of war—a Georgia that he should have been able to predict in large measure had his knowledge and vision not been dulled by longings for the old order which would not return. Perhaps it was just as well that Wright did not live long enough to see the new Georgia. He might not have understood the possibilities of the changes any more than Edmund Burke did those of the French Revolution in 1790. Frontier Georgians did understand the possibilities and worked hard to take full advantage of them.