[This is the third in a series of posts on the American Revolution in Georgia and its consequences for politics in the state during the decades after the war. (For earlier posts, see here and here.)] There had always been differences of opinion between Georgia’s governors and her assemblies, and even between the Council and the Assembly, so the arguments that developed in the colony between 1765 and 1774 were hardly unprecedented. The new element injected into those later disputes was the question of the rights of Georgians as Englishmen, and of their Commons House of Assembly as a representative body. Though Georgia’s lower house seldom acted hastily, and usually adopted only a lukewarm course once action was decided upon, the once warm relationship between the people’s representatives and their governor had been permanently altered.
Governor Sir James Wright was a determined man who battled tenaciously to uphold the King’s power in the face of opposition in the Assembly. The end result was a stalemate. If this can be reckoned as a victory of sorts for Governor Wright, it was dearly won: Georgia’s radicals, frustrated in their efforts to prevail within the system, soon began to act outside it and eventually succeeded in wresting power from the colony’s royal government.
The Assembly protested against passage of both the Revenue Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765 but couched those protests in economic rather than constitutional language. As dutiful subjects, the members did not question the authority of Parliament to levy the taxes, arguing instead that the Revenue Act would injure Georgia’s trade with the British West Indies and that both measures placed a heavy financial strain on the young colony. The Assembly urged Georgia’s London agent to join other colonial agents in working to repeal the Stamp Act before hotheads went too far in denying Parliament’s authority in the matter. Outside of the Assembly, a small group of self-proclaimed “patriots” tried to prevent the Stamp Act from being enforced in Georgia, but their efforts were hampered by Sir James Wright, who became the only governor in the thirteen British North American colonies to sell stamps in his province.
Georgia refrained from sending delegates to the Stamp Act Congress. The Assembly was not in session when the call for a congress was received. Some members met in Savannah to discuss the matter, but, since Governor Wright opposed convening a congress to oppose the Stamp Act, he refused to call the Assembly into session. Members in Savannah assured organizers of the Stamp Act Congress that Georgia was indeed concerned and would back whatever actions the congress took. The Assembly kept its word, in November 1765, when it ordered the speaker to sign the congress’s proceedings on behalf of the House of Assembly and send it to Britain.
Thanks to the Savannah Georgia Gazette, Georgians outside the legislature were kept informed of reactions throughout the colonies to the Stamp Act, yet they were also bombarded by a steady stream of anti-Stamp Act propaganda from Charleston’s “Liberty Boys.” Some Savannah residents organized their own version of the “Sons of Liberty,” who agreed to warn the colony’s stamp distributor that he had better think twice about trying to carry out the provisions of the Stamp Act in Georgia. On the other hand, Governor Wright, with support from his Council and from the “better sort” in Savannah, was determined to enforce the measure and to protect both the stamps and the person of the stamp distributor. Captains of vessels that had arrived in Savannah before the stamps did asked the Governor’s permission to leave without the stamped documents required by the new law, but the Governor and Council denied their requests.
Georgia’s stamp distributor, George Angus, arrived on January 3, 1766, and, protected by British troops, cleared ships from the harbor, then retired to the country “to avoid the resentment of the people.” (Coleman, p.21) For the next month, Governor Wright, again supported by the “better sort,” by British rangers, and by British seamen, strove to protect the stamps, moving them several times in response to rumors that mobs organized by the Sons of Liberty were forming to destroy them. Early in February, the Governor supervised the loading of the stamps aboard a British vessel bound for London.
The removal of the stamps from Georgia ended the disturbances, although, in the wake of the Stamp Act tumult, relations between Governor Wright and the lower house deteriorated. The Assembly chose to defend its “rights” on several different occasions, and Wright interpreted those actions as attacks on his authority as Governor and, therefore, on the prerogatives of King George III. Wright “emerged as the powerful leader of a powerful faction, but gone forever was his position as leader of a united colony once unanimity of opinion had been destroyed.” (Abbot, p.123)
Trouble between Governor Sir James Wright and the House of Assembly arose even more frequently following passage of the Townshend Acts. Once more, Georgians were kept informed of activities in other colonies by the Georgia Gazette, which even published excerpts from John Dickinson’s influential Letter from a Pennsylvania Farmer. By invoking the royal governor’s authority to dissolve the Assembly, both Governor Wright and his ally, James Habersham, managed to stem protests from the legislature. In fact, the dissolution prevented the Assembly from passing any laws between 1770 and 1772. Following Wright’s return to Georgia in 1773, there were no more dissolutions of the Assembly during the colonial period.
Once again, the only serious challenge to royal authority in Georgia came from outside the Assembly. On September 19, 1769, a series of “mass meetings” culminated in adoption of a non-importation agreement, pending repeal of the Townshend Acts. Non-importation had been adopted in Georgia, though without enforcement machinery. Nevertheless, Governor Wright was determined to cripple the agreement, and events were to show that most of Savannah’s merchants and many planters were only lukewarm toward the policy of non-importation. There was little excitement about the issue outside Savannah. Opposition to the Townshend duties was less obvious, widespread, well-organized, and violent than that against the Stamp Act. The duties required by the Townshend Acts were hardly novel, whereas those included in the Stamp Act had been. In short, some Georgians found it difficult to become excited about the argument raised in other colonies that the Townshend Acts should be opposed on the grounds that revenue from the new duties was to be used to pay royal officials, because those officials in Georgia had always been paid from Britain.
Consequently, non-importation in Georgia actually had little effect on imports. In fact, if non-importation succeeded in neighboring South Carolina, closing the port of Charleston to British goods, those imports might well be diverted to Savannah. By the mid-1770s, it appeared that the failure of non-importation in Georgia had actually begun to attract various goods that could not be landed in Charleston. A mass meeting in the South Carolina port angrily voted to cut off all commerce with Georgia and Rhode Island because those colonies had traded with Britain while their sister colonies had abided by the non-importation agreements.
So, Governor Wright had not needed to do much to undermine non-importation in Georgia. Following the repeal of most of the Townshend duties in 1770, the situation in Georgia nearly returned to normal. True, the lower house of the Assembly, increasingly sensitive to what it considered attacks on its rights, continued to skirmish with the colony’s royal government, but Governor Wright and James Habersham proved to be creative, determined foes of legislative prerogative.
When the next crisis came, in 1775, the contest would not be “between the Royal Governor and the Commons House of Assembly, but one between the royal government of the colony as such and the Liberty-led opposition standing outside the government and seeking to destroy it.” (Abbot, p.160)
[End of Part III]
For those interested in reading more about Georgia History, here are links to my books on the subject:
Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)