[Note: Four years ago, just in time for the adjournment of the Georgia legislature, I came across a lovely description of the state’s solons from 1817. Re-reading that post today, as the 2017 session of the legislature convenes, I realized that the earlier description is now a nice, round 200 years old. So, I decided to revise the 2012 mini-screed and re-post it, in honor of the opening of yet another meeting of Georgia’s finest.
Since that earlier post, our state legislature has distinguished itself in too many ways to list here, but let me just mention a couple that have garnered Georgia national press. There was the “guns [almost] everywhere bill,” for example; perhaps we can look forward this year to our legislators earning their props from the NRA by closing the remaining, um, “loopholes.” (Pistol-packin’ in pre-k, anyone?) Last year, our representatives and senators strove mightily and produced a so-called “religious liberty” bill that our Governor, always aware of the screams from the state’s business community, summoned up the gumption to veto. Guess what’s being bruited about this year–c’mon now, you can do it! That’s right: the “religious liberty” bill–the sequel. . . . And a new study reveals that elections in Georgia are among the least competitive in the nation: in a sense our system has evolved to the point that all that matters is incumbency–and the various PACs that shovel money in the direction of the incumbents.]
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Dread is palpable all round the greater Atlanta area; wives and daughters are only allowed to leave their homes under heavily armed escort; the family silver has been taken out of the dining room display cabinet and moved to a secure location. Yes, friends, the duly-elected members of the Georgia General Assembly have arrived in town, with their usual plans to do as much “good” for (to?) the state, its citizens, and its economy as is humanly possible, unless prevented by cooler heads, a catastrophic “weather event,” or plain, dumb luck.
Now, in fairness, not everyone is unhappy to see our solons roll into to town: the National Rifle Association, Georgia Right to Life, some elements of our many-sided “tea party” movement, the state chapter of the Donald Trump Fan Club, and more lobbyists than you can shake a stick at can hardly wait for the session to begin.
So, as a public service; to help inspire our dedicated solons as they go about their appointed tasks; and to confirm yet again the adage that “the more things change, the more they remain the same,” here’s a glimpse of a group of their predecessors, offered by a traveler in Georgia 200 years ago. Peter A. Remsen, a New Yorker on his way to Alabama, visited Milledgeville, which was then the state capital, on December 20-21, 1817, just as the legislative session was winding down, and recorded his impressions:
The Legislature of this State closed its sitting on the morning of the 20th inst. I did not visit the state house. Some 20 boarders [who were members of the legislature] put up at the house we stoped [sic] at. But alas! What would New Yorkers say to see them [?] I certainly do not hesitate to say that their conduct was beneath that of any crew of sailors that was ever seen. Cursing, quarrelling, hollowing [sic], drinking, getting drunk. Disputing landlords [sic] bill. Drunken men hugging sober ones. Illiterate, mean appearances, readiness for rasseling [sic] etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc.. On the night of the 18th inst. (a thing at the close of all their meetings) the Governor [William Rabun] at the head, with a horse visited all boarding houses of members [of the legislature]. Draged [sic] them out of bed. Marched the square and streets, and from report the noise excelled that of wild beasts. Its [sic] well the North knows not what the South does. Vice Versa. [SOURCE: William B. Hesseltine and Larry Gara, eds., “Across Georgia and Into Alabama, 1817-1818,” GHQ 37 (1953), 332]
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject: