By Sam Burnham
Back to the local corporate bookstore. I told you that visit was good for more than one story.
Being a Georgian, a historian, a bookworm, I was perusing the biography aisle. Now, the biography section over at my local independent, new & second hand bookstore is magnificent and fierce and huge-ish. And there's a separate section for Georgians. So, it is by far superior. But as I mentioned in my previous post, The South is in a bit of a crisis in which our standards of cultural identity and history are being set by New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles. So the corporate bookstore offers biographies on Cuban Communist madman Che Guevara, Supreme Court Justice and New York City's own
Sonia Sotomayor, and President Abraham Lincoln who, in 1864 gave to order to burn this entire city to the ground.
There was a book on Jimmy Carter. so ou of 82 Georgia governors, there is a biography available on exactly one of them at this store.
But to top that, hidden away in a family grave plot in Washington County you'll find (if you are lucky) a legend buried. A hero of the first order. No corporate biography, no house museum, I'm not even sure that he has a portrait at the capitol. Just the family plot, a monument at the courthouse in Sandersville, and a page in the New Georgia Encyclopedia remain to tell the story of Jared Irwin, a man who served three terms as governor, and presided twice over the relocation of the state capital.
I think that we can allow the inscriptions on the man's monument tell his story: "A true patriot. He entered the service of his country as Captain and soon rose to the rank of colonel in the Revolutionary War. As a soldier, he was brave and gallant. He distinguished himself a the sieges of Savannah and Augusta and in the battles of Camden, Brier Creek, Black Swamp, and several other engagements, he was at all times foremost leading his gallant band to victory. And not with his sword, and in his person only did he do service for his country. From his private means he erected a fortress in Burke County for protection of the people of the surrounding districts.
His pure devotion to the cause of liberty marked him in the eyes of the enemy, and on more than one occasion was he plundered of his property, and his premises reduced to ashes.
At the close of the War of the Revolution, with the rank of General, he was actively engaged in the service of the state, in repelling the attacks and invasions of the hostile Indians; and here, again, was his liberality called into activity. He, at his own expense, built a fort at White Bluff, for the security and protection of the frontier inhabitants against the savage attacks of the merciless foes.
General Irwin was one of the convention which met at Augusta in 1788, and ratified the constitution of the United States. He was a member of the convention in 1789, which formed the constitution of the State of Georgia. In 1798, he was president of the convention which revised the constitution of the State of Georgia. He rendered distinguished to his country as commissioner, in concluding several treaties with the Indians.
At the close of the war of Independence he was a member of the first legislature under our present form of government; a position which occupied for several years. He was elected president of the senate frequently, at various periods from 1790 to the time of his death.
He was governor of Georgia from January 17, 1796, to the 11th of January, 1798, and again from the 23rd of September, 1806, to the 7th of November, 1809. His administration was distinguished for his justice and impartiality; and his was the honor, after several years’ labor in the behalf, of signing the act rescinding the Yazoo Act.
In his private relations Governor Irwin was beloved by all who knew him. The spotless purity of his character, his benign and affable disposition, his widespread benevolence and hospitality, made him the object of general affection. To the poor and distressed he was ever a benefactor and friend.
In every position of public life, as a soldier, a statesman, and a patriot, the public good was the object and the end of his ambition; and his death was lamented as a national calamity.
But his memory will ever be embalmed in the hearts of his countrymen; and the historian will award him a brilliant page in the records of the country.
Peace to his ashes! Honor to his name."
The Yazoo Act. January 7, 1795 Governor George Matthews (note: there is no Matthews county, Georgia. This is not by accident) arranged the sale of 35 million acres of Georgia frontier - essentially everything from the current western border of the state all the way to Mississippi River. He was a lame duck governor, just waiting for Irwin to take the oath of office and he just up and decides to try to sell Alabama and Mississippi to private companies via Georgia's Federalist senator, James Gunn (there's no Gunn County either). Georgia's Jeffersonian senator resigned in a fury and raced home to help stop the fraud.
Matthews would move to Mississippi, where no one wanted him dead. Gunn died shortly after finishing his term in the Senate. Matthews, finding no work for scoundrels was sent by President Madison to cause trouble in Florida. As Matthews was whipping Florida near St. Augustine (remember, that's an old Georgia tradition) Madison changed his mind and sent him the order to stop. Matthews decided to go to Washington to try to whup the 5'4", 95 pound Madison. While en route, he stopped to spend the night in Augusta, caught a karmic case of Oglethorpe's Revenge and died.
But back to the fraud. Irwin took his seat as governor and Jackson went to work in the legislature. They repealed the illegal act and cancelled the sale. But that wasn't enough. Georgians know how to repeal a law. You don't just vote it out, you don't just unceremoniously discard it. No, they carried the Yazoo Act out onto the Capitol lawn and set it on fire in full view of the public. That is how you repeal a law. These are the men who deserve volumes in Georgia bookstores.
Long story short, the good guys did the right thing, the bad guys died, and as per usual in the South, the federal government eventually admitted two states in legally held Georgia territory, Alabama and Mississippi. But I guess it's ok in the long run. While our offical stance is anti-Yazoo, we typically think of these states as our little sisters...our really ugly little sisters that not even Tennessee would date but our little sisters just the same.
*I'd like to give a special thanks to Vanishing South Georgia for their photos, info and inspiration for this post.
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Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire