Georgia and the U.S. Constitution


By Dr. Lee Ann Caldwell, PhD
Director, Center for the Study of Georgia History
Augusta University

Throughout the confederation period of the 1780s, one of the major issues confronting the state of Georgia was its relationship with one of the two powerful Indians nations who owned much of the land within the boundaries of the state — the Creeks in the central, southern and western portion of the state. The Cherokee agreed to abandon their claim to Broad River land in 1773 and another parcel north of that in 1783. The remainder of Cherokee land in the north and northwest region became an issue in the nineteenth century.

The Creek land in the piedmont became an issue in the royal period of colonial rule. In 1763, royal governor James Wright had negotiated the cession of Creek land between the Savannah and Ogeechee River; part of the northern boundary of this parcel was the Little River, which today forms the boundary between Columbia and Lincoln counties. The treaty also gave Georgia land between the Altamaha and St. Marys River in the south. A 1773 treaty brought Georgia an additional cession of Creek land north of the 1763 boundary and opened up territory in the Broad River valley. The Cherokee also agreed to give up their claims to the area. Before and during the Revolution, as these lands filled with settlers, Georgians began to eye the rich Creek land west of the Oconee River.

During the Confederation era following the Revolution, the leader, or mico, of the Creeks was Alexander McGillivray. He was the son of the trader Lachlan McGillivray of Clan Chattan in Scotland and his Indian wife Sehoy Marchand of the power Wind Clan of the upper Creeks. Alexander and his father Lachlan had been Loyalists in the Revolution; afterward, with his Georgia lands confiscated, Lachlan returned to his native Scotland. Alexander chose to stay with his mother’s people. In their matrilineal society, his mother’s standing gave him a leadership position. Alexander was a Creek nationalist, trying to bring all the Creek together in a more centralized way. He also became a strong force against further cessions of land. During the Confederation period, the governors and other leaders in Georgia tried hard to negotiate a treaty with the Creeks. While other Creek leaders had agreed to cede additional land, McGillivray stood firm. By 1787, some Georgia leaders feared a war with the Creeks might result because settlers had begun moving onto the land without a treaty.

Frustrated in their efforts, Georgia leaders had turned to the confederation government, which was not much help. This led many to become supporters of the idea of a stronger national government that could negotiate with the Creek from a position of power. This idea was supported by Georgia’s farmers in the backcountry who hoped to have the Creeks removed further inland. Along the coast, many Georgia merchants agreed with those with commercial interests in other states that a stronger national government with the power to regulate trade would be beneficial.

Georgia’s legislature chose six representatives to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. Of those, George Walton and Nathaniel Pendleton never attended. The four who attended were William Few, Abraham Baldwin, William Pierce, and William Houstoun. Georgia had at least one delegate in attendance at all times. The notes that William Pierce made on the other delegates have become important historical documents. The two Georgia delegates who signed the finished Constitution on September 17 were Abraham Baldwin and William Few.

Neither of Georgia’s signers was a native Georgian. Abraham Baldwin had come to the state about three years before the Constitutional Convention. A native son of Connecticut with a theology degree from Yale, Baldwin had served the Revolutionary cause as a chaplain in the Continental Army. After the war he studied law and moved to Augusta, Georgia, to practice his new profession. He was involved in government as a member of the Georgia legislature. As one of Georgia’s delegates to the convention, Baldwin cast a vote which resulted in a tie on the very controversial matter of representation in the upper house of the Congress, buying time for a compromise to be worked out. He considered this his most important contribution. After his work at the Constitutional Convention he served Georgia in the U.S. Congress for ten years. For eight years he was a U.S. Senator. Among his most significant contributions to Georgia was his leadership in the movement for a state college. He became the president of what is now the University of Georgia during its planning and building era from 1786-1801.

William Few MarkerWilliam Few was re-interred at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Augusta, in 1973

William Few came to Augusta as the revolutionary movement gained momentum in the mid 1770s and quickly became involved with the Patriot cause. He was a member of the committee that wrote the state constitution of 1777, a member of the Executive Council of the revolutionary government, and a delegate to the Continental Congress from the state. He also served as the state’s surveyor and Indian Commissioner. After the war, he represented Georgia in the Confederation Congress and later as a U.S. Senator and federal district judge. Few lived in what was then upper Richmond County, but became a strong advocate for citizens there to have their own courthouse. In 1790 Columbia County was formed, providing a seat of county government nearer for citizens of that area. For religious reasons, Few became an opponent of slavery and moved with his family to New York in 1799. There he also became a prominent citizen.

Although he was not present at the signing of the Constitution, William Pierce was the first to bring a copy of the document to Georgia. At that time, Augusta was the capital of the state and the state assembly meeting there called for a ratifying convention to be held. The convention began in Augusta in late December, 1787, and after two days of discussion the delegates unanimously voted their approval. On January 2, 1788, delegates signed the ratification document. The citizens celebrated the event with a large public dinner and cannon fire.

The ratification of the United States Constitution inspired Georgia to re-write their state constitution in 1789. Based on the national model, the powers of government were more evenly divided among three branches. The governor became the state’s true executive with more power. The legislature became composed of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Georgians hoped these new governments for the nation and state would ensure a time of growth.

For the Creek, the formation of the strong U.S. government led to the cession of more land. In 1790 President George Washington invited Alexander McGillivray and his chiefs to the nation’s capital, then in New York City, a large and impressive city for its time. Washington entertained the Creek delegation in his home. The Creek agreed to the Treaty of New York, which ceded a large area of land from the Ocmulgee River to the Oconee River, moving Georgia’s frontier further into the interior and the Creek nation further west. Blow up of Baldwin and Few Signatures

U.S. Constitution “working copy” with Baldwin’s handwritten notes (Georgia Historical Society)

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Slight enlargement of the Baldwin and Few signatures on the Constitution (with South Carolina above)