SOUTHERN MEMORIES: Yazoo land law involving Patrick Henry burned into oblivion

By Judd Hambrick Special to the Daily Journal

Louisville, Ga., Feb. 22, 1796: American patriot Patrick “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” Henry and his Virginia Yazoo Company, along with four other land speculation companies, appear to be involved in a scurrilous land speculation scandal we now call The Yazoo Land Fraud here in the great state of Georgia that proudly stretches from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Mississippi River in the west.
Four land speculation companies bought 35 million acres of land from our state legislature under a 2-year-old heinous land grant law for as little as 2 cents – that’s right folks, I said 2 cents – an acre in western Georgia (present day Mississippi and Alabama.)
The actual paper version of this nefarious land grant law that was passed by a majority of our thieving, lying legislators in 1794 was consumed by “Holy Fire,” yesterday – appropriately enough, on the Lord’s Day – on the front lawn of our state capitol building right here in Louisville. (Louisville was Georgia’s capital until 1806.)
A group of our newly elected legislators who rescinded this despicable law last Thursday were led in this public burning of the land grant law by former U.S. Senator and now new Georgia State Representative James Jackson.
Armed with only a magnifying glass, the gathered group of legislators directed the sun’s cleansing rays through the glass onto the stack of papers and burned all records of the law and all the various sales papers associated with it.
Our fellow Georgians knew this was a bad deal when they first heard about it two years ago. Our citizens immediately demanded an investigation. It was learned in this investigation that many of the legislators who voted to pass this law were bribed and even had financial interests in this gigantic land swindle.
Georgians seem to be yelling at the top of their lungs, “Is this kind of public thievery really what our new nation is all about? Politicians using their positions to garner greed and commit corruption? We’ll not have it!”
To put it mildly, there has been a frenzy of public indignation over this monumental land fraud. The public tone is long past anger and, certainly, beyond reason, as so many citizens now seem bent on vigilante justice.
Most of those state legislators who passed this obnoxious law are well aware of the unappeasable rage swirling all around them.
So they have run from their homes, abandoned their farms and left all their holdings behind, as they flee the state in the dead of night like common fugitives. Personal safety has trumped personal bravery and bravado.
The state of Georgia will refund all the money to the four companies that paid for the land. Unfortunately, some of the land has already been sold to third parties. Those new buyers are refusing to accept the refunds. They want the state’s land, not the state’s money.
No doubt this heated resale matter will soon be tried in our newly minted Federal Court system.
(Update) There was a lawsuit filed by those third parties, and it took nearly 20 years to settle the matter, ultimately in the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1814, the United States took control of all the contentious Yazoo land and paid off all land disputes. The scandal was finally over.
Those “thieving” legislators who fled Georgia to escape the rising tide of “vigilante justice” were wise to do it. Several of those legislators who didn’t leave were murdered; several legislators had their houses burned; and one hapless legislator who thought he had escaped to Virginia was tracked down and killed. It was a rough time in American history for a state legislator to be “on the take,” especially if involved in the Yazoo Land Fraud in Georgia.
After nearly 200 years, it is difficult for historians to determine Patrick Henry’s guilt or innocence in the Yazoo Land Fraud. Henry always contended he had nothing to do with the sale or the briberies. As a matter of fact, he sued Georgia, claiming the state agreed to sell him the land five years earlier in 1789, but then the Georgia legislature sold to the other four companies instead in 1794. So, rather than being the perpetrator of illegal activity, Patrick Henry contended he was a victim. But guilty or innocent, this great American patriot played a part in a major historic scandal in our Southern Memories over two centuries ago.
For a collection of Southern Memories stories, visit www.southernmemoriesandupdates.com.