Benjamin Taliaferro (1750-1821)
Benjamin Taliaferro served as a Continental soldier during the American Revolution. He moved in 1784 from Virginia to Wilkes County, Georgia, where he established himself as a planter and an upcountry political leader. Taliaferro served as a trustee for the University of Georgia, a state representative, a president of the Georgia senate, a member of the anti-Yazoo faction, a superior court judge, and a member of Congress. Taliaferro County, in east central Georgia, is named in his honor.
Benjamin Taliaferro (pronounced "Tolliver") was born in 1750 in Amherst County, Virginia, to Mary Boutwell and Zachariah Taliaferro, both members of prominent Piedmont families. During the American Revolution Taliaferro avidly supported the American independence, or Whig, cause. He served in two local rifle companies before transferring with his unit to the Sixth Regiment of the Continental army in March 1776. Taliaferro distinguished himself at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, and as one of Colonel Daniel Morgan's 500 crack riflemen at Saratoga, New York. By June 1779 Taliaferro had joined Colonel Richard Parker's First Virginia Battalion to aid Georgia Whigs in their fight to end the British occupation of Savannah.
Parker's regiment resided in Augusta before and after the Siege of Savannah in October 1779. The Virginia troops arrived at a time when conservative and radical leaders jockeyed for control of the remnant Whig government. Taliaferro had a chance to observe Georgia Whig politics firsthand before his regiment marched to reinforce Benjamin Lincoln's Southern Army defending Charleston, South Carolina. After American forces surrendered the city on May 12, 1780, Taliaferro returned to Amherst County, Virginia, as a paroled prisoner of war. There he married Martha Meriwether in 1782.
Two years later Taliaferro joined a migration effort led by his former militia commander, George Mathews. A well-known merchant and land speculator of Augusta County, Virginia, Mathews served briefly in Georgia near the end of the war and brought news of its rich upcountry lands back to Virginia. As did most of Mathews's group, Taliaferro settled in Wilkes County, Georgia. With his first wife he had a family of nine children: Benjamin, Mary Amelia (Emily), Louis Bourbon, Betsy, Martha, David, Thornton, Margaret, and Nicholas. A second marriage produced a tenth child, Zachariah.
Taliaferro worked to recreate the traditional planter-elite status maintained by his Virginia ancestors. He operated a thriving tobacco plantation along the Broad River and in the process became one of the largest slaveholders in Wilkes County. Taliaferro's activities quickly gained him recognition as an influential member of the Goose Pond community. He used this status to build a network of support from family, Virginia acquaintances, and upcountry leaders whom he had met while stationed in Augusta. Taliaferro's efforts garnered him legislative appointment as one of the first trustees of the University of Georgia and as a county magistrate. His coalition of Wilkes citizens elected him to the Georgia Assembly in 1786.
As a state legislator Taliaferro consistently supported issues favoring upcountry growth and economic development. Throughout his political career Taliaferro remained a proponent of conservative Republican principles. He fashioned an alliance with lowcountry planter-elites who shared those same values, including John Milledge and Lachlan McIntosh, a former commander at the Savannah siege. These connections enabled Taliaferro to act as a powerful upcountry assembly member. When Georgia reorganized its government in 1789, Taliaferro entered the state senate, serving as its president from 1792 to 1796.
Taliaferro's most notable role as an upcountry leader came with his opposition to the 1789 and 1795 Yazoo land bills. Both statutes involved a legislative effort to sell Georgia's western territories to private land companies. Taliaferro's stand against the 1795 sale and the widespread bribery engaged in by its supporters attracted the attention of James Jackson, a U.S. senator from Georgia. Jackson resigned from the Senate and organized an anti-Yazoo faction to repeal the land sale and remove its supporters from office. Taliaferro briefly considered an appointment from Governor George Mathews (his friend and former commander) to replace Jackson in the Senate but declined. His decision to remain in the state prompted the Jackson-dominated assembly to extend Taliaferro an appointment as superior court justice to stop Yazooists from exerting their influence in the state courts. Supporters of the Yazoo bill challenged Taliaferro's authority and accused him of violating his standards of Republican independence in favor of factional interest. Taliaferro resorted to at least one duel to defend his character against the abuse of his political enemies.
In 1798 Taliaferro agreed to submit his name as a congressional candidate. He won the election and worked with Georgia's federal legislators to arrange a settlement concerning the state's western lands. Their efforts paved the way for an 1802 land cession to Congress. Illness forced Taliaferro to retire from office in 1802. Although upcountry leaders approached Taliaferro in 1813 to serve in the U.S. Senate, he refused. Taliaferro died at his Broad River plantation in September 1821.
Carol Ebel, "First Men: Changing Patterns of Leadership on the Virginia and Georgia Frontiers, 1642-1815" (Ph.D. diss., University of Georgia, 1996).
George R. Gilmer, Sketches of Some of the First Settlers of Upper Georgia, of the Cherokees, and the Author (1855; reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1965).
Lee A. Wallace Jr., The Orderly Book of Captain Benjamin Taliaferro, 2d Virginia Detachment Charleston, South Carolina, 1780 (Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1980).
Carol Ebel, Armstrong Atlantic State University
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