David Emanuel was a leader in the Revolutionary War (1775-83), a state legislator, and an acting governor. Because so few records remain of his life, he is one of Georgia’s least-known governors. Emanuel County, in the wiregrass region, is named for him.
Emanuel was born circa 1744 in Pennsylvania, the third of eight children. His father, David Emanuel Sr., was a planter. (Some sources give his father’s name as John Emanuel.) His mother’s name is unknown. As an adult, he was described as “a fine-looking man, amiable, of good judgment and inflexible integrity.” Around 1765 the family moved from Maryland, Pennsylvania, or Virginia to Georgia, settling in St. George’s Parish (later Burke County). Land records show that he acquired property and probably engaged in farming. He acquired additional land when his father died in 1768.
Emanuel married Ann Lewis, a resident of Burke County, and they were the parents of at least six children. One of his daughters married Benjamin Whitaker, Speaker of the House in Georgia’s House of Representatives. His sister, Ruth Emanuel, was the wife of John Twiggs, a militia leader during the Revolutionary War.
Military and Political Career
Emanuel was named justice of the peace in Burke County in 1774. Beginning in 1775 he joined the Revolutionary cause, probably as a member of the Burke County militia, serving as a soldier and scout under his brother-in-law, General John Twiggs. In 1781 he was captured by the British near McBean Creek but managed to escape. In addition to military service, Emanuel was a member of the executive council from Burke County, and he served in 1781-82 as a county magistrate.
Beginning in 1783 Emanuel served in the state legislature almost continuously until his death. He was a member of the standing committee on petitions, a delegate to the state constitutional conventions in 1789 and 1795, and the president of the state senate three times. In addition, he served as an assistant justice of the state superior court from 1786 to 1788.
When news of the Yazoo land fraud broke in 1795, Emanuel was appointed as a member of a commission to investigate the fraud cases. After Governor James Jackson resigned in 1801 to take a seat in the U.S. Senate, Emanuel, as president of the state senate, became acting governor. He served in the post from March to November 1801, when he was succeeded by Josiah Tattnall.
Emanuel died at his home in Burke County on February 19, 1808, at age sixty-five.
Beginning in the early 1900s and continuing through subsequent decades, some historians reported that Emanuel was the first Jew elected to public office in the South and the first Jewish governor of any U.S. state. Further research has largely debunked that claim, and most historians today do not recognize Emanuel as Jewish.