George W. Towns, a lawyer, legislator, and U.S. congressman, served as Georgia’s governor from 1847 to 1851. A Unionist and staunch opponent of nullification when he entered politics in 1829, Towns became governor two decades later as a “fire-eating” secessionist who believed that the federal government was controlled by fanatical northern abolitionists determined to ruin and subjugate the South.
Education and Early Career
George Washington Bonaparte Towns was born on May 4, 1801, in Wilkes County, to Margaret George Hardwick and John Towns, a veteran of the Revolutionary War (1775-83). His parents were Virginians whose families had settled in Wilkes County. Not long after Towns was born, his parents moved to Greene County and then to Morgan County, where he received a limited preparatory education. He studied medicine in Eatonton, but an injury interrupted his studies, and at twenty he moved to Montgomery in the new state of Alabama. There he was an owner of a public house, the Globe Tavern, and he helped to organize a Thespian Society. He also studied law and was admitted to the Montgomery bar in 1824. In 1826 Towns owned and edited a newspaper, the Alabama Journal. That same year he married his first wife, Margaret Jane Campbell, whose ill health led to her death a few days after the ceremony. Soon afterward Towns left Montgomery and returned to Georgia, settling in Talbot County. In 1828 he became one of the original town commissioners of Talbotton, where he established a law office. He also served as a colonel in the 65th Regiment of the Georgia militia.
In 1829 and 1830 Towns was elected from Talbot County for two terms in the Georgia House of Representatives, where he served on standing committees for the judiciary and the state penitentiary. From 1832 to 1834 he served two terms as Talbot County’s state senator. In the legislature Towns remained a solid Jacksonian Democrat, declaring himself an enemy of the reactionary southern politics of John C. Calhoun and other states’ rights proponents. In the wake of the gold rush in Cherokee territory, as Georgia’s political factions argued over how best to make the U.S. government honor its 1802 promise to extinguish Indian land claims in Georgia, Towns voted for extending the state’s legal jurisdiction over the Cherokees. He opposed, however, the immediate, unilateral occupation of the Cherokee country by Georgia “on the grounds of natural right and expediency.”
After his at-large election as a Jacksonian to the U.S. House of Representatives, Towns took his seat in 1835. In a surprising move, he resigned from office in September 1836. Towns explained that he did not want to be compelled to vote for a Whig candidate should the upcoming 1836 presidential election need to be decided in the House of Representatives, due to neither candidate’s having a clear national majority. (Assuming a Whig candidate received a majority of the popular vote in Georgia, Towns thus would have been “forced” to vote for the candidate—a distasteful proposition for him, as an elected Democrat.) This scenario, however, did not materialize: the Democratic candidate, Martin Van Buren, won election with a clear majority. However, Towns’s resignation resulted in the election of a Whig, Julius C. Alford, to fill the vacated seat. Towns’s reputation suffered among many Georgia Democrats.
Towns campaigned for reelection to Congress and returned to serve a full term from 1837 to 1839. In 1838 Towns displayed a growing impatience with the federal government and a tendency to side with southern states’ rights radicals. As Congress debated the legality of the Treaty of New Echota, he proclaimed that, in a contest between “the Constitutional law of Congress” and his native state’s “highest sovereign attitude,” Georgia would “not be backward” if forced to choose “between oppression on the one hand and resistance on the other.”
In 1839 Towns did not stand for reelection. Instead, he returned home to Talbotton to practice law. In 1844 Talbot County was placed in a newly created Third Congressional District, and in 1846 Towns ran for Congress again and won. In Congress, Towns endorsed U.S. president James Polk’s expansionist program of manifest destiny and supported the Walker Tariff, which he considered to be a step away from previous, northern-biased tariff policies that propped up northern manufacturing concerns at the expense of the southern agricultural economies. In the majority-Whig Third District, however, Towns lost his 1846 reelection bid to the Whig candidate, John W. Jones.
In 1847 Towns defeated Whig Duncan L. Clinch in a vitriolic campaign for the governorship. In the campaign Towns cheered President Polk’s policy during the Mexican War (1846-48) and echoed southern secessionists’ threats against the proposed Wilmot Proviso, which would ban slavery in any territories gained from Mexico. Two years later Towns won a second term, again by aggressively endorsing “southern rights” and playing to fears about Congressional interference with slavery.
In each of Towns’s terms as governor, the Whigs held a slight majority in the state legislature, yet Towns still managed to achieve moderate success in legislation. His proposal to convert Georgia’s property tax to an ad valorem basis stalled in the legislature, but the General Assembly did finance his proposed extension of the Western and Atlantic Railroad, which reached Chattanooga by the time he left office in 1851. Under Towns’s administration, Georgia established an asylum for the deaf; increased appropriations for the state mental hospital, later known as Central State Hospital; and instituted a system for the separate classification and imprisonment of convicts. Financially, the state continued its recovery from the economic depression of the mid-1840s as the state’s rail and water transportation networks grew, imports and exports increased, and the public debt decreased. Towns backed an amendment to repeal the property ownership requirement for gubernatorial candidates, and he appointed a committee to plan a system of free public schools.
In September 1850, having obtained legislative approval to call a state convention should Congress pass any law outlawing slavery in a new territory or the District of Columbia, Towns responded to the congressional Compromise of 1850 by calling for a state convention. Ironically, the result of the December convention in Milledgeville was the “Georgia Platform,” a conciliatory proclamation by which the state’s moderate majority—led by congressmen Howell Cobb, Alexander Stephens, and Robert Toombs —was able to redraw the threshold of conflict between the slaveholding states and the federal government and thereby avert secession. Outmaneuvered politically, Towns left the governorship with a farewell message asserting that “the state that arms its citizens, and gives warning to the aggressor to beware the next blow, will be respected.”
Upon retirement Towns moved to Macon, where he resumed his law practice and operated a 3,000-acre cotton plantation with more than fifty enslaved people. He was stricken with a paralytic illness in 1852 and remained incapacitated until his death on July 15, 1854. Buried in Macon’s Rose Hill Cemetery, he was survived by his second wife, Mary Jones Towns, and by five daughters and two sons from their 1837 marriage. Towns County on the North Carolina border was named for him.