James Jackson, a governor of Georgia, was born in Moretonhampstead, Devonshire, England, on September 21, 1757, the son of Mary Webber and James Jackson. He made his most important contributions to his adopted state in the political arena, overturning the Yazoo land fraud of 1795 and building the state’s first true political party. Jackson and his wife, Mary Charlotte Young, had four sons who lived to adulthood, William Henry, James Jr., Jabez, and Joseph Webber. Jackson County, in northeast Georgia, is named in his honor.
Sent to Savannah in 1772 to live with a family friend while reading law, the young Jackson’s studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the American Revolution (1775-83). During six years with Georgia state forces, Jackson participated in the unsuccessful defense of Savannah (1778), the Battle of Cowpens (1781), and the recoveries of Augusta (1781) and Savannah (1782).
A member of the Georgia legislature in the 1780s, Jackson was elected to the First Congress, where he became an early, articulate opponent of Federalist Alexander Hamilton’s financial plan and, thus, one of the first Jeffersonians. Defeated for reelection in 1791 by his former Revolutionary commander, Anthony Wayne (for whom Wayne County is named), in a campaign rife with charges of voting irregularities on the part of Wayne’s supporters, Jackson contested the outcome. Making effective use of grand jury presentments and newspapers, Jackson secured a seat in the legislature and subsequently oversaw the ouster of Wayne’s campaign manager from his state judgeship. Jackson then took his struggle for vindication to Congress, where, although he convinced the House that Wayne had not won fairly, he failed to regain his seat after the tie-breaking vote of the Federalist Speaker.
In 1795 the Georgia legislature, with the approval of Governor George Mathews, sold the state’s western (or “Yazoo”) lands to several companies of speculators. Rumors abounded that the purchasers had used bribery to secure passage of the Yazoo Act. Jackson, a member of the U.S. Senate since 1793, resigned his seat, returned to Georgia, and won a seat in the state legislature in order to personally organize an anti-Yazoo campaign. Once more manipulating grand jury presentments and the press, Jackson and his supporters rescinded the Yazoo Act and arranged the public destruction of records associated with the sale. After being elected governor in 1798 Jackson saw to it that the substance of the Rescinding Act of 1796 was engrafted onto a revised state constitution.
By the mid-1790s party lines had begun to solidify in Congress between Federalists and Jeffersonians. Jackson took advantage of the fact that the most prominent “corrupters” of the Yazoo legislature were Federalists and led Georgia into the ranks of the Jeffersonian Republican Party. During his governorship (1798-1801) and his last term in the U.S. Senate (1801-6), Jackson and his allies established Jeffersonian papers in the state capital, Louisville, and in Augusta and Savannah. Jackson adroitly wielded patronage to extend what had been a coastal political faction statewide. He also frustrated efforts by purchasers under the discredited Yazoo Act to transfer their claims to Congress until 1802, by which time the Jeffersonians controlled the federal government. That same year Jackson, along with John Milledge and Abraham Baldwin, ceded Georgia’s western lands to the United States.
Jackson’s fiery temperament made him a political lightning rod. Never one to back away from a fight, his political career was studded with duels and bloody street brawls. Jackson’s appreciation of the land hunger endemic to Georgians and his willingness to put his life and reputation on the line to control it made him the “colossus” of Georgia politics. He died in Washington, D.C., on March 19, 1806, at the age of forty-eight, and is buried in the Congressional Cemetery.