One of the most accomplished statesmen in Georgia’s history, John Forsyth led a political career that lasted more than thirty years. He was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, on October 22, 1780, to Fanny Johnston Houston and Robert Forsyth. He attended Springer Academy in Wilkes County, Georgia, before attending the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), from which he graduated in 1799.
After his college graduation, Forsyth moved to Augusta, where he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1802. That same year he married Clara Meigs, the daughter of Josiah Meigs, the first president of the University of Georgia. The couple raised six daughters and two sons. Forsyth began his law practice in Augusta with John Y. Noel and gained a reputation as an outstanding lawyer. In 1808 he was elected attorney general of Georgia, which launched his political career.
In 1813 Forsyth was elected as a Jeffersonian Republican to the Thirteenth U.S. Congress. He chaired the Committee on Expenditures and remained in the House of Representatives until November 1818, when he was elected to fill the U.S. Senate seat of George Troup.
Forsyth stayed in the Senate for only two months. On February 17, 1819, he was appointed minister to Spain, a position he held until 1823. In that role Forsyth was credited with negotiating the treaty that annexed Florida from Spain.
On March 4, 1823, he was again elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he chaired the Committee on Foreign Affairs. In 1827 he returned to Georgia to serve a two-year term as governor, extending state laws over the Cherokee Nation during his tenure.
After the resignation of U.S. senator John Macpherson Berrien in 1829, Forsyth was reelected to the Senate as a Jacksonian. He found himself embroiled in the South Carolina nullification crisis three years later, when Georgia’s neighbor threatened to declare a federal tariff null and void. At Georgia’s 1832 anti-tariff convention, held in Milledgeville, Forsyth, who believed that federal authority superseded that of the states, led 52 of the 123 or 124 delegates out of the meeting in protest. His action was successful, as the convention passed a resolution opposing but not nullifying the tariff. Fearing the possibility of a civil war, Forsyth then voted for the Force Bill in 1833, giving U.S. president Andrew Jackson the authority to use the army and navy to enforce acts of Congress. In Macon some Georgians burned Forsyth in effigy.
President Jackson, however, rewarded Forsyth by naming him secretary of state. Forsyth was the only Georgian to hold that office until Dean Rusk in 1961. He continued as secretary of state when President Martin Van Buren renominated him. Among Forsyth’s many accomplishments was arranging $5 million in payments over six years from the French government for raids on American shipping during the Napoleonic Wars.
Eyeing a return to the U.S. Senate, Forsyth unexpectedly caught fever and died in Washington, D.C., on October 21, 1841. He was buried in the Congressional Cemetery. Both Forsyth County and the city of Forsyth in Georgia are named for him.