John Martin was governor of Georgia from 1782 to 1783. It was during his term of office that Georgia retook Savannah from the British and the Revolutionary War (1775-83) in Georgia came to an end. An honored Revolutionary War soldier turned politician, Martin played a vital role leading the new state of Georgia, which, in its short life, had known only war and revolution, into its first period of peace.
It is not known where or when Martin was born. In one of his letters, Martin indicates that he was from Rhode Island. He was born around the year 1730. With his brother James he settled in St. Philip’s Parish, just south of Savannah, in 1767. In 1775 Martin represented Savannah at the Georgia Provincial Congress and was appointed a member of the Council of Safety. He later became a first lieutenant in the Seventh Company, and on July 11, 1776, he was promoted to captain. In 1777 Martin was promoted again to lieutenant colonel of the First Battalion, First Regiment. He was made lieutenant colonel for Chatham County in 1781. Martin, also called “the Black Jack from the Northward,” was elected governor of Georgia on January 2, 1782.
When Martin’s term as governor began, the British still held Savannah, and the American Revolution, though near an end, was still being fought in Georgia. As governor, Martin committed Georgia to policies that he thought would effectively address four issues: ending the war by driving the British forces out of Georgia; the “present deplorable situation of this country, & the starving condition of the greatest part of the inhabitants”; the need for a “just and humane” policy with regard to those “deluded citizens” who took refuge with or supported the British during the war; and the bands of armed men who made their living plundering the citizens of Georgia. Martin described plundering as a “diabolical practice” that he was “determined to crush.”
During Martin’s term as governor, Georgia adopted several important laws and proclamations. More than 340 Tories, whose acts during the war were considered such violations of nature as to be beyond forgiveness, were banned from the state, and their property was confiscated. A means of reconciliation was offered to thousands of Loyalists and Hessians who had supported and fought for the British. The manpower requirements of fighting the war were juggled so that many men could return to their farms and plant the crops needed to bring some relief from the food shortages. Financing the purchase of rice from South Carolina with the proceeds of the property confiscated from the banned Tories brought immediate relief to the starving Georgians. Finally, Martin negotiated for the assistance of the governor of British-held Florida in stopping the bands of plunderers, and he worked to restore peace with the Creek Indians.
The British army left Savannah on July 11, 1782. On July 13 the Georgia Assembly met in Savannah for the first time since December 28, 1778. “It is true, this war has made us poor,” wrote Martin, “and we are not ashamed to own it; because our cause is just; but we shall soon be rich and happy.” Governor Martin’s administration placed the new state firmly on the road to peace, prosperity, and happiness. On January 9, 1783, Lyman Hall was elected governor, and Martin’s term ended. On January 31, 1783, Martin was elected treasurer of the state, a position he held until his retirement on March 17, 1784. On December 25, 1783, Martin married Mary Deborah Spencer, his second wife. His first wife, whose name is not known, had died many years before.
Martin’s deteriorating health soon forced him to leave Georgia in search of a more hospitable climate. A notice of his death appeared in the February 2, 1786, issue of the Georgia Gazette: “Last week died, on his way to the Westward, whither he was bound for the recovery of his health, the Hon. John Martin, Esq.”
The town of Martin, in Stephens County, is named in his honor.