John Milledge was one of the most important political figures in Georgia during the Revolutionary War (1775-83) and early national period, holding positions as governor, congressman for four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, and president pro tempore in the U.S. Senate. Milledge, one of the party who seized British colonial governor James Wright at Savannah in January 1776, was also a principal figure in the organization of the University of Georgia. Milledge was on the committee that decided the location of the institution, and he later purchased and donated the land on which the university and the town of Athens now stand.
Born in Savannah in 1757 and descended from one of the first families to immigrate to the Georgia colony, Milledge received the best education that his family’s affluence could provide. His father, John Milledge Sr., was a captain of the colonial Rangers in Georgia and directed his son into military service as a cadet Ranger. As a young man, Milledge was privately tutored and studied law. After admission to the bar, he practiced law at the colonial seat of power in Savannah.
In May 1775 Milledge’s ardent support of the patriot cause led to his involvement in the seizure of the British colonial government’s magazine in Savannah. On the eve of the Revolutionary War, Milledge, along with patriots Joseph Clay, William Gibbons, Joseph Habersham, Noble W. Jones, and Edward Telfair, seized 600 pounds of gunpowder and subsequently stored the captured ordnance in their cellars. Following the theft, the governor and British Council in Savannah put a price of 150 pounds on the head of each patriot involved; none of the men were captured or turned over to the British authorities. Savannah’s patriot community later asserted that the gunpowder Milledge and his cohorts secured from the arsenal was sent north and used by patriot troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill. When British troops seized Savannah in 1778, Milledge fled to South Carolina. His military service during the war was distinguished; he served in the forces of Count Charles Henri d’Estaing and General Benjamin Lincoln during the Siege of Savannah and also fought at Augusta. Milledge ultimately rose to the rank of colonel in the Georgia militia. Among his many endeavors during the conflict was the development of a way to extract oil from the benne seed, which was later used as a substitute for olive oil during the English blockade.
In 1780 Milledge formally entered public service as the attorney general of Georgia. In 1789-90 he served in the Georgia General Assembly. In 1792 he was elected as a Jeffersonian Democratic Republican to the Second U.S. Congress. Milledge replaced the flamboyant General Anthony Wayne, whose seat had been declared vacant by the body in 1792. Elected to two full terms in the Fourth and Fifth U.S. Congresses, he served from 1795 to 1799. He entered the Seventh Congress in March 1801 and subsequently served as the chairman of the committee on elections in that body. Milledge, however, resigned before his term ended in order to run for governor of Georgia in 1802.
In 1801 Milledge (who was still a member of the Seventh Congress), Abraham Baldwin, and James Jackson were appointed commissioners to represent the state of Georgia in negotiations with the U.S. government over Georgia’s western frontier. In 1802 the three men ceded the state’s western lands to the United States.
Later that year, in November 1802, Milledge was elected governor and immediately set out to strengthen state institutions that would make Georgia’s frontier more stable and secure. During his administration, a road was built through Cherokee territory into Tennessee, which enabled better communication and trade with the interior of the new country. Governor Milledge also reorganized the Georgia militia to make it more efficient, an act that put him at odds with other members of the Democratic Republican Party. He also sought ways to alleviate Georgia’s debts, the most successful of which was the sale of Georgia’s land to settlers. Although Milledge thought that the land was sold too cheaply, he signed into law the first land lottery in the history of the state, which helped to distribute territory seized from Georgia’s Creek and Cherokee populations.
In 1804 the state legislature appropriated funds to build a new capital, which was named Milledgeville in his honor. Milledgeville served as the capital of the state for most of the nineteenth century. Milledge left the governor’s office in 1806 and returned to national politics. He was elected by the Georgia legislature to the U.S. Senate and took his seat in June 1806. During the Tenth Congress, he served as president pro tempore of the Senate, ultimately resigning his seat in November 1809 to return to Georgia, where his wife, Martha Galphin Milledge, was gravely ill. Milledge spent the next decade at his plantation, Sand Hills, near Augusta. During his final years, Milledge spent much of his time devising new farming methods, especially in the areas of animal husbandry and horticulture. He died at his plantation on February 9, 1818, and is buried in Summerville Cemetery.