Peter Early served as governor of Georgia at the height of the Creek War of 1813-14. His administration’s enthusiastic backing of federal military expeditions on this “other front” of the War of 1812 (1812-15) enlarged and secured Georgia’s frontier by hastening the Indians’ removal, thus fostering the state’s nineteenth-century transition from an undeveloped frontier to a “cotton kingdom.”
One of a generation of late-eighteenth-century Virginia emigrants who rose to prominence in Georgia public office, Early also served as a U.S. congressman, state superior court judge, and state senator. He was a longtime trustee of the state university in Athens and briefly served as its interim president.
Peter Early was born in Culpeper County, Virginia, on June 20, 1773, the eldest son of Lucy Smith and Joel Early. He studied at the Liberty Hall Academy and later graduated with honors from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) in 1792. He married Ann Adams Smith in 1797, and the couple had six children.
Early studied law in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with Jared Ingersoll, a counsel for Georgia in two important Supreme Court cases, Georgia v. Brailsford (1792) and Chisholm v. Georgia (1793). He took up the practice of law in Georgia, where his father, a prosperous planter, had bought large tracts of land in Wilkes and Greene counties and built a sprawling farming plantation, Fontenoy, on the Oconee River below Scull Shoals. Early established a successful legal practice in Wilkes and Oglethorpe counties, and by 1800 he had relocated to Greene County, where he built his own house on the western bank of the Oconee and became a leader of the local bar.
Political and Judicial Career
In October 1802 Early, a Jeffersonian Republican, overcame rumors that he was a Federalist to win one of Georgia’s four seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. He then won a December 1802 special election to replace U.S. congressman John Milledge, who had resigned to become governor. Thus Early entered Congress a year earlier than he would have otherwise and took his seat in January 1803.
As a member (and ultimately chairman) of the standing committee for commerce and manufactures, Early voted to prohibit trade with France’s rebellious colony Saint-Domingue (where Black revolutionaries had overthrown slavery) and opposed a U.S. embargo on trade with Great Britain. He promoted Georgia’s claims for frontier militia expenses and resisted attempts to have them subtracted from the state’s $1.25 million Yazoo claims settlement with the United States.
In the numerous debates of 1806-7 that preceded the passage of an act outlawing the importation of enslaved Africans, Early—whose family had one of the largest slaveholding plantations in Greene County—rose frequently to argue southern objections to any versions that threatened to stigmatize the slaveholding states or usurp their powers—”states’ rights”—to regulate their internal affairs. In opposing versions of the act that would have freed any enslaved persons seized from illegal shipments, Early argued that Georgians would be unlikely to observe any such law out of the fear that large numbers of free Blacks would lead to an insurrection. Ultimately he joined the other Georgia representatives in opposing the act, asserting that it was unconstitutionally narrow and that it would actually encourage the overland smuggling of enslaved laborers into frontier states like Georgia.
In 1806 Early declined to run again for Congress. In 1807 he accepted the state legislature’s appointment to be the superior court judge of the new nine-county Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit. He served two three-year terms on the bench, and although no official reports of his decisions survive, one well-publicized case he presided over involved a confrontation with John Clark, a pugnacious political figure (and future governor) who had publicly whipped a Milledgeville judge. Early reportedly fined Clark $2,000 and sentenced him to give bond for his good behavior for a period of five years, but Governor Jared Irwin pardoned Clark.
In 1813 Early was elected governor, defeating Clark and Colonel Nicholson Long. Early’s first actions as governor were to direct the militia to secure and build blockhouses in western counties and to recommend to the General Assembly that they approve a state loan of $20,000 to support the federal expedition that Early’s predecessor, David B. Mitchell, had dispatched westward into the Creek Indian lands at the request of U.S. president James Madison.
In March 1814 federal troops under Andrew Jackson defeated the Creeks and forced them to cede a 22-million-acre strip of frontier land separating southern Georgia from Florida. To address recurring flare-ups of hostility over settlers moving onto lands still reserved to the Indians, Early issued in April an order warning trespassers that he was empowering local courts to arrest and turn them over to the federal courts. In October he recommended legislation to reform the way in which militia and volunteer forces were organized. Although the Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812 on Christmas Eve 1814, a British naval expedition, unaware of the treaty, descended on Georgia’s Cumberland Island in early January 1815, and Early made the controversial decision to order General David Blackshear’s Georgia militia away from a federal mission enroute to Mobile in order to defend the Georgia coast. After the British departed in February, Early again raised nearly 2,000 troops to assist the federal government, this time to protect U.S. commissioners charged with marking the boundaries to the Creek land cession of 1814.
Early’s use of the veto effectively ended his gubernatorial career. In November 1814 he rejected the legislature’s resolution for renewing the so-called Alleviating Acts. Many legislators had been elected by promising to renew the acts, which had been in effect for six years and had effectively suspended legal debt collection in the state. In vetoing the resolution, Early reasoned that the acts unconstitutionally impaired contractual obligations between parties. Legislators overrode Early’s veto, and when the General Assembly met to choose a governor in November 1815, although Early received a plurality of votes (51) on the first ballot over former governors David B. Mitchell (47) and Jared Irwin (20), Mitchell was elected on the second ballot with a majority of 76-49.
University of Georgia
The next year Early’s Greene County neighbors elected him to the state senate, and in the fall of 1816 he divided his time between the legislative session in Milledgeville and his duties as senior trustee on the board of the University of Georgia. In the General Assembly he helped draft the state’s first penal code, and he worked on committees to revise the superior court system. He also worked on committees reviewing the 1814 Creek land cessions and monitoring the construction of the new state penitentiary at Milledgeville.
Early’s public service ended not in political office but where it began, as a trustee of the state university. He had been appointed to the board of trustees in 1797 and served for three years with an illustrious group that included founding fathers William Few Jr., George Walton, and Abraham Baldwin as they considered where to locate the proposed university. After leaving the board in 1800, Early returned to it in 1808 when Franklin College was up and running under its first professor and active president, Josiah Meigs. (Meigs, a radical Jeffersonian who fought with religious factions seeking to control the college and eventually departed, would call Early the only honest man among a “damned pack of Tories & speculators.”) An active trustee even while governor, Early, in his farewell address to legislators, urged them to preserve the United States from “shipwreck on the same rocks that have proven fatal to other republics” by supporting educational institutions. By 1816 he had become the university’s senior trustee, and after directing the search for a new college president, he was designated college “president pro tempore” for the winter and spring of 1817, until the new president, the Reverend Robert Finley, could move to Georgia.
Not long after Finley arrived, Early became ill and died on August 15, 1817. According to Memoir of Adiel Sherwood, Finley preached a memorial sermon for Early in Athens, and the prominent Baptist pastor Jesse Mercer preached the sermon at Early’s burial at Fontenoy. Adiel Sherwood married Early’s widow, Ann, in 1821.
Early County in south Georgia was named in his honor. In 1914 Early’s remains were moved from the family grave site to the Greensboro City Cemetery.