William Rabun served as governor of Georgia from 1817 until his death in 1819. He was born in Halifax County, North Carolina, on April 8, 1771, to Sarah Warren and Matthew Rabun. He moved with his father to Greene County (which later became part of Hancock County) in central Georgia in 1785. The family home in Powellton is located ten miles northeast of Sparta. In 1793 he married Mary Battle, and the couple had one son and six daughters.
Self-educated in the backwoods tradition of reading and observation, Rabun was a devout Baptist. He was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives from Hancock County in 1805 and served in the Georgia senate from 1810 until 1817.
Due to his position as president of the senate, Rabun became the ex-officio governor of Georgia on March 4, 1817, when Governor David B. Mitchell resigned to accept U.S. president James Madison’s appointment as U.S. agent to the Creek Nation. Mitchell replaced famed Indian agent Benjamin Hawkins, who had recently died.
In November 1817 Rabun was elected by the legislature to a full term as governor from the Democratic-Republican Party, and he pushed for both more support of free public schools and internal improvements for the navigation of the state’s rivers.
During the First Seminole War (1817-18), Governor Rabun called out the state militia, under the command of General Edmund Pendleton Gaines, to respond to raids on southern Georgia settlements. He ordered the Hopaunee and Philemmee Indian villages to be destroyed for their suspected participation in the raids on white settlers. By mistake Captain Obed Wright burned the Creek village of the Chehaws, and his men killed ten inhabitants. Andrew Jackson, a general and the future president of the United States, had promised to protect the village, and he wanted the captain prosecuted for murder and held in leg irons at the pleasure of the president.
Rabun rejected the authority of the federal government to intervene in the affairs of a state, and especially over a state-controlled militia. He famously remarked to Jackson, “When the liberties of the people of Georgia shall have been prostrated at the feet of a military despotism, then, and not till then, will your imperious doctrine be submitted to.” The governor went on to criticize the general for his failure to protect white Georgians from the Seminoles and the Creeks. Although he created a bitter rift with Jackson, Rabun endeared himself to the Georgia people and had the full support of the state legislature.
While home in Powellton between legislative sessions, Rabun caught a fever and died unexpectedly on October 24, 1819. The president of the senate, Mathew Talbot, assumed the governor’s office, and two months later the General Assembly created Rabun County, ceded from Cherokee territory in northeast Georgia. Jesse Mercer, a prominent Baptist minister, delivered a sermon in memory of the late governor at the behest of the legislature.