The real story of James Gunn
by Emanuel County Live | September 29, 2009 12:00 am
By: Farris Cadle
An article in the Forest-Blade, Sept. 23, page 2A, states the Sons of the American Revolution will hold a grave marking ceremony of Georgia’s first senior U.S. Senator, “Brigadier General James Gun[n].” James Gunn was one of the biggest scoundrels in American history, and, for the sake of historical accuracy, any marker placed on his grave should reflect that.
Gunn began his career in the U.S. Senate with the First Congress in 1789. In 1794 he and a group of associates formed the Georgia Company. This and three other similar companies worked together through the early and mid part of 1794 to clandestinely bribe members of the state legislature to pass what in history became known as the Yazoo Act. Gunn waited until November 26, 1794, thirteen days after his reelection to the U.S. Senate, to formally submit the Georgia Company’s proposal to the legislature. The act, once passed, conveyed about 3/5ths of Georgia’s western territory to the four private companies for a pittance. When the nature of the sale became public, there was virulent outrage throughout the state, and Gunn’s political career was over. He obviously knew this would happen, but apparently valued financial gain over his Senate seat. A new legislature in 1796 passed an act to repeal the Yazoo Act, and the repeal was also written into the state constitution. However, Gunn and the other companies had quickly sold their interests in the lands at considerable profit before this was accomplished. The matter was dumped into the laps of the federal courts and Congress. In 1814 Congress settled by buying up all the Yazoo claims at several times what the state had originally sold them for.
Like most modern-day office-holders who commit crimes, no formal charges were ever brought against Gunn. He died four months after his second Senate term ended. Newspapers of the time ridiculed his unscrupulous character, and cheered his passing with sarcastic obituaries.
Gunn married Mary Jane Wright. In the wake of the Yazoo Fraud scandal she separated from her husband, and, a year later, committed suicide. James Jackson, in a letter written shortly afterward, put it poignantly by stating: “tired and weary of life and the miseries she had endured she put a period to her existence by a strong dose of poison which she had kept sometime by her.” She was only 32. She is buried beside her father on Litchfield Plantation, where she grew up, in Chatham County. The graves are in a somewhat obscure location just north of the Ogeechee River and beside I-95. As the Forest-Blade article notes, James Gunn is buried in Louisville.
Incidentally, Gunn never rose above the rank of captain during the American Revolution. After the Revolution he obtained the rank of brigadier general in the state militia.
The Georgia and National Archives and other depositories contain thousands of pages of original documentation, as well as contemporary newspaper accounts, about the Yazoo Fraud, including Gunn’s involvement. Its way too much to cite here. Two well-researched and documented sources on James Gunn’s involvement are George R. Lamplugh, Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806; and the biographical sketch of Gunn in the Dictionary of Georgia Biography, edited by Kenneth Coleman and Charles S. Gurr.