The First Federal Congress Project
Documentary History of the First Federal Congress

James Jackson, Representative from Georgia

James Jackson was born on 21 September 1757 at Moreton Hampstead, Devonshire, England. The son of James and Mary Webber Jackson, he emigrated to Georgia in 1772 and became the ward of the prominent Savannah lawyer, John Wereat. His meteoric rise in state politics was accelerated by the opportunities made available by the revolutionary movement. In 1776 the Provincial Congress appointed him clerk of court, and the next year he sat in the state's first constitutional convention. In 1776 Jackson embarked on a military career with the state militia. Rising from lieutenant to lieutenant colonel, he participated in many of the significant engagements of the Southern campaign. In gratitude for his assuming control over Savannah following the British evacuation in 1782, the state legislature awarded him a house and lot in the liberated town. Although he was never an officer in the Continental Army, the Society of the Cincinnati made Jackson an honorary member. He remained an important military figure throughout Georgia's postwar expansionist drive against the Creek Nation, attaining the rank of brigadier general of the state militia in 1786 and major general in 1792.
Before the end of the Revolutionary War, Jackson had begun the study of law under George Walton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Between 1783 and 1789 he built up a highly lucrative practice, supplementing his income by acquiring rice and cotton plantations. In 1785 he married Mary Charlotte Young, with whom he had five sons. Jackson launched his political career as Chatham County Representative in Georgia's General Assembly, serving several terms before being elected governor in 1788. He declined the post on the grounds of his youth and inexperience, and returned to the Assembly the next year as Glynn County Representative. Jackson served on the legislative committee that drew up the election law for Georgia's United States Representatives. His home district was known as the First, Lower, or Eastern District. Although it contained the former capital of Savannah, Georgia's largest town, it was the least populous congressional district in the United States, numbering 16,250 inhabitants using the three-fifths ratio for including slaves in the count.
The seat for the first district was the most contested in the state. Jackson's most formidable opponents, William Houston and Henry Osborne, were vastly more experienced. All three had served in the Assembly, but Houston had also served in the Confederation Congress and the Federal Convention, while Osborne sat on the state Supreme Court. The scanty documentary sources indicate that personality and political rivalries played a more significant role than the issues in the 9 February 1789 election. Jackson won a slim victory. Osborne unsuccessfully challenged the returns in one county, while the Election Ordinance made no allowance for counting the late returns submitted by four other counties. On 26 February Jackson was declared the winner in the first district, polling just over half the number of votes won by the other two successful candidates.
Jackson took his seat at the first session on 20 April, almost three weeks after a quorum had assembled. Throughout the session he and his family occupied quarters at 63 Broadway, where his colleague Matthews also resided. Fearful of the severe gales encountered on the return trip, his family did not accompany him to the second session, where he arrived on 15 January. His arrival at the third session on 9 December was more punctual, notwithstanding an especially violent sea passage. Apart from a period in late February 1790 when he suffered a bout of pleurisy, Jackson is not known to have been absent.
Jackson was an active committee member, serving on twenty-two and reporting for four. Twelve of these concerned commercial regulations, revenue, and public credit; four dealt with congressional business and procedure; and two dealt with the judiciary establishment. Another three were more directly relevant to Georgia's particular interests: the frontier, naturalization of immigrants, and special provisions for the assumption of Georgia's debt under the Georgia Bill [HR-94].
Outside the committee room, Jackson made a name for himself as the First Congress's most flamboyant speaker. His debate style bears out Catharine Greene's assertion that he was "an honest Man but has a very hot head."1 His colorful speeches were steeped in learned if sometimes obscure historical and biblical allusions. On the slightest provocation he would hurl ad hominem attacks against his colleagues, launched in a voice so loud that, according to Ames, the Senate meeting upstairs in Federal Hall was at least once forced to close its windows. His firebrand reputation was enhanced by an adversarial relationship with the press, which printed several editorial pieces attacking him. A notable exception was an anonymous piece in the New-York Journal on 20 July 1790, praising him for being independent and "uniformly brave in the contempt he shews for the sycophants of the cabinet."
Jackson's anti-administration stance was the most prominent feature of his old style republican ideology. He nurtured a deep veneration for Washington himself, "certainly the greatest Man alive." But it was precisely his greatness that "obliges the Representatives to be more wary of a Washington, than if a worse Character filled his Station, for fear of precedents, which may be innocent with him, but pernicious in future."2 The resolution for a presidential title was one such precedent that Jackson helped to defeat. He was less effective in his arguments against the power of removal contained in the Foreign Affairs Act [HR-8] warning his colleagues not to tamper with the blending of powers intended by the Constitution. Particularly threatening, he felt, was the president's exclusive power to dismiss the secretary of the treasury. In the second session debate on the Foreign Intercourse Bill [HR-35], he viewed leaving ambassadorial salaries blank as a surrender of the power of the purse. In the third session he threatened to strike deep at the executive's treaty making power by announcing his intention to make a motion that would have required the president to lay before the House the secret articles of the treaty signed with the Creeks.
Jackson was equally vigilant against incursions attempted by the Senate on the House's dignity and prerogatives. He first argued the superiority of the House during the debate on how to communicate messages between the houses. Later he spoke warmly against the higher salary granted Senators under the Salaries-Legislative Act [HR-19]. On the subject of salaries in general, Jackson recognized the threat of false economy. He advocated a relatively high salary for the president, and warned that the low salaries proposed by the Salaries-Judiciary Act [HR-28] would prevent the best qualified from serving.
"My heart is federal,"3 Jackson once assured his colleagues. Committed to the quick and efficient operation of the Constitution, he opposed Madison's early efforts to secure amendments. On the first day of debate, Jackson asked that their consideration be postponed until March 1790. Later he joined a handful of Federalists who sometimes sided with antifederalists favoring structural Amendments. He opposed Madison again in supporting Sherman's proposal to add the amendments to the end of the Constitution, so that the original "not be patched up from time to time, with various stuffs resembling Joseph's coat of many colors."4
Jackson's position on the Judiciary Act [S-1] reveals the limits of his Federalist orientation. He thought the establishment of the federal judiciary the most important question of the first session, but his goals were narrow. Arguing that Congress was not obliged to carry into execution every power that the Constitution authorized, he advocated striking out the section establishing the district court system. Neither the added expense nor the confusion attending concurrent jurisdiction justified more than a Supreme Court.
Asserting Georgia's interests as an underpopulated, defenseless, and geographically peripheral state lay at the center of Jackson's political agenda. He conceded his state's marginal economic influence, but begged his colleagues to "remember the widow's mite is as good as the rich man's coffers."5 Defending the primacy of agriculture, he argued early in the first session against tariffs that aimed at promoting American shipping under both the Impost Act [HR-2] and the Tonnage Act [HR-5]. Then, and again in the second session, he spoke "with great force and reasoning"6 against efforts to impose discriminatory tariffs against Great Britain. Although no Anglophile, Jackson pointed out that British carriers were essential to Southern exports in general and to Georgia's lumber trade in particular. In private he admitted that "the time is not far distant" when Georgia's lumber interest would support Eastern shipbuilding. "Those however are sentiments we did not chuse to express to the House."7
Jackson was constantly on guard against efforts by speculators to gain unfair advantage from Georgia's relative isolation from the flow of capital in the specie deprived nation. His strong opposition to speculation in any form emerges clearly in his many speeches on Hamilton's report on public credit. He seconded Madison's motion for partial compensation of original holders of alienated securities, proclaiming in his typical Jeremiah-like fashion "the injury cries out aloud for redress; iniquity is in the land."8
Jackson orated at length against assumption of the states' war debts. When the Funding Act [HR-63] returned from the Senate with an amendment for assumption, Jackson jumped at what he considered an unconstitutional infraction on the House's power over money bills. He moved to strike the amendment and unsuccessfully led the two day fight against it. The day the act was signed by the Speaker, Jackson introduced the Georgia Bill [HR-94], making special provision for an additional assumption of Georgia's state debt. It failed to receive a third reading.
Jackson continued the fight against assumption by attacking the means intended to pay for it. The Duties on Distilled Spirits Act [HR-110] he called "a most ruinous and mischievous system of taxation."9 No one answered the philippic he delivered against the bill's first section, but only fourteen joined him in voting to strike it. When it was clear that the bill would pass, Jackson attempted unsuccessfully to limit the political influence of the new army of revenue collectors by moving to prohibit them from engaging in any political activity. His crusade against the "stock-jobbers" also made him a critic of the Bank Act [S-15] later in the third session.
To ensure the population of Georgia's western hinterland by subduing the Creek Nation had been Georgia's principal object in ratifying the Constitution. Jackson, a military hero himself, took every opportunity to promote an assertive federal military presence in his state. On at least one occasion during debate on the Indian Treaties Act [HR-20], a South Carolina colleague believed that that goal clouded Jackson's judgment about the Creeks, and he publicly called Jackson to account for exaggerating their cruelty. Jackson voted for a high appropriation for treaty commissioners under [HR-20], but by the third session he complained that the Creek leader Alexander McGillivray had been "entertained and caressed in the most extraordinary manner"10 without extracting any clear gains. He was a principal speaker during the session's lengthy debate on the Militia Bill [HR-102], where he vehemently opposed exempting Quakers from mandatory militia duty without paying a fine.
It was not Jackson's first encounter with the Quakers. Indeed, his most inflammatory rhetorical flights in defense of Georgia's interests were directed against the Quakers who submitted antislavery petitions to Congress early in the second session. Jackson was one of a handful of indignant Southern congressmen who armed themselves with the forces of personal invective and extensive biblical, legal, and historical scholarship in an attempt to talk the petitions out of existence. The violence of the debate was roundly criticized. Jackson in particular earned the ambiguous honor of being attacked in Benjamin Franklin's last published work, an antislavery satire entitled "Historicus," published a month before the author's death.
Jackson was not a prominent figure in the debates on the seat of government, but he showed a keen appreciation for what was at stake economically, once likening the future capital to the human heart, "a center from which the principles of life were carried to the extremities."11 He favored postponing the question when it arose in the first session, claiming that the South's population growth would soon negate all arguments against a Southern location. Probably his most valuable contribution to a Potomac capital came from his membership in the second session conference committee on unfinished business. There, according to Maclay, Jackson propounded "much parliamentary stuff"12 in support of beginning all business de novo, thereby giving the pro-Potomac forces a valuable second chance.
As with assumption, the Bank Act, and other controversial legislation, Jackson advocated postponing the residence question until he could consult his constituents. Slow communications with Georgia were a continuing handicap for Jackson and perhaps contributed to his defeat in the second election. In December 1790 the system had been modified so that each district voted for its own representative, who need not be a resident of that district. In the January 1791 election, Jackson lost to the popular war hero, General "Mad Anthony" Wayne. Claiming voting fraud and citing Wayne's questionable residency status, Jackson succeeded in having Wayne unseated in March 1792, but neither was a candidate in the subsequent runoff election.
Jackson continued to practice law. Early in the second session he was one of nine congressmen admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court. His post-Congress career also included military service against the Creeks, a seat in the United States Senate from 1793 until he resigned in 1795 because of the Yazoo scandal, the governorship from 1798 to 1801, and a return to the Senate from 1801 until his death in Washington, D.C. on 19 March 1806.
Collections of Jackson's papers are located at the Georgia Historical Society, Savannah and at the New-York Historical Society. Some of these have been published in "Papers of James Jackson," Lilla M. Hawes, ed., Collections of the Georgia Historical Society 11(1955). The best biography is William O. Foster's James Jackson: Duelist and Militant Statesman, 1757--1806 (Athens, Ga., 1960). The best known likeness of Jackson is an early nineteenth century engraving after a drawing from life by Saint-Memin.
    1. Catharine Greene to Jeremiah Wadsworth, 18 Apr. 1789,DHFFE 2:479.
    2. James Jackson to Anthony Wayne, 10 May 1789, Wayne Papers, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
    3. House Debates 11:1387.
    4. House Debates 11:1228.
    5. House Debates 10:515.
    6. House Debates 13:1260.
    7. James Jackson to Anthony Wayne, 10 May 1789.
    8. House Debates 12:357.
    9. House Debates 14:230.
    10. House Debates 14:16.
    11. House Debates 11:1338.
    12. Maclay Diary, p. 189.

Recommended citation: Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, ed. Charlene Bickford, et al. (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2002). http://adh.sc.edu [Accessed (supply date here)]

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