CHAPTER III. - SOUTHERN COLONIES.
The weakness of Georgia, with her meager population and scanty resources, made it seem impossible that the Revolution could find or keep a foothold there. The movement was opposed or viewed with indifference by a majority of the people. The few leaders of the revolutionary party met however and sought to communicate their enthusiasm to the rest of the Colony. Savannah became naturally the center of the movement, and meetings of American sympathizers were frequent there. At one of these gatherings, on June 18, 1775, a Council of Safety of sixteen prominent citizens was appointed to see that the Non-Importation and Exportation agreement was carried into effect.
The following month the second Provincial Congress of Georgia came together, and joined in the common cause by resolving to carry out the measures recommended by the Continental Congress and to adhere to the Continental Association. The Council of Safety appointed at the Savannah meeting was recognized and given authority in various matters, although there was no definite enumeration of its powers. The Congress voted that in its recess the Committee might issue certificates to the amount of £10,000. All such certificates were to be signed by the Treasurer and at least three of the Committee. Besides this important financial power the Council was to propose on any emergency such measures to the Continental delegates as would best serve the public good. It might also call the Provincial Congress together before the time appointed.
Just previous to its adjournment the Congress ordered that the delegates from the town and district of Savannah with such other representatives as happened to be in the city during the recess should be a General Committee for the Province, to superintend, direct and advise the parochial and district committees. To this committee also was given the power- to call the Congress to an extra session if it saw fit.
It is uncertain what position the Council of Safety was intended to occupy or what its relation to this General Committee was to be. It was not directed to carry on the affairs of the Province in the recess of the legislature or to execute its resolutions. Yet it seems impossible that a board given such authority in issuing money, and directing the policy of the Colony in the Continental Congress by advising its delegates should be created merely for these two purposes. These were powers which properly belonged to a committee intended to take charge of the government, and it may be that the Provincial Congress of Georgia considered that function to be understood to belong to the name, "Committee of Safety," so that no further definition was needed. The form of the General Committee might seem to make it a better representative of the Congress in its recess than the Council. But the fact that its duty was definitely assigned to it and no mention made of such function is a strong objection to this view. Loose delegation of powers was characteristic of all the transitional governments. As the Council of Safety, as a matter of fact, did assume the chief place in the Province, it is reasonable to suppose this to have been the intention of the Congress.
A Council of Safety was appointed at the November session of the legislature and from then until April 1776, the government, in the recess of the legislature rested in its hands.
As usual the people having determined on resistance wished first to wrench away the chief weapon of the royal provincial government and gain control of the militia. August 8, the Council of Safety applied to Governor Wright to allow the militia companies to choose their own officers on the ground that those then acting were disagreeable to the men. The Governor refused a request so destructive of military discipline, but he was unable to make his prohibition respected. The soldiers met and, disregarding their former officers, elected members of the patriot party to take their place. Commissions were issued to the new officers by the Council of Safety and the military force of the Colony was brought into definite dependence upon the revolutionary government.
The situation of Georgia was a difficult one. The Governor and Council and many of the wealthy planters were opposed to the movement. The Colony depended for prosperity on trade, and to cut this off entirely by enforcing the Non-Exportation and Importation Acts seemed suicidal. Danger threatened from marauding bands of the English from Florida, the sea-coast offered an attack for the British fleet, and the Indians in the back counties, deprived of their -supplies by the interruption of commerce, were ill-tempered and promised trouble.
The Council of Safety determined to strike quickly and deprive the Tories of their leaders by securing the Governor and his Council. The arrival early in January, 1776, of three British ships with soldiers gave an occasion. The ,Council of Safety at once ordered the arrest of Governor and Council. Any citizens who refused to promise that they would refrain from aiding the enemy were to be disarmed. The order does not seem to have been carried out in full but the Governor was surprised and easily taken. He was kept a prisoner in his own house until he made his escape to the King's ships. The provincial government was probably not ill-pleased to learn of his flight, since his presence in the Province could never have been anything but a disturbing influence.
Georgia did not have within her borders arms and war stores sufficient to equip her soldiers and it was imperative to obtain them by trade. The Council of Safety therefore released from the Non-Exportation and Importation Agreement for nine months all ships trading with the produce of the Colony for saltpetre, sulphur, brass field pieces, or muskets. Three of its number were chosen to act as a Committee of Supplies, and were to see particularly that the Colony was furnished with a certain number of arms and a certain amount of powder, balls, and shot.
In every other respect the Council was -determined to enforce the commercial restrictions in spite of the opposition of the planters. The prohibition placed on exports by the Continental Congress having expired March, 1776, the Council of Safety continued it in Georgia, forbidding any ship, except those which were to procure war stores, to load with rice or other product of the Colony or to sail without the permission of the Council or the next Congress. To render disobedience impossible the ships then in the port of Savannah were to be dismantled.
The Council was not strong enough to enforce obedience to this order, and therefore applied to South Carolina for aid. That Colony had for some time interested itself in impressing on Georgia the necessity of complying rigidly with congressional regulations and had observed how frequently they were violated. Colonel Bull had been already dispatched with militia to see that, with the concurrence of the Georgia authorities, the embargo there was made effectual. It was now possible to make the act appear as an answer to the request of the weaker colony. Bull consulted with the Council on his arrival and at its desire posted guards in Savannah and its vicinity. The Council desired him to undertake the work of unrigging the ships, but Bull declined. It would make a better impression through the country if Georgia did the work herself, he said, and seemed not to depend on outside assistance. The Tories were already claiming that Carolina had taken possession of Savannah and meant to keep it. Nothing should be done therefore to give -color to this assertion. The Georgia Council therefore sent its own militia and accomplished the work, while Bull stood ready to aid it at a moment's warning.
At this time a few British ships of war were in the harbor, threatening an attack in order to secure provisions. Not knowing how far the strength and desire of the enemy could carry them the Council determined to give them but a barren victory. It was resolved if it was found impossible to hold the town and its shipping from the British that both should be burned and wholly destroyed. The houses and ships of those friendly to the cause were appraised in order that the delegates of the Province in the Continental Congress might apply to that body to indemnify the owners. Those who refused to support the American cause or who abandoned the city in its time of danger were to be denied this privilege.
The event gave little occasion for these drastic measures. The British were received on board certain merchant ships in the bay and the attempt made by the provincials, tinder the direction of the Council of Safety, to dislodge them led to the burning of the vessels and the precipitate flight of the enemy.
In April, 1776, the Provincial Convention determined on a better organization of the government and a clearer definition of the powers of its officers. A President was accordingly constituted to have the highest executive and military authority. He was to be assisted by a Council of Safety of thirteen persons together with the five delegates to the Continental Congress, which was to act as his privy council and whose advice he was bound to ask and to follow. The Council was thus placed as a check upon any attempt at irresponsible power. It is probable, however, that there was little friction between the President and his advisers, and that the management of affairs rested almost entirely and without question with the former. The person elected to the office was Archibald Bullock, a man respected and trusted in Georgia in the same way that Governor Trumbull was respected and trusted in Connecticut. This is further confirmed by the fact that when, at one time, the Province was in fear of a British attack and it was impossible to collect the whole number of the Council of Safety, as soon as was desirable, that body, by its own act, requested the President to take upon himself the whole executive power of the government, permitting him to call to his assistance any five persons whom he chose, whenever a sufficient number of the Council of Safety could not be convened.
The provision for the government made by the Convention in April was intended to be only temporary and to serve until a new and complete constitution could be adopted. This was accomplished by February, 1777. The executive power was placed in a Governor and an Executive Council. On the adjournment of the Convention the Council of Safety was left to carry this government into effect. Archibald Bullock had died and the Council therefore elected Button Gwinnett as President to serve until the legislature should meet and choose a Governor under the Constitution.
The Assembly met in May, 1777, and elected a Governor and Executive Council. The books and papers of the Council of Safety were given into their charge, and its existence came to an end.
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