The First Constitutional Convention. Washington, the Almost Forgotten Little Village Where It Met. The Arrest of Col. Aaron Burr

Written for The Constitution by Dunbar Rowland, B. S. L.L. B., Member of Mississippi Historical Society, Author of “The Rise and Fall of Negro Rule in Mississippi,” “Plantation Life in Mississippi Before the War.”

A sentimental interest always follows those places where history was made, no matter how isolated and obscure they may be made by the changes wrought by a restless people. Independence hall stands surrounded by the marble magnificence of a modern city and looks poor indeed when compared with the stately structure of the City of Brotherly Love.

Yet that little homely building of brick is dearer to the hearts of the American people and means more to them than all the priceless palaces of a great city. A recent visit to the little village of Washington, in Adams county, Mississippi, was so interesting from a historical view that I feel prompted to give the facts gathered there to these readers of The Constitution who feel an interest in the early history of and history makers of the state that takes its name from the great Father of Waters. The little village of Washington has clustering around it historic memories and scenes as the place where Mississippi pioneers began the great work of state building. In the push and hurry of modern life Washington and its post way have been forgotten, and the historic memories that gather about it and hover over it may be growing dim in the minds of those who should cherish and love them. If so, then this paper may revive an interest in and a love for the place where the state of Mississippi had its birth, and may remind this generation of the great and noble deeds of the fathers of the state. Mississippi territory was formed and organized under and by authority of an act of congress approved April 7, 1798. The lands contained in the new territory were different from those now constituting the state. The original territory was made up of lands that now go to make up the southern part of Alabama and Mississippi, and is described in the act of congress as “All that tract of country bounded on the west by the Mississippi river, on the north by a line to be drawn due east from the mouth of the Yazoo to the Chattahoochee river, on the south by the thirty-first degree of north latitude, shall be and is hereby constituted one district to be called the Mississippi Territory.” Under English authority and control the same territory was known as the British Province of West Florida. The state of Georgia once owned and had jurisdiction over the entire territory of Mississippi. John Adams was president when Mississippi territory was organized. He was a sincere patriot of the aristocratic class, who believed that the liberty and freedom gained by the war of independence was to be controlled and directed only by a favored few, and that the peace and prosperity of the country would descend from the rich to the poor and not ascend from the poor to the rich. Mr. Adams was a firm federalist of the most intense New England type who believed that his country began and ended in Massachusetts. The selection of a governor for the new territory was the duty of the president. Winthrop Sargent, of Massachusetts, was appointed May 21, 1798. Governor Sargent was a soldier of the revolution, and held the military rank of major in the continental army. He was a favorite of President Adams, and at the time of his appointment held the office of secretary of the Northwestern territory. The appointment of Governor Sargent was unfortunate. He was a solemn, grave, austere Puritan and federalist. The people of Mississippi territory were far removed from both. The governor was cold and repellant; the people were warm-hearted and attractive. He was exclusive and suspicious; they were democratic and confiding. Winthrop Sargent was a devoted follower of Alexander Hamilton; the people of Mississippi took their opinion from the “Sage of Monticello.”

The people thought the governor was a hypocrite; the governor thought the people were in need of consolation of the cross. Natchez was the seat of government for the territory, and Governor Sargent entered upon his duties here August 6, 1798. His administration of public affairs was very unsatisfactory to the people. He was never in harmony with them: they had no sympathy for him. He served two unhappy years, and was relieved by President Jefferson April 3, 1801. The feeling against Governor Sargent was caused no doubt by political differences, and may have been unjust. There is a small enclosure by the roadside out from Natchez a short distance, two groves are there, two simple monuments mark the last resting place of two men. The dust of Winthrop Sargent, the first territorial governor of Mississippi, mingles with that of Sargent S. Prentiss, the most inspiring orator of the century. The little cemetery is well kept and looks peaceful and restful there in the bosom of the Natchez cemetery. President Jefferson appointed Judge William Charles Cole Claiborne, of Tennessee, to succeed Winthrop Sargent as governor of the territory, July 10, 1801. The appointment was a fitting and happy one. Governor Claiborne was eminently suited for the duties of the position he was called to fill. He was a native of Virginia, and was in perfect harmony with the nature, desires and policy of the people of Mississippi. He had served with honor as a justice of the supreme court of Tennessee, and represented with ability his state in congress for four years. The new governor was very acceptable to the people; he was in sympathy with them, and his popular methods met their approval. He was young, industrious and ambitions, and was peculiarly suited for the guidance of a new, active and progressive century. Governor Claiborne arrived in Natchez November 22, 1801, and his reception by the people was cordial and warm hearted. He entered upon the discharge of his new duties with zeal and earnestness. It was during the administration of Governor Claiborne that the capital of the territory was moved from Natchez to Washington, a growing town of cultured people, six miles east of the former capital. Under and by virtue of an act of congress, passed in 1804, the territory of Mississippi was extended north to the Tennessee line, and included almost all the lands of Alabama as they now exist. After the purchase of Louisiana from France by President Jefferson it became necessary to organize a government for the new territory. The president appointed Governor Claiborne to work out the new and untried problem of the first expansion experiment of the American people. He became governor of the territory of Orleans October 4, 1804. His administration of the public affairs of Mississippi have covered a period of three years, and they were years of growth, progress and development. Governor Claiborne died in New Orleans in 1817, the year Mississippi became a member of the union. The appointment of Robert Williams, of North Carolina, to succeed Governor Claiborne as governor of Mississippi, was a mistake. He was an ex-member of congress, and when he was retired to private life by his own people he was sent to govern Mississippi. He seemed to care little for his new post. Cowles Mead, an accomplished and talented Virginia lawyer, was secretary of the territory during the administration of Governor Williams, and was acting governor during his absence from his duties. It was during the absence of Governor Williams from the territory when Aaron Burr undertook his celebrated trip down the Mississippi with his supposed warlike flotilla of flat boats, and was arrested on Mississippi soil. Colonel Burr’s strange attempt to sever the states of the Mississippi valley from the union will always remain one of the mysteries of history. There is a fascinating interest about the life and character of Aaron Burr. His deeds did not justify the terrible persecution heaped upon him by the friends of Hamilton when he returned to New York to practice law. They made the last twenty years of his life a terrible torture [sic], and pursued him to the grave with a deathless hatred. The general story of Colonel Burr’s attempt to build for himself a new empire in the Mississippi valley is an old story, but the part that Mississippi played in the drama of ruined hopes is not so generally known. The federal authorities of Washington had been kept fully advised of the mysterious movements of Colonel Burr from the very beginning of his enterprise, and instructions had been sent out to state authorities to stop the progress of the movement. There was great excitement in Mississippi over the mysterious flotilla passing down the river, and Acting Governor Mead organized a large body of volunteers to stop its progress, and if need be to arrest those engaged in the expedition. When Colonel Burr and his supposed warlike array reached a point about fifty miles below where the city of Vicksburg now stands, Governor Mead sent George Poindexter, attorney general, and Williams Shields, an eminent citizen of the territory, to find out the intentions and destination of the enterprise. The representatives of the governor where received by Colonel Burr with courtly courtesy and treated with great consideration and kindness.

An interview between Colonel Burr and Governor Mead was arranged to take place where Coles creek empties into the Mississippi, and both parties kept the engagement. Colonel Burr was the most accomplished diplomate of his day. He was skilled in all the arts of pleasing and was most artistic manipulator men. Such men will succeed for a time, but they never inspire that confidence that commands permanent success. Aaron Burr was the most courtly and brilliant presiding officer that ever graces the United States senate, yet he was absolutely without influence in that body. Governor Mead was an accomplished gentlemen and an able lawyer, but he was no match in the deep game that was being played by the subtle and adroit man with whom he had to deal. Colonel Burr disclaimed having any unlawful purpose or design, and readily agreed to accompany the governor and his part to Washington, the territory capital, in order that his purposes and acts might be made the subject of legal investigation. The territorial authorities decided to call a special session of the superior court for the purpose of considering the case of Colonel Burr, and he was required to give bond in the sum of $5,000 for his appearance before that tribunal. The bond was made by some of the prominent men of the territory who were his friends. Colonel Burr was taken to Washington in January, and the court was called to convene February 2, 1807. The presence of such a noted character as former vice president of the United States, who was the most accomplished and attractive man of his day, was a great event in the little territorial capital, and Colonel Burr was entertained by many of the prominent people of the town. He played the roll [sic] of a political martyr and took pains to excite the sympathy of the people. There is a tradition in Washington that the stay of Colonel Burr has a romance connected with it.

It is said that he gained and returned the love of a beautiful and accomplished lady, and that she aided and helped him through the terrible trials through which he passed. The superior court was crowded on the appointed day, and Colonel Burr appeared at the bar to answer any indictment that might be brought against him. There were grave doubts as to the jurisdiction of the court, and there was some delay. Colonel Burr claimed that he had fulfilled the conditions of his bond and attempted to leave this territory. He was again arrested at Fort Stoddard, taken to Washington, D. C., and finally tried and acquitted at Richmond. Mississippi may well claim credit for the breaking this first attempt to disrupt the union. David Holmes, of Virginia, was appointed governor of the territory by President Madison, March 4, 1809. It grew in wealth and population under his wise and just administration of affairs until 1817, when an enabling act was passed by congress providing for its admission into the union. The act providing for statehood was approved by President Madison three days before the end of his second term, and is dated March 1, 1817. Hon. George Poindexter was the representative of the territory in congress. He drew and had passed the enabling act that gave it the right to become one of the states of the union. The territory of Mississippi prior to 1817 included all the land lying south of the Tennessee line, and between the Mississippi river and the western boundary of Georgia. The enabling act made the eastern half of the territory of Alabama. The territory of Mississippi was at the time of its admission to the union a garden for the cultivation of talent. Brilliant young men from all the older states became its citizens, and were eager searchers for honor, wealth and fame. The large number of trained lawyers who were devoted to the deep and profound study of statecraft gave the new state a sound and pure code of constitutional law. The sons of wealthy, intelligent and aristocratic families of the older states came to Mississippi in the early days and became accomplished scholars, learned lawyers, great law-makers and statesmen of wonderful insight and power. They became the dominant influence in public and private affairs, and they were equally at home on the field of honor, the battlefield, or the ground furrows of their country. The value of able, upright and learned lawyers to a state was known in Mississippi before it was discovered in other states. De Tocqueville in his acute and statesmanlike comments on southern life declared that “When the American people are intoxicated by passion or carried away by the impetuosity of its ideas, it is checked and stopped by the almost irresistible influence of its legal counsellors.” When the first outburst of passion would overrun the people, the stability and conservatism of the legal profession was an orator of safety to which public opinion was steadfastly fixed.

When political fads and doubtful reforms or false theories threatened to captivate the great body of the people, the trained intelligence of many profound lawyers was always an influence for sound and true judgment. The pioneer time of Mississippi life (the same is true of all the states) was a sublime age, an age of courage, honor, integrity and chivalry. There existed a magnificent disregard of and a high contempt for the mere accumulation of dollars and cents. Life then was placed upon a higher and nobler plane, and it was devoted to the cultivation of virtues far above the stock-and-bond idea of the present day. The youth of the country were taught to be brave, truthful, honorable, honest and faithful, and such teachings made a race of men who looked upon honor as greater than riches, defeat in a just cause more to be desired than success by the sacrifice of principle, and love for their fellow man as the crowning virtue. The population of Mississippi territory just prior to statehood was 50,000, and it was confined to the southern part. Warren was the most northern county. The territory between Vicksburg and Memphis was occupied by the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians. There were fourteen organized counties in the territory; they may be termed the charter members of the state. The following extract taken from the enabling act as found in Hutchinson’s Mississippi code, page 59, gives the names of the original counties, and apportions representation in the constitutional convention to each: “From the county of Warren, two representatives; Claiborne, four; Jefferson, four; Adams, eight; Franklin, two; Wilkinson, six; Amite, six; Pike, four; Lawrence, two; Marion, two; Hancock, two; Wayne, two; Green, two; Jackson, two.” The constitutional convention was authorized to meet at Washington, the territorial capital, July 7, 1817, and on that day the convention met with the following members present:

Adams County – David Holmes, Joseph Sessions, James C. Wilkins, John Taylor, John Steel, Edward Turner, Christopher Rankin.

Jefferson – Cowles Mead, Hezekiah J. Balch, Joseph E. Davis.

Claiborne – Walter Leaks, Thomas Barnes, Daniel Burnet, Joshua Clark.

Warren – Henry D. Davis, Andrew Glass.

Franklin – James Knox.

Wilkinson – George Poindexter, Daniel Williams, Abram M. Scott, John Joor, Gerard C. Brandon, Joseph Johnson.

Amite – William Lattimore, Henry Hanna, Thomas Tarrance, Thomas Batchelor, John Burton, Angus Wilkinson.

Pike – William J. Minto, David Dickson, James Y. McNobb.

Lawrence – Harmon Runnels, George W. King.

Marion – Dougal McLaughlin, John Ford.

Hancock – Noel Jourdan, Amos Burnet.

Wayne – James Patton, Clinch Gray.

Green – Laughlin McKay, John McCral.

Jackson – John McLeod, Thomas Bilbo.

The delegates elected to the convention were representative men of the territory, many of them were learned and scholarly lawyers. The convention was organized by the election of David Holmes president and Louis Winston secretary. Forty-seven delegates were present, representing fourteen counties. Its meetings were held in what was probably the first Methodist church built in Mississippi.

While the convention was held when the hallowing influences of worship surrounded the delegates, one of the sections of the constitution that was made under such conditions provided that clergymen should not hold positions of honor or trust in the public service.

The admitted leader and master mind of the convention was George Poindexter, delegate from Wilkinson county. Mr. Poindexter was a young Virginia lawyer, of Louisa county, who had come to Mississippi in search of fame and fortune, and located at Woodville, the county seat of Wilkinson county. Mississippi, like every other new state, was indebted to the older states for its most talented men. Far off Maine sent Sargent S. Prentiss, whose poetic eloquence has been the marvel of succeeding generations. Virginia gave henry S. Foot, the most popular orator and the ablest politicians of his time. New York gave John A. Quitman to Mississippi, and he became the hero of Monteray [sic] and one of the state’s best and most heroic governors. Robert J. Walker, Polk’s great secretary of the treasury, came from Pennsylvania. Kentucky sent Mississippi the highest type of southern honor, chivalry and manhood in Jefferson Davis. Other states sent David Homes, Abram M. Scott, Albert G. Brown, Hiram G. Runnells, William L. Sharkey and hundreds of other brilliant men. David Holmes, the president of the constitutional convention, was the territorial governor and had held that office for eight years. He was a man of splendid administrative and executive ability and presided over the deliberation of the convention with fairness and prudence. He became the first governor of the state under the constitution. George Poindexter had been a member of congress, attorney general of the territory and was the prosecutor of Aaron Burr. He had many honors heaped upon him by the new state. Governor Robert Lowry in history of Mississippi says in writing of the constitutional convention: “The list of forty-seven delegates to the constitutional convention embraced the names of five future governors, three United States senators, four representatives in congress, one judge of the high court of errors and appeals and two chancellors of the supreme court of chancery.” The delegates to the constitutional convention who held high positions xx [unknown] after years are Christopher Rankin, member of congress; Edward Turner, attorney general and chancellor supreme court of chancery; Joshua G. Clark, chancellor superior court of chancery and justice of the supreme court: William Lattimore, member of congress: Walter Leake, governor and United States senator; David Dickson, lieutenant governor, member of the congress; George Poindexter, congressman, governor, United States senator, presidential pro tempore of the senate in 1834; Gerard C. Brandon, governor; Abram M. Scott, governor.

The limits of this paper will not allow even a brief outline of the first constitution of Mississippi. It stands as an everlasting monument to its workers. The town of Washington, where the first constitution was made, was then one of the most important centers of population in the state. It is now a peaceful country village wrapt [sic] in the memories of the past. A state institution of learning was established there in 1802 by Governor Claiborne and was named Jefferson college in honor of President Jefferson. It has continued to thrive and proper from that time to this and is the oldest institution of learning in the state. The ruins of the little brick Methodist church where the constitutional convention was held are still to be seen on the campus of Jefferson college. No monument tells the people that history was made there. The college yell is now to be heard where formerly the voice of wisdom resounded and the measured face of drilling cadets has taken the place of the slow and thoughtful walk of the lawmakers and statesman. DUNBAR ROWLAND. Coffeeville, Miss.

Rowland, Dunbar. (August 5, 1900). The Making of Mississippi – The Men Who Made It. The Atlanta Constitution. Page 4.

This information provided Courtesy of Duane Mead.