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Conventions chose hopefuls for Congress

POSTED: May 30, 2010 1:00 a.m.

This year's 9th District U.S. House races are provoking considerable interest despite low voter turnout. It's the first time in several years the election has been close enough for a runoff.

The 9th District was created in 1873, but the counties within it have changed over the years with reapportionment after censuses. The original district included Banks, Clarke, Dawson, Fannin, Forsyth, Franklin, Gilmer, Gwinnett, Hall, Habersham, Jackson, Lumpkin, Madison, Morgan, Pickens, Rabun, Towns, White, Union and Oconee counties.

Back then, delegates from each of the counties would meet in a nominating convention to put up candidates for Congress. Those early conventions were stem-winders as it often would take several days to nominate somebody. Two-thirds of the delegates would have to agree on a candidate before his name would be put on a ballot.

Hiram P. Bell, a Democrat, Jackson County native and Forsyth County lawyer, became the first 9th District congressman, serving from 1873-75. He served again in 1877-79. He had been in the Georgia legislature and the Confederate Congress.

Benjamin H. Hill, who lived in Clarke County, was a controversial candidate for the seat. Critics contended that he had moved his home from Athens into Atlanta, and that Atlanta politicians were his main supporters.

J.B. Estes, a Gainesville lawyer, also was a candidate. Hill's followers claimed Hall County voters would support him rather than the hometown candidate, Estes.

But it was Garnett McMillan of Habersham County who won the nomination after 47 ballots and won the general election. However, he died before he took office. That set the stage for Bell, who eventually prevailed in convention after numerous ballots and won the general election.

The 1875 Democratic race added W.P. Price of Dahlonega. Fellow Democrats criticized him because he courted Republican support. The nominating convention was a doozy. Hill and Bell eventually deadlocked 36-25 after more than 200 ballots. Delegates voted every 25 minutes, but the votes remained the same.

The convention would vote late into the night before adjourning for another round of ballots the next day. Farmer delegates complained they were being kept out of their fields in the busy spring planting season.
Hill eventually prevailed and served 1875-77. He quit after the state legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate, which he served until his death in 1882.

Hiram Bell returned to Congress to fill the vacancy left by Hill when he won the Senate seat.

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Reconstruction politics the years after the Civil War were tumultuous in Georgia. While some accepted the harsh reality of the South's defeat, others fought on against what they perceived as changes too radical.

Just as Republicans dominate the 9th District and most of the state today, Democrats were a rising force then. President Ulysses Grant was in his second term when the Republican House lost its two-thirds majority to the Democrats, who also gained nine seats in the U.S. Senate.

Georgians at that time celebrated the election turnaround with torchlight parades around the state. The headline on the Gainesville celebration read, "Gainesville Rejoices - A Grand Jollification." The procession continued around the square and down Main Street.

The story on the front page of an Atlanta newspaper read, "The news of a Democratic victory called forth here (Gainesville) tonight the most enthusiastic jollification known in the history of this county. A most brilliant torchlight procession paraded through the streets and halted at the Richmond House and amid the wildest enthusiasm called forth ... (four speakers) depicting the wrong the South has suffered under radical rule proclaiming the death of Republican power in the United States ..."

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New Holland almost became the Hall County seat. E.M. Johnson, a lawyer who came to the county in 1827, told a writer that commissioners at the time were divided between Limestone Springs (New Holland) and Mule Camp Springs (Gainesville.) They appealed to the people for guidance, and Mule Camp won out and was named for the War of 1812 Gen. Edmund P. Gaines.

Other Gainesvilles named for him are in Florida and Texas, along with Gainesboro, Tenn., Gaines Township, Mich., and Fort Gaines in Alabama.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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