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Grand jury faced familar issues 186 years ago

POSTED: August 11, 2013 1:00 a.m.

The Hall County grand jury fussed at the county commissioners for not fixing the roads and jumped on the state legislature for wasting money.

That could have been any of the superior court grand juries in recent months or for the past several years. County commissioners are prime targets of criticism for any number of perceived or real shortcomings. Legislators likewise get it from all directions for their dalliances whether in session or not.

But, no, this was a grand jury of 186 years ago, September 1827, less than a decade after Hall County had officially been created by the very legislature it was criticizing.

The only criminal indictments handed up by this early grand jury were those of Nathaniel Watson and John Woodliff, accused of gambling by witness Lewis Short. Either there was a shortage of crime or lax law enforcement in the county’s early days, or grand jurors were too ate up with politics to bother with lawbreakers.

Instead, the Hall County grand jury had “grievances” to lay on those it felt weren’t carrying out their duties to those who elected them.

For instance, that 1827 grand jury wrote, “We present as a grievance the situation of the roads ... the principal fault rests in the neglect of the commissioners and wish them to be coerced in such a way as to make them attentive to their duties.”

The jurors didn’t specify what was wrong with which roads, but apparently assumed Hall Countians would recognize what they were talking about. Those were the days, of course, when there were no motor vehicles or paved roads. One could imagine not much more than a few narrow, one-lane rutted pig trails plied by wagons, buggies and horses. More likely they raised considerable dust in the dry months and axle-deep mud during a wet winter.

The presentments almost two centuries ago strike a familiar chord today in their reproach of the General Assembly of that day: “We present as a grievance the profuse and unnecessary waste of the public treasury by the legislature ... ”

That wasn’t a tea party pronouncement, nor a declaration by Common Cause Georgia or any number of other groups, politicians and citizens who regularly pounce on actions or inactions of the legislature. It was the September 1827 term of Hall County grand jury.

The grand jury did cut the legislature a bit of slack, however, continuing, “ (we) are pleased to find at their last session that honorable body seems to have imbibed a principle of economy by requiring consent of the electors to an alteration of the Constitution so as to authorize a reduction in their number.”

In other words, just as some do today, that grand jury believed the legislature was too large and therefore unwieldy. With 180 members in the House and 56 in the Senate, today it is among the largest in the country.

The 1827 grand jury recommended that the House be downsized rather than the Senate because “ ... we cannot find a rational reason for so great a superiority of numbers in the lower house, nor can we believe otherwise that biennial sessions would answer all purposes for which legislation is or ever was intended. Our viewing of the laws for the last 10 or 12 years we find no material alteration in them that are calculated to produce public good.”

So there.

The legislature also took some licks for taking up so much time debating divorce laws and those legitimizing “bastard children.” And the grand jury wasn’t pleased that Cherokee Indians apparently were leasing their lands to white inhabitants, “the privilege taken (and apparently connived at by the general government) ... ” It wanted the legislature to prevent such “abuses” because it believed those lands were the property of the state.

The state and federal government did resolve that conflict by rousting the Cherokees out of their North Georgia homeland a few years later in 1838 in the infamous Trail of Tears to Oklahoma and points west.

Members of that 1827 Hall County grand jury were Samuel Paxton, foreman; Richard Winn, Ebenezer Gaily, Joseph Gailey, John Nichols, Samuel K. Oliver, Joseph Cane, Samuel McReary, Joshua Baker, John Wagnon, John Thomason, William Blake, Samuel Hillhouse, M.A. Keith, Robert Young, Aquilla Shockley and Daniel Green.

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


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