History in towns: Madison, Georgia

April 2009 | The town of Madison, in Morgan County, Georgia, was lauded in 1849 by the historian George White (1802-1887). "There are as many well educated gentlemen and ladies in Madison as in any portion of the State," he wrote. "Many of the citizens are wealthy, and live in much style. The ladies are remarkably pretty...and many of them highly accomplished....In point of intelligence, refinement, and hospitality, this town acknowledges no superior."1

White's characterization of Madison's mid-nineteenth-century gentry would hardly apply to the hardy yeoman farmers who had settled what would become Morgan County in the late eighteenth century. Many of them were veterans of the American Revolution who were given land grants in recognition of their military service. Indeed, when Morgan County was surveyed and chartered by an act of the Georgia legislature in 1807, it was named in honor of General Daniel Morgan (1736-1802), under whom some sixty-two of the settlers had served. The farmers were, in effect, also frontiersmen. Between 1802 and 1805 the Creek Indians, under duress, ceded vast tracts of land to the United States. They were understandably enraged at being dispossessed, and the settlers lived in dread of Indian raids.

Madison was incorporated as the county seat in 1809, the same year that the eponymous James Madison was inaugurated as the fourth president of the United States. The town, which was on the stagecoach route between rambunctious New Orleans and genteel Charleston, was quickly settled. In April 1810 the Scots traveler and mapmaker John Melish (1771-1822) observed that "Madison, the county-town...was laid out only a year before, yet it is now a thriving place, having a courthouse, a number of dwelling-houses, three taverns, and many stores."2 At the time of his visit there was widespread fear, not of harassment by the Indians, but of a slave uprising. Melish considered the rumors groundless, writing that "there can never be a successful organization of black people against the whites... [because of the] many ties of affection, which but a small majority among the negroes, I believe, would be willing to break."3

Madison, which was organized around a central square, is situated on a ridge between Sugar and Hard Labor Creeks in the heart of the Georgia piedmont, a hilly fertile region with the Blue Ridge Mountains to the north and a coastal plain to the southeast. The land was notably well-suited to the cultivation of upland green-seed cotton, but because of the extreme difficulty of separating the cotton boll from the seed, it was not until a series of fortuitous circumstances culminated in the ingenious invention of Eli Whitney (1765-1825) that farmers could profitably plant the crop on a grand scale.

This Massachusetts farm boy with a prodigious talent for mechanics spent the winter and spring of 1793 at Mulberry Grove, a plantation near Savannah. It was there, as he wrote his father in September 1793, that he devised a machine "with which one man will clean ten times as much cotton as he can in any other way."4 When he wrote his father again in March 1794 he had acquired a workshop in New Haven, Connecticut, and was already manufacturing cotton gins for shipment to Georgia. However, because the machine could be easily duplicated, the profits to Whitney were miniscule. While he had written to his father, "I shall probably gain some honour as well as profit by the Invention,"5 it was the southern planters who were enriched.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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