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Georgia: the state on which the US pivots

A photo from 1941 showing workers chopping cotton on rented land near White Plains, Greene Country, Georgia - Credit: Universal Images Group via Getty

A set of elections in the southern state next week will shape the future of America. ALBERT SCARDINO explains why Georgia has always been the fulcrum on which the country turns.

The race to control the national government in America approaches another mile marker next week with runoff elections in Georgia for two seats in the United States Senate. No matter who wins, ethnic tension will define the outcome, as it has since Georgia’s creation as an English colony almost 300 years ago.

One of the senate campaigns features as the Democratic insurgent a black man who holds the pulpit once occupied by Martin Luther King Jr. He faces a Republican incumbent, a rich, white woman who has pledged her fealty to Donald Trump.

In the other, the Democrat is an investigative journalist by profession and an “arch liberal” according to his Republican opponent, another incumbent. This Republican also has welded himself to Donald Trump. In Republican campaign code, a “liberal” sympathises with the Black Lives Matter movement. Race and race-baiting are at the heart of the two campaigns.

It is rare for both of a state’s senate seats to be contested in one election. They are usually staggered. But one of Georgia’s senators retired early for health reasons, forcing a special election for the remaining two years of his term. In last month’s election, neither of the two Republicans cleared the 50% margin required under state law to claim victory. Hence, the runoffs between the top two in each race.

As it also happens, Republicans hold 50 of the 100 seats in the senate. If both Democrats win, the chamber will be evenly split.

During this two-month election campaign for only two of the 100 seats in the Senate, more than $200 million will be spent. Either the incumbent majority (Republican) will maintain its control, as they have for six years, or Democrats will produce a stalemate that could be broken on every vote by the senate president, who doubles as the country’s vice president.

For the next two-year session of Congress, starting in January, that tie breaker would be vice president Kamala Harris, herself a senator before her victory as Joe Biden’s running mate.

The results may tip the balance between the two major parties, but only just barely. No matter how it turns out, neither will be in power by very much.

If the Republicans win, they can stifle president Biden’s ability to appoint judges, cabinet members and ambassadors. They can stop the passage of any legislation and force a watering down of any that they let through.

If Democrats win both seats, and if they can maintain their parity through pandemic, possible scandal, defections, or other misstep, they will have a chance to pause the rightward, isolationist march of the national government. But only pause. There will be no room to manoeuvre back toward the liberal democracy of the 20th century.

That’s just as the founding fathers intended at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787.

The southern states would enter the union only if their slave economy was constitutionally protected from being overthrown by a hostile northern majority in the national legislature. Without the South, there would be no viable United States. The dynamic that threatened to force the sections apart also required that they find accommodation.

On the one hand, the country stands for the ideals espoused in the Declaration of Independence from England on July 4, 1776. “…that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with inalienable rights”. On the other rests the Constitution, adopted 13 years later to create the United States, an intricate compromise between slave and free.

Despite the expansion from 13 states to 50, despite Civil War, despite the drive for equal rights in the 1960s and racial justice in the last five years, the national government teeters between exploitation and emancipation, just as it did when the country was founded. Georgia is the fulcrum today, just as it was at the start.

The tension in today’s America reflects the same conflict that pervaded English society in the early 18th century, between reform and colonial extension. The first 12 colonies, stretching along the Atlantic coast from the Carolinas to Canada, included havens for religious minorities in Maryland (Roman Catholics), Pennsylvania (Quakers) and Massachusetts (Puritans).

Their economies differed just as much. South Carolina’s aristocratic founders modelled theirs on Caribbean sugar plantations, farmed by African people enslaved and traded as a commodity. In America, rice and indigo were the harvest. Virginia and Maryland followed a similar model for tobacco. Further north, indentured servants provided much of the labour for economies built on fisheries, shipbuilding, fur trading, and pre-industrial textile manufacturing.

Georgia, the last of the original 13 colonies, tried a different experiment, a blend of plantation agriculture and socialism. Where most of the other colonies arose from favours of one sort or another to the Crown, Georgia grew out of the impulses of a group of social reformers looking to abolish debtors’ prisons and end child abandonment.

James Oglethorpe, a sometime military figure, reinvented himself as a humanist crusader in parliament exposing the corruption and exploitation of England’s penal system. Along with Thomas Coram, the founder of the world’s first incorporated charity, an orphanage in London, they won a charter from George II to create a sprawling colony stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, a size roughly of today’s California. Not that England held claim to all but a sliver of this colony, a strip along the Atlantic.

The charter banned slavery, lawyers, Catholics and alcohol, but welcomed other religions. The first registered member of the colony was a Jew. The trustees envisioned a democratic society of sturdy farmers and no aristocrats.

Oglethorpe decided to build his colony’s economy on a new industry, silk manufacture. His plantations would grow mulberry trees to feed the silkworms, with the silk strands being woven in new mills to produce the cloth. The labour would come out of London’s debtors’ prisons, the inmates released on the condition that they would join the colony.

In turn, each colonist was promised a job, a five-acre vegetable garden on the edge of the settlement of Savannah and a 45-acre farm just outside the new town. The settlers worked the land and kept the crops, but they did not own their farms, which could not be passed on to heirs. It had to be recycled to the trustees for reissue to a new settler.

Oglethorpe modelled the city plan of for his new colonial capital at Savannah on a framework to promote social equity and secular administration. His spirit of ‘toleration’ allowed for multiple religious denominations but no established religion. Skin colour did not preclude citizenship.

The few large Crown land grants became plantations with names like Silk Hope and Mulberry Grove rather than Hampton, Kensington, and Windsor, as plantations across the river in the aristocratic colony of South Carolina were called.

The experiment with what today would be called socialism lasted barely a generation. The silk industry attracted insufficient capital to carry through to the maturing of mulberry trees and the creation of textile mills. Settlers saw more opportunity in rice, indigo and timber from vast forests, or better still from land speculation. Even quicker profits would come from trading black people and from taking the land of indigenous nations, whose population far outnumbered the Europeans on the coast.

The Crown stripped Oglethorpe of his charter less than 20 years after he had won it. Instead, the English army began to use pieces of the colonial frontier as re-enlistment incentives for soldiers fighting in the continental wars.

Slavery allowed for the rapid expansion of the rice plantations along the coast, and the population of the colony multiplied rapidly. From 20,000 at the end of Oglethorpe’s experiment, it doubled by the outbreak of the American revolution, then doubled again by the time the new country was formed only 13 years later. Still, despite being the largest of the original states, it remained the least settled, at least by whites.

Like the 12 others, Georgia had two of the 26 senators under the new constitution, but with only 2% of the country’s free white males, the new state had only two representatives in the lower house, out of 105 members. With the four other slave states similarly thinly populated, the southerners relied on their relative strength in the senate to check any federal moves to abolish slavery.

The invention of the cotton gin in Savannah in 1793 provided a mechanical method for cheaply removing seeds from cotton balls. The new machine triggered a stampede for western lands suitable for growing the crop. That in turn set off a feverish trade in people to work the fields. Slavery became more than a way of sustaining an aristocratic lifestyle. It was now the foundation of the southern economy. Without slavery, the cotton empire would collapse. Liverpool shipping lines, London maritime insurance brokers and bankers and Manchester textile mill operators all would suffer. That legal protection for ownership of people required a US Senate prepared to reject any move toward emancipation.

To enhance the position of the slaveholders, North Carolina and Virginia moved quickly to cede their western lands to the national government. The new states of Kentucky and Tennessee gave the South four more senators, more than offsetting the creation of the free state of Maine out of land claimed by Massachusetts.

Georgia held off cession of its land till last. Knowing that the federal government derived most of its revenue in the early days from import duties and land sales, Georgia agreed to cede its western lands only after extracting a commitment from the US government to remove the indigenous nations within its borders.

The population of the ‘five civilized tribes’, as they came to be known, had been much greater than Georgia’s white settlers. They were farmers, fishermen and traders. One of these nations, the Cherokees, had developed a written language in the late 18th century, making every member literate in less than a generation. They reshaped their government to mimic the advancing white nation, with a written constitution defining a bicameral legislature and an independent judiciary. Some acquired slaves to allow the expansion of their maize fields.

None of this stopped their expulsion to land belonging to other native nations, because they stood in the way of the creation of two new slave states, Alabama, and Mississippi. The two new states would provide four more senators ready to defend slavery in Washington.

The Cherokees, along with the Creeks, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminoles were rounded up by the US army and marched 600 miles west on what became known as the Trail of Tears. At least one of every four of them died on the way from exposure, starvation, and disease, as many as 20,000 people. The relative scale of death is comparable to the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in the Second World War.

The fight to preserve slavery through the Senate continued with westward expansion. Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois joined the union as free states, Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri as slave. Michigan free, Texas slave.

And there it stopped. Compromise broke down. Many more western states were to come, but the South had no where else to go. Instead, in 1861, they walked out of the congress and went to war.

With the slave states in rebellion no longer represented in Congress during the next seven years, anti-slave senators rewrote much of the constitution to reflect the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. By the time the southerners returned, the slave economy was dead, at least on paper. It survived in one form or another in fact and in law for the next 100 years.

Torture, murder, theft, arson and forced segregation kept the economic system in the south alive. Not one of the more than 100 civil rights bills introduced in Congress during this time managed to make it past the wall of southern senators.

A combination of civil unrest, the assassination of John F Kennedy and the skilful management of Congress by Lyndon Johnson overwhelmed the southern bloc of senators in 1964. The Civil Rights Act that year, followed by the Voting Rights Act, reaffirmed the constitutional amendments put in place at the end of the Civil War.

With those laws, the racial animosity that had defined the Democratic Party since slavery times was lanced, but the infection spread immediately to Republicans. Richard Nixon campaigned in 1968 with a southern strategy, shorthand for appealing to white voters in Dixie. Ronald Reagan followed the same playbook, as did Bush the younger.

Donald Trump both reflected and refined the strategy. His attacks on Obama helped Republicans win control of the Senate again six years ago, and when his own unlikely election happened two years later, the Republican majority became his ready ally in altering the courts, rolling back voting rights and stopping immigration.

Community activists in Georgia may have registered enough new voters for Democrats to pull out a stalemate. If so, that would neutralise the Senate for the next two years, but the definition of democracy in America will remain uncertain no matter how these elections turn out.


Georgia’s two senate elections will be held on January 5.

In one race, the incumbent Republican senator David Perdue will face Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff. In the first round of voting – which took place at the time of the presidential election – Perdue took 49.73% of the vote, and Ossoff 47.95%.

The second contest is to fill the seat vacated by the resignation of a Republican senator. In the first round, the Democrat Raphael Warnock secured 32.9%, and the Republican Kelly Loeffler, 25.9%.

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