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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 520

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This is the grave of Abraham Baldwin.

Born in 1754 in Guilford, Connecticut, Baldwin was the son of a blacksmith. But at this time, it was possible for children from such middling origins to rise rapidly in society. Abraham wouldn’t be the only one from this family to do so; his much younger half-brother Henry would later serve on the Supreme Court. Baldwin attended Yale, graduating in 1772. He became a Congregationalist minister in 1775, the same year that the American Revolution began. He served as a chaplain in the Continental Army. He was offered a position at Yale to become a professor of Divinity, but had decided to change careers. Instead, he began studying for the law and was admitted to the bar in his home state in 1783.

After the American Revolution, the state of Georgia rewarded the renowned general from Rhode Island, Nathaniel Greene, a plantation. Greene, not a slaveholder before this, gladly took up the offer. He dropped dead of heat stroke not too long after (a little hot for the Yankee!) but it was on his plantation where a young man named Eli Whitney, employed by Greene’s widow to tutor their children, invented the cotton gin. Before he died, Greene wrote to Baldwin about how great the plantation life was, urging him to move down and buy some slaves of his own. He moved to Georgia in 1784, establishing a law practice near Augusta.

Being closely connected with Yale, Baldwin could also serve another goal: the establishment of a state university in that sparsely populated (by whites anyway) place. The governor of Georgia, Lyman Hall, was yet another New Englander attracted by the South. So he offered Baldwin the position of the first president of the University of Georgia, which Baldwin accepted in 1787. He basically opened the university, building political support and funding, before stepping down in 1801, the year it opened its doors.

That momentous year of 1787 was also the year that the Constitutional Convention took place. Even though Baldwin had just moved to Georgia, he was named one of the state’s four delegates, having first been elected to the Continental Congress in 1785. Even though he had just moved from Connecticut, he was a huge defender of slavery at the Constitutional Convention. No state did more to undermine any dealing with slavery in Philadelphia than Georgia and much of this was Baldwin’s work. He insisted that slavery was a state matter, not a national one. He warned that Georgia would never ratify a Constitution that banned the slave trade. He stated that the good people of Georgia might end the slave trade on their own, but that the nation as a whole doing it was applying “their ethics beyond the mere equality of men, extending their humanity to the claims of the whole animal creation.” That’s a pretty impressive dismissal of the humanity of Africans right there. Racism was not and has never been primarily a southern thing. It was easy enough for the northerner Baldwin to sell this as a Georgian because he probably believed it while in Connecticut, as so many northern whites did.

Baldwin was also immediately elected to the Georgia assembly, where he worked to smooth over relations between the frontiersmen and the planter elite, as well as building support for higher education. Upon the Constitution’s ratification, Georgia voters sent him to Congress in 1788, where he served five terms, before being named to the Senate in 1799 as a Democratic-Republican. He seems to have been a minor figure in Washington, rarely speaking. He was committed to ensuring the Bill of Rights be fully implemented. He was also intensely interested in making sure that the laws of the nation be promulgated through the land and the 1795 law providing for books of laws to be sent to governors for distribution in the states was his baby. In the Senate, he was known for his strong understanding of parliamentary procedure and was president pro tempore in 1801 and 1802, but other than that, there is very little easily accessible information on his years there. He died in office in Washington in 1807, at the age of 52.

Abraham Baldwin is buried at Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

If you would like this series to visit more of the Early Republic senators Baldwin served with, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Stevens Mason is in Leesburg, Virginia and William Cocke, from Tennessee at the time, is in Columbus, Mississippi. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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