Wright, James (1716-1785) (DNB00)

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WRIGHT, Sir JAMES (1716–1785), first baronet, governor of Georgia, born in Russell Street, Bloomsbury, on 8 May 1716, was the fourth son of Robert Wright of Sedgfield in the county of Durham, who removed from England to Charleston, and for many years was chief justice of South Carolina. Robert, son of Sir Robert Wright [q. v.], lord chief justice of England, married Mrs. Pitts, whose maiden name was Isabella Wright.

James entered Gray's Inn on 14 Aug. 1741, and was called to the bar. He practised in Charleston, and about 1739 was nominated attorney-general of South Carolina. He was afterwards appointed agent of the colony in England, and on 13 May 1760 he was nominated lieutenant-governor of Georgia. On 28 Jan. 1762 he received from England the commission of captain-general and governor-in-chief, with full executive powers, dated April 1761. In 1762 he defeated the attempts of Thomas Boon, governor of South Carolina, to extend his jurisdiction over some districts south of Georgia, on the borders of Florida, and on 7 Oct. 1763 procured the extension of the southern frontier of the province from the Alatamaha to the river St. Mary. In 1763 Wright also presided at Augusta at a conference of the governors of the four southern provinces with the chiefs of five Indian nations, where on 10 Oct. a treaty was ratified which procured for Georgia a considerable extension of territory on the western frontier.

The deliverance of the colony by the treaty of Paris from the dangerous neighbourhood of the Spaniards in Florida and the French at Mobile, together with the extension and regulation of the boundaries, led to rapid growth in prosperity and to the emigration of numerous planters from South Carolina. This hopeful prospect was overcast by the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765. The colony of Massachusetts took the lead in opposing the new tax, and the provincial assembly issued a circular letter to the other colonies inviting them to take part in a general congress. On the arrival of the letter in Georgia the assembly was privately convened by the speaker at Savannah. Georgia had been so long the immediate neighbour of hostile French and Spanish settlements that a livelier sense of loyalty prevailed than in the other colonies. Wright exerted his influence to the utmost, and succeeded in preventing the nomination of delegates to the general congress; but he failed to hinder a sympathetic reply to the message from Massachusetts. By the close of 1765 he found his authority almost gone except in Savannah, owing chiefly to the course of events in South Carolina, where the insurgents had completely triumphed. On the arrival of the stamped paper from England on 5 Dec., Wright saved it from destruction, and even induced the merchants to use it for the purpose of clearing vessels ready to sail. This measure of compliance aroused the wrath of the inhabitants of South Carolina, who termed Wright ‘a parricide,’ and decreed that ‘whosoever trafficked with the Georgians should be put to death.’ The repeal of the Stamp Act allayed without extinguishing the spirit of discontent, and when Townshend imposed fresh duties in 1767 it manifested itself more strongly than before. On 24 Dec. 1768 the Georgian lower house expressed its sympathy with the Massachusetts assembly, and on 16 Sept. 1769 the merchants adopted resolutions against importing English goods. On 10 July 1771 Wright obtained permission to visit Great Britain to look after his private affairs, leaving James Habersham as his deputy at Savannah. He was well received in London, and on 5 Dec. 1772 was created a baronet in reward for his services.

He returned to Georgia about the middle of February 1773. On 5 Aug. 1774, learning that an irregular convention had met to concert action with the other colonies, he issued a proclamation denouncing it as illegal, but was unable to prevent the passage of resolutions condemning the action of the English government, or to hinder the appointment of a committee to correspond with the committees of the other provinces. He succeeded again, however, in preventing delegates being sent to the general congress of the other twelve states. On the meeting of assembly in January 1775 he learned that the lower house was about to urge the appointment of delegates. To prevent this, on 10 Feb. he prorogued it to 9 May. When that date arrived the representatives refused to assemble to furnish supplies, and the house was further prorogued to November.

The unique position of Georgia in regard to the continental congress roused the bitter resentment of the other colonies. Wright, apprehensive of invasion, repeatedly urged the secretary for the colonies, the Earl of Dartmouth [see Legge, William, second Earl], to furnish him with a force of five hundred men at least. In May the popular party seized the gunpowder in the magazine at Savannah, and spiked the cannon intended to fire salutes on the king's birthday. Wright's letters for assistance to the military and naval commanders were intercepted by the insurgents at Charleston, and others substituted, stating that the province was quiet. On 4 July a provincial congress assembled and elected delegates to the continental congress. The executive committee appointed by that body intercepted Wright's official correspondence at Savannah, and ordered the British vessels in port to depart without unlading. In August the militia came under their control, and loyalist officers were replaced by patriots. On 1 Dec. the congress extended its control over the judicial courts. On 12 Jan. 1776 two men-of-war arrived in Tybee, and, to prevent Wright communicating with them, Joseph Habersham, brother of the former deputy governor, by order of the council of safety, entered the governor's house on 18 Jan. and made him a prisoner. On 11 Feb., after being insulted and fired at, he broke his parole and escaped to the Scarborough man-of-war. After an ineffectual attack on the town he left Savannah, arriving at Halifax on 21 April. Thence he proceeded to England, where he remained until, at the close of December 1778, (Sir) Archibald Campbell (1739–1791) [q. v.] recaptured Savannah and recovered Georgia. Wright was immediately directed to proceed to America, and reached Savannah on 14 June 1779.

He found affairs in a miserable condition, and, while striving to reorganise the government, he was suddenly menaced in September by the arrival of the French fleet, under the Comte d'Estaing, with a large military force on board. Savannah was immediately besieged, and Wright is said to have saved the place from surrender by his casting vote. On 9 Oct. a final assault was repelled and the siege raised. Wright took advantage of this triumph to press for severe measures against the revolutionary party. He strongly objected to the general amnesty offered by Sir Henry Clinton (1738?–1795) [q. v.], who landed in Georgia in February 1780, and hastened to summon an assembly before the security it offered to the disaffected could influence the character of the representatives chosen. Immediately on the meeting of the assembly an act was passed granting the home government a duty of two and a half per cent. on all exports. In retaliation for the attainder of royalists by the republican legislature, Wright procured the passage in May 1780 of two acts, attainting 150 republicans of high treason, and disqualifying them from holding any office in Georgia.

On 12 May Sir Henry Clinton captured Charleston, and for a time relieved Georgia from apprehension of invasion. Wright urged the British to secure their position in the south before undertaking decisive operations. His advice had some weight with Clinton, but when Cornwallis assumed the command in 1781 he disregarded Wright's opinion and commenced the famous march which ended in the capitulation of Yorktown. After the surrender of Cornwallis, most of the south was regained by the republicans. Wright appealed strongly for reinforcements, but without avail. On 14 June 1782 he received orders to abandon the province, and on 11 July, after obtaining favourable terms for the loyalists, he evacuated Savannah and returned to England. He had been attainted in the Georgian assembly on 1 March 1778, and his property confiscated. In 1783 the American refugees placed him at the head of the board of agents of the American loyalists for prosecuting their claims for compensation. In return for his services and in compensation for the loss of property, worth 33,000l., he received a pension of 500l. a year. He died in Fludyer Street, Westminster, on 20 Nov. 1785, and was buried in the north cloister of Westminster Abbey on 28 Nov. Wrightsborough, in Columbia county, Georgia, was named after him. He married at Charleston, in 1740, Sarah (d. 1763), only daughter and heiress of James Maidman, a captain in the army. By her he had three surviving sons and six daughters. He was succeeded in the baronetcy by his eldest son, James, but the succession was continued in the line of his second son, Alexander, who settled in Jamaica.

A valuable report made by Wright to the colonial secretary on the condition and resources of Georgia, dated 20 Nov. 1773, together with his official correspondence with the colonial secretaries between 1774 and 1782, was published in 1873 in the ‘Collections’ of the Georgia Historical Society. His official correspondence with Lord Shelburne is preserved among the Shelburne manuscripts in the possession of the Marquis of Lansdowne (Hist. MSS. Comm. 5th Rep.).

[Burke's Peerage and Baronetcy, 1839; Foster's Admission Registers of Gray's Inn, p. 375; Jones's Hist. of Georgia, 1883, vol. ii. passim; Collections of Georgia Hist. Soc., 1873, iii. 157–378; Acts passed by the General Assembly of Georgia, 1755–74, Wormsloe, 1881; Stevens's Hist. of Georgia, 1859, vol. ii. passim; m'Call's Hist. of Georgia, Savannah, 1811–16; White's Hist. Collections of Georgia, New York, 1855, pp. 188–96; Bartram's Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, 1792, pp. 4, 35; Sabine's Loyalists of the American Revolution, 1864; Davy's Suffolk Collections in Addit. MS. 19156, ff. 233, 244; Chester's Registers of Westminster Abbey, 1876, p. 440.]

E. I. C.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.285
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
107 ii 11-10 f.e. Wright, Sir James (1716-1785): for he received the commission read he received from England the commission (dated April 1761)