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This Day in History: British Royal Governor James Wright is arrested

On this day in 1776, British Royal Governor James Wright is arrested by American colonists. The British were surely shocked. Wright had been their most successful Royal Governor, even managing to collect taxes under the much-hated Stamp Act.

But even Wright could hold back the revolutionary spirit in his colony for only so long. By 1775, Patriots in Georgia were becoming more and more determined—and more aggressive.

James Wright, last royal governor of Georgia, by Andrea Soldi

Wright didn’t know how to control the rebellion, and he was getting frustrated. At one point, he urged Patriots to reconsider. “You may be advocates for liberty,” he told the Assembly, “so am I, but in a constitutional and legal way. . . . [L]et me entreat you to take care how you give a sanction to trample on Law and Government; and be assured it is an indisputable truth, that where there is no law there can be no liberty.”

Wright finally concluded that he could govern no longer. He asked for permission to leave his post, but several months passed before he received an answer. Unfortunately for him, matters simply got worse while he waited. Patriots took control of the militia and the courts. Physical altercations between Loyalists and Patriots became more and more common.

Georgians were basically in a state of civil war.

In December 1775, Wright finally learned that he would be allowed to leave. Why, then, didn’t he lay low after that? He didn’t! Instead, Wright added fuel to the fire. At about that time, a fleet of British ships had arrived in the area. Wright called Patriot leaders to his house and informed them that the British officers on the ships would treat anyone with arms “as in a state of rebellion.” Property would be destroyed or confiscated. Wright demanded that Patriots allow the British ships to dock and resupply themselves.

That didn’t go over very well! Wright’s words were promptly reported to the Council of Safety. The Council determined that Wright was a danger to liberty, and it issued a warrant for his arrest. A small group of men was dispatched to Wright’s house. He was then hosting a dinner, but the colonists went inside anyway. Wright was arrested, even as his guests fled the room.

In the days that followed, Wright was held under house arrest, with strict orders not to communicate with the British fleet. At first, Wright honored the terms of his parole, but he soon became worried. He was sometimes harassed by people from the street. Musket balls were fired at his house. Wright decided to leave. “Governor Wright observed his parole of honor for a time,” the Provincial Congress later noted, “but after nearly four weeks of confinement broke it, and, escaping through a back door of his house, fled in the night time and made his way, under cover of darkness, to an armed British ship anchored in the harbor.”

Wright was able to complete his escape and arrived at the HMS Scarborough on the morning of February 12. The British captain gave a 15-gun salute to celebrate his arrival.

Wright soon went home to England. He would return to Georgia for one more stint in 1779. Naturally, that is a story for another day.

Primary Sources

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