Personal politics in a tough territory
Territorial Governor George Izard should have been a good governor for Arkansas. He was well educated, honest, and strongwilled. Izard, Arkansas’ second territorial governor, worked hard to bring order and development to frontier Arkansas. Though he ultimately failed, he was a stabilizing force in a tiny western jurisdiction known as Arkansas— where the politicians were famed for killing each other in duels.
Izard was born Oct. 21, 1776, in London, England, where his parents were living temporarily. At the time the family name was pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable. His father was a wealthy South Carolina businessman, diplomat, and member of the Continental Congress and later U.S. senator. Izard was one of 12 children. The family relocated to Paris in 1777 as London became an unsafe place for colonials of dubious loyalty.
Without a doubt, Izard was one of the better-educated governors in Arkansas history, with the kind of education that a family of great wealth and power could offer its offspring. Wes Goodner of Little Rock, a keen student of Gov. Izard and author of the governor’s entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, reports that young George began his education at the College de Navarre in Paris.
In 1780, Mrs. Izard and the children sailed for America to rejoin her husband in South Carolina. When his private tutor died, young George was sent to a boarding school in Charleston. Later he studied at Columbia University and the College of Philadelphia, taking a bachelor’s degree in 1792 at the tender age of 16.
Izard continued his studies in Europe, first in Britain, then Germany, and finally at Ecole du Genie in France. While in Paris, Izard was offered a lieutenancy in the U.S. Corps of Artillerists and Engineers, a post he assumed in 1797. He later oversaw construction of Fort Pinckney in South Carolina.
Despite his youth, Izard held prominent posts in the Army, including as aide de camp to General Alexander Hamilton. Later he became commander of the post at West Point, but he grew bored and resigned his commission.
The War of 1812 brought him back into the Army, where he was quickly promoted to colonel, then brigadier general. On a cold day in January 1814, Izard was promoted to major general and given command of the Northern Army on Lake Champlain. The Canadian front was a daunting assignment, and Izard proceeded cautiously. His retreat to winter quarters brought criticism, and again he resigned his commission. In 1816, he published a detailed response to his critics.
Izard had to be convinced to accept the governorship of Arkansas, a small territory just organized on the western frontier. He had hoped for a diplomatic post. His predecessor James Miller had been the first governor of territorial Arkansas. Miller was no match for the 22-year-old territorial secretary Robert Crittenden, who arrived to find the governor missing and proceeded to assume control over the state. Gov. Miller spent much of his time back home in New Hampshire, finally resigning on the last day of 1824.
Territorial Arkansas was a political briar patch. For such a tiny place (the 1820 population was 14,255), territorial Arkansas was overrun with ambitious young men who practiced politics as if it were warfare, and they took no prisoners. Fistfights often broke out over trivial affronts, and Arkansas had its first duel in 1820, only a year after the territory was created. Historian Michael B. Dougan has described it as “the era of personal politics.”
Izard arrived in Arkansas in May 1825. He was not happy with what he found. The territorial government was in shambles, with little in the way of records— and acting governor Secretary Crittenden was back home in Kentucky. Inevitably, the two strong-willed men were destined to become political foes, and it certainly did not help that Izard found the territory in such a sorry state.
Izard was nothing if not an organizer; he set about to bring some order and development to the rugged territory. The governor sought federal funding for roads, then practically unknown in Arkansas. He worked hard to organize the territorial militia, fearing that removal of eastern Indians through Arkansas would endanger the state. While the militia had a large roster of prominent officers, it was more form than fact.
Izard’s unbending nature put him at odds with much of the political infrastructure in the territory. He especially ruffled feathers when he charged two Indian agents with corruption. In 1828, Gov. Izard called a special session of the Legislature, and when legislators responded slowly to his program, he questioned their diligence. The Legislature reacted angrily, accusing Izard of wielding “dictatorial power.”
Izard and Crittenden were as different as two men could be, and from the beginning did not get along. Izard adroitly co-opted much of Crittenden’s political power by courting the political elite, including awarding militia colonelcies to Henry Conway, Ambrose Sevier, and Chester Ashley—all destined to become future governors or U.S. senators.
A man of education and broad interests, Izard studied Arkansas’ natural history as well as “aboriginal inhabitants.” He was a member of the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, and the group published Izard’s periodic reports on the territory. He also sent a “small collection of reptiles and insects,” and his most important submission was a Quapaw Indian vocabulary.
Mrs. Izard, who stayed in Philadelphia and never moved to Arkansas, died in 1826. Gov. Izard died on Nov. 22, 1828, and was buried in Little Rock in a cemetery near where the federal building on Capitol Avenue now stands. His remains were later moved to Mount Holly Cemetery where he was interred in the plot of Sen. Chester Ashley.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Ark[email protected] An earlier version of this column was published Oct. 28, 2007.