Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943

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The Great Yazoo Lands Sale: The Case of Fletcher v. PeckRetired Institute historian Charles F. Hobson recently received recognition for his book, The Great Yazoo Lands Sale: The Case of Fletcher v. Peck (University Press of Kansas, 2016). The book won Honorable Mention for the David J. Langum, Sr., Prize in American Legal History/Biography. According to the citation from the Langum Charitable Trust, Hobson’s book is “a notable university press book of 2016 in the field of American legal history helping to make the rich history of America accessible to the educated general public.”

The book tells the dramatic and colorful story of one of America’s most notorious real estate speculations. In 1795 the state of Georgia sold its “Yazoo” lands (present-day Alabama and Mississippi) to four private land companies. A year later, in reaction to obvious signs of bribery and corruption, a new legislature rescinded the sale. Georgia reclaimed the lands and later sold them to the United States. In the meantime, the land companies had sold the lands to eager investors, mostly residing in New England, where Yazoo speculative fever ran highest. These events set the stage for a protracted effort by the New Englanders to obtain compensation from the U.S. government. The speculators ultimately received partial redress from Congress, thanks in no small part to a Supreme Court decision of 1810. Chief Justice John Marshall, a William and Mary alumnus, ruled that Georgia’s revocation of the original Yazoo sale violated the Constitution’s prohibition against impairing the “obligation of contracts.” The case of Fletcher v. Peck is now recognized as a landmark of American constitutional law for holding the states accountable to the Constitution.

In a career spanning more than three decades Hobson directed two scholarly editions published by the Institute: The Papers of John Marshall (1974–2006) and St. George Tucker’s Law Reports and Selected Papers (2013). He is also the author of The Great Chief Justice: John Marshall and the Rule of Law (1996). In addition to serving on the Institute staff, he was resident scholar at the William and Mary School of Law.

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