Presented by the Laurens County Historical Society, Dublin, Georgia. For questions and information, please contact Scott B. Thompson, Sr. at dublinhistory@yahoo.com.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

JUDGE JOHN C. HART



The Great Equalizer


Judge John C. Hart served as Judge of Laurens County Superior Court from January 1, 1895 to July 1, 1902.    In the 19th Century, Georgia's court system was divided into judicial circuits more vast than in today's world.    Though he lived nearly his entire life in Greene County, Judge Hart was one of Laurens County's most imminent and intelligent judges, much like the county's first judge, Judge Peter Early, who was also a resident of Greene County.  In his forty-three-year career John C. Hart brought above new and revolutionary practices which equalized the way property taxes were levied in Georgia.  As one of the state's first conservationists, Hart encouraged the development of practices which stabilized the erosion of soils and farm lands. 

John Collier Hart was born in Greene County on July 1, 1854 near Union Point, Georgia.  He saw the ravages of the war first hand.  His mother, Maria Collier Hart, operated a wayside home for travelers in Union Point.  During the Civil War, thousands of soldiers from both sides of the battle lines, along with  politicians and travelers, partook of her graciousness. His father was a farmer and the owner of a small country store.  The Harts lived in the celebrated "Jefferson Hall," a colonial home in Greene County.  His father, James Hart, was a successful farmer with vast farming interests.   When he wasn't in school, John worked as a day laborer. 

John Hart attended law school at the nearby University of Georgia.  He graduated in 1875, along with Andrew Cobb, son of Howell Cobb; Samuel Guyton McLendon, William H. Fleming and Hamilton McWhorter.  While in school, Hart excelled in the literary fields.  He edited the Georgia University magazine.  An outstanding debater, Hart was a Junior medalist in the Demosthenian Society. 

Following his graduation and admission to the bar, John C. Hart located his law office in his hometown of Union Point.  His father's untimely death that same year, which left the young attorney with a burdensome debt, forced Hart  into apportioning his time between the family farm and his law practice.   The young lawyer had two choices - sell the farm or start  farming.  James Hart never forced John to work on the farm. There was no financial need to do so.  Unaccustomed to the daily rigors of farming, Hart devoted his soul to duplicating the success of his father.  John Hart utilized his university training and, after a careful analysis of the farm's accounts and hiring practices, radically changed his father's unprofitable practices.  

Hart devised a scheme to prevent the erosion of the precious top soil on his farm.  He planted Bermuda grass to block the flow of alluvial soils causing the formation of terraces where drainage ditches once evolved into gullies.  The reluctant farmer knew that the success of farming depended on diversification.  He maintained moderate herds of cattle, swine and sheep as well as the staple crops of cotton, corn, beans and potatoes.  Discounting his skills as an inventive farmer, Hart credited his success to divine providence. 

At the age of thirty, Hart was elected by his fellow Greene Countians to represent them in the Georgia legislature.  He served from 1884 to 1885.   In 1887, at the ripe old age of thirty-three Rep. Hart took the hand of Miss Irene Horton of Augusta.  The Harts have five children; Henry John C. Jr., George, Annette and  Irene "Dolly."    John Hart returned to Atlanta for the 1888-1889 session to end his legislative career.

In 1890, John Hart led the thirty-four-mile extension of the Union Point and White Plains Railroad south from Union Point through Sparta and down to Tennille, where it joined the arterial railroad of the Central of Georgia.  Hart worked on the extension of the Gainesville, Jefferson and Southern Railroad from Jefferson to Athens, giving the city a standard gauge railroad connection with Savannah.    

At the age of forty, John C. Hart was elected judge of the Ocmulgee Judicial District of Georgia.  The eight-county district was composed of Wilkinson, Baldwin, Jasper, Greene, Jones, Putnam and Morgan counties.  Laurens County was a part of that district from 1891 to 1907.

After an eight-year term in office, Judge Hart conducted a successful campaign for the post of Attorney General of Georgia in 1902.    The Harts removed to Atlanta, where they lived in a handsome home at 761 Peachtree Street.   He won the Democratic nomination without opposition and was elected to office in the 1902 general election.   He opened his  campaign for governor in 1910 in his hometown.  He vowed not to spend a single dollar in the race.  Hart dropped out of the race in favor of his friend Governor Joe Brown. 

Judge Hart was a leader in the conservation of the state's natural resources.  He was elected president of the Georgia Conservation Association in October 1910.  He joined a committee headed by Georgia governors Joseph Brown, Joseph Terrell and Hoke Smith. The organization was designed to foster discussion of the resources, their utilization as well as their conservation.  Though he had become a public official, Hart maintained a successful cattle farm back in Greene County.   The Association formulated a plan which created a state board of conservation, composed of the governor, the state geologist, state entomologist and a state commissioner, all charged with the responsibility to conserve, manage and preserve the lands of Georgia. 

Inequity and cronyism in the taxation of property in the state was a vital issue during the 1912 campaign.  The legislature passed sweeping reforms which were intended to equalize the way land was taxed in Georgia.  Hart's superior knowledge of tax laws led to his appointment by Gov. Slaton as the state's first tax commissioner on August 14, 1913.  As tax commissioner, Hart successfully led the state through a series of highly controversial litigations against Georgia's most powerful railroads.  Hart set out to end a long used and abused process of unequal taxation among Georgia's counties.  In some counties, political favoritism and virtual incompetence led to the non taxation of many  thousands of acres. Hart was so successful in his endeavors that wealthy businessmen across the state lobbied their representatives for a repeal of the equalization law.    
On December 7, 1918, while on a hunting trip near his home, Judge Hart's gun accidentally discharged as the judge stumbled while crossing a stream.  The round entered his head causing near instantaneous death.  Gov. Hugh M. Dorsey ordered that all state flags fly at half-mast for thirty days after his death.  In one of the state's largest funerals, Judge Hart was mourned by nearly a hundred of the state's most prominent government officials, jurists, attorneys and physicians.  His eulogies praised his judicial work, but hailed his work as tax commissioner as his most valuable contribution to Georgia.    At the time of his death, Hart was still considered as one of the state's most promising candidates for the highly coveted office of governor.

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