Joel Early (d. 25 November 1806), member of the Convention of 1788, was the son of Jeremiah Early and Elizabeth Buford Early and was born probably during the mid-1740s in the area of Orange County that became Culpeper County in 1749. He attended Augusta Academy (later Washington and Lee University) during his youth. On 23 June 1772 Early married Lucy Smith, in Orange County. Their three daughters and five sons included Peter Early, who represented Georgia in Congress from 1803 to 1807 and served as that state's governor from 1813 to 1815. Among his nephews were two men named John Early, one (1757–1804) who represented Franklin County in the Convention of 1788 and the other (1786–1873) who became a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church South.
During the Revolutionary War, Early supplied food to the American forces. Most likely he was the Joel Early who served as a militia lieutenant in 1781. During the 1770s and 1780s he acquired an estate of about 850 acres in Culpeper County and in 1790 paid taxes on thirty-one slaves in partnership with two other men. Early was heavily involved in land speculation in Kentucky, where tens of thousands of acres were surveyed in his name during the 1780s.
On 17 March 1788 Early was one of two men elected to represent Culpeper County in the convention called to consider ratification of the proposed constitution of the United States. Considered by some to favor the document, he did not make formal remarks during the debates held in Richmond. On 25 June, Early voted to require amendments to the Constitution before ratification. After that measure failed, he joined the minority in voting against ratification. He did not vote two days later on a proposal to limit the taxing power of Congress.
In April 1788 Culpeper voters had also elected Early to a seat in the House of Delegates, although his presence was not recorded at the session that met during the last week of June. At the session that opened in October 1788, Early supported the assembly's resolutions asking the new Congress to call a convention to consider amendments to the Constitution. He also voted to prevent those who held federal offices from simultaneously serving in a state office. Early sat on the Committee of Propositions and Grievances during his single term.
Virginians elected representatives to the first federal Congress in February 1789. Early energetically campaigned for James Monroe and publicly attacked his opponent, James Madison (1751–1836), as being utterly opposed to amending the Constitution with a bill of rights. Madison won the election, although long afterward Early continued to believe that only a snowstorm in the district had prevented a turnout favorable to Monroe. A few years before his death he apologized to Madison for having worked against him under a false impression.
In 1791 Early sold his property in Virginia and moved his family to Georgia, where they lived briefly in Wilkes County before settling in nearby Greene County. He acquired about 3,000 acres of land along both banks of the Oconee River. His approximately seventy slaves placed him among the county's wealthiest residents. Early also owned property in Wilkes County, continued to speculate in land, and invested in Georgia's Yazoo company. A large man of nearly 300 pounds, Early revealed an eccentric vein. He styled himself as a British lord at Early's Manor, constructed of imported English bricks, and mandated that his children dress elegantly for dinner at six. Early disinherited two of his sons, one for extravagance and acts of disrespect and the other for disobedience, and in providing in his will for the other three he carefully detailed numerous plantation responsibilities and declared that the lands and slaves should be held in trust until each son reached age forty-five.
Joel Early's wife died of pleurisy on 8 January 1806, and following a long illness he died on 25 November of that same year. He was buried in the family cemetery at his Greene County plantation.
Biographies in R. H. Early, The Family of Early, Which Settled upon the Eastern Shore of Virginia … (1920), 24, 293–295, and Jeannette Holland Austin, The Georgia Frontier, vol. 1: Colonial Families to the Revolutionary War Period (2005), 124–127; Orange Co. Marriage Register; John P. Kaminski et al., eds., The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution: Ratification of the Constitution by the States, vols. 8–10, Virginia (1988–1993), 9:578–579, 10:1538, 1541, 1565; Arthur F. Raper, Tenants of the Almighty (1943), 20–21, 48; Gordon DenBoer, Lucy Trumbull Brown, and Charles D. Hagermann, eds., The Documentary History of the First Federal Elections, 1788–1790 (1984), 2:279, 335, 337, 349, 378; William T. Hutchinson et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (1962–1991), 11:419–420, 423–424, 427–428; Robert J. Brugger et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison: Secretary of State Series (1986– ), 4:181–182; Greene Co., Ga., Record of Wills, E:1–10; death notices in Washington, Ga., Monitor and Augusta [Ga.] Chronicle, both 6 Dec. 1806.
Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Katharine E. Harbury.
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