James Edward Oglethorpe

(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

Article abstract: With his social vision, promotional genius, military ability, and personal guidance, Oglethorpe established the colony of Georgia and frustrated the Spanish effort to push the British out of southeastern North America.

Early Life

James Edward Oglethorpe was born in London, the seventh and last child of Sir Theophilus and Lady Eleanor Wall Oglethorpe, two Jacobites who surrounded young Oglethorpe with intrigue and endowed him with the family’s strong moral courage, conviction, loyalty to the Crown, and military and parliamentary tradition. Oglethorpe received the education of an English gentleman, first at Eton and then at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where Jacobite sentiment was strong. Oglethorpe then held a commission in the British army but resigned to join Prince Eugene of Savoy in fighting the Turks. He gained a reputation for military prowess at the Battle of Belgrade (1717). After a brief Jacobite flirtation at Saint Germain, France, where his widowed mother and sisters attended the pretender James III (also known in history as James the Old Pretender), Oglethorpe returned to the family estate of Westbrook at Godalming in Surrey. The move ended his Jacobite interest.

In 1722, Oglethorpe was elected to Parliament, succeeding his father and two elder brothers as representative for Haslemere, a seat he would hold for thirty-two years. In Parliament, Oglethorpe shook off suspicions about his Jacobitism. He won respect for integrity and hard work, and, more important, for his ambitions and interests, he cultivated several powerful friends. In Parliament, Oglethorpe opposed royal extravagance and the machinations of Robert Walpole and advocated naval preparedness, mercantile and colonial expansion, relief for the oppressed, and, later, the Industrial Revolution. Oglethorpe’s humanitarianism, probably a product of his family’s high-mindedness, first appeared in The Sailor’s Advocate (1728), an anonymously published pamphlet attacking the Royal Navy’s practice of impressment. The pamphlet went through eight editions. Throughout his life, Oglethorpe also professed antislavery beliefs. It was Oglethorpe’s interest in penal conditions, however, that led him to his life’s work.

Life’s Work

In 1729, Oglethorpe was named chairman of a committee to inquire into the state of England’s jails. In three reports issued in 1730, the committee cataloged the abuses of debtors’ prisons. The reports electrified the public, in part because of their lurid detail and in part because such exposés were rare in an indifferent age. Oglethorpe’s investigation convinced him that the nation and the debtors would be better served by settling the debtors in British colonies. There they could render service to the Crown by colonizing and defending new territory and producing crops and other goods needed in the mother country, while remaking their own lives. Such an argument was hardly new to England in the eighteenth century, for since the Elizabethan age colonizers had promised similar benefits. What gave Oglethorpe’s appeal energy was the renewed public interest generated by his reports on penal conditions and his friendship with such influential men at court and in Parliament as John Lord Viscount Perceval (later the first Earl of Egmont) and Dr. Thomas Bray (founder of several religious and philanthropic societies), who shared his interest in reform and in America.

Oglethorpe, Egmont, and eighteen other associates received a charter in June, 1732, creating the “Trustees for establishing the colony of Georgia in America.” The proprietary grant was for a period of twenty-one years, after which the colony would revert to the Crown. The associates benefited from the British government’s interest in placing a buffer colony on Carolina’s southern frontier to protect against French, Spanish, and Indian attacks and also from its desire to increase imperial trade and navigation. Relief for domestic unemployment was a third consideration, but it lagged behind the former two. Indeed, the interest of defense and the production of exotic crops and naval stores for the mother country so outweighed the humanitarian objective that few debtors were actually recruited for the colony.

Oglethorpe quickly proved himself an energetic promoter for a project that would evoke the most vigorous and extravagant promotional literature in the British North American experience. In 1732, at his own expense, he published A New and Accurate Account of the Provinces of South Carolina and Georgia, stressing the commercial and agricultural advantages of the colony. Georgia’s strategic position, combined with Oglethorpe’s and the Trustees’ appeals, helped secure regular financial support from Parliament. When his mother died in 1732, leaving Oglethorpe free of domestic responsibilities, he decided to accompany the first group of settlers to the colony—a move that fundamentally influenced the colony’s development.

In November, 1732, Oglethorpe and 116 emigrants set sail for Georgia on the Anne. Arriving in America in January, 1733, after a successful voyage, Oglethorpe directed the settlers to the Savannah River. There he chose the site for the principal city. Oglethorpe conciliated the local Indians, securing from them both a grant for the land and an agreement whereby they would cut their ties to the French and Spanish. He laid out Savannah’s distinctive pattern of squares and grids, which dominates the city even today, and then parceled out the land according to the Trustees’ system of entailed grants designed to hold the settler to the soil. The cumbersome land system—which prohibited the holder from selling his property or bequeathing it to any but a male heir—would cause much trouble soon enough, but Oglethorpe imposed military discipline on the first settlers. He made a treaty with the Lower Creeks and fortified the southern reaches of the colony.

In 1734, Oglethorpe set out for England to answer charges that he was overspending and being uncommunicative. Accompanied by several Indians, Oglethorpe received an ecstatic public welcome. The press revived interest in the colony. Strengthened by the public showing, Oglethorpe gained additional support from the Trustees, including new restrictions on the colony that prohibited the sale of rum and black slavery and regulated the Indian trade through a licensing system. Meanwhile, Oglethorpe’s policy of religious toleration encouraged other emigrants to join the experiment—a policy that, in 1734, led a group of Salzburger Lutherans to seek asylum in Georgia. Other German groups followed, including subsequent contingents of Salzburgers and Swiss Moravians, and Scotch Highlander Presbyterians came as well. The British government was cool toward Oglethorpe’s efforts to attract non-British emigrants, but Oglethorpe persisted. The...

(The entire section is 2838 words.)