Oglethorpe, James Edward
Oglethorpe, James Edward
December 22, 1696
July 1, 1785
British general and philanthropist, founder of
"One, driven by strong benevolence of soul,/Shall fly like Oglethorpe from pole to pole."
From Imitation of Horace by English poet Alexander Pope.
James Oglethorpe was an English general and member of Parliament (the British legislative body) who obtained a grant to start a colony for debtors (those who cannot pay their bills). He named this North American colony Georgia. The British Crown (monarchy or royal family) had political reasons for approving the Georgia venture: the colony would serve as a buffer between English-held South Carolina and Florida, which was occupied by Spain, an enemy of Britain. In 1733 Oglethorpe founded the city of Savannah, then set about acquiring land from the friendly Yamacraw tribe and fortifying the town against the Spanish. His tenure as governor in Georgia proved to be controversial. Within two years he had imposed regulations banning rum and slavery in the colony, a move that caused intense opposition from settlers. After England declared war on Spain in 1739, Oglethorpe led a failed expedition against the Spanish town of St. Augustine. Although his successful defense of the colony in 1742 assured its survival, Oglethorpe had financial difficulties and the settlers became restless. In 1743 he was charged with mismanagement and called back to England. Oglethorpe was later exonerated (cleared from accusation or blame), but he never saw his colony again.
Joins army at age fourteen
James Edward Oglethorpe was born in London, England, on December 22, 1696, the third and youngest surviving son of Theophilus and Eleanor (Wall) Oglethorpe. In 1710, when he was only fourteen, he joined the British army. Two years later he volunteered for service in the army of Prince Eugène in Eastern Europe. In 1714 Oglethorpe was admitted to Corpus Christi College at Oxford, and by 1722 he had become a member of the House of Commons (the lower branch of Parliament). Then Oglethorpe's life took a dramatic turn when a friend named Castell died. Castell had been declared a pauper (one who cannot pay debts) and sentenced to Fleet, a debtor's prison. When he was unable to afford the fees required at Fleet, he was placed in a house where the inmates were infected with smallpox (a highly infectious, often fatal, viral disease). Castell soon died of the disease, an event that deeply affected Oglethorpe and inspired him to investigate conditions in debtor's prisons.
Obtains Georgia charter
As a member of the House of Commons, Oglethorpe took the prison issue before Parliament. He was subsequently appointed chairman of a committee charged with determining the reasons for the deplorable state of debtor's prisons. Oglethorpe and his committee discovered extensive corruption among prison officials, who also committed horrible brutalities against inmates. These revelations led Oglethorpe to devote his energies to reforming policies on the treatment of paupers. At the time the traditional remedy for solving a nation's problems was to send undesirable citizens and social misfits to a colony. Acting upon his ideas for prison reform, Oglethorpe gathered twenty like-minded partners and applied for a charter (a contract issued by the English Crown that gave a group of settlers the right to start a colony and establish a government) to settle Georgia (named in honor of King George II), a debtor's colony in America. In 1732 Oglethorpe and his partners were named trustees of the colony and granted a tract of land located between the Savannah and Alatamaha Rivers along the south Atlantic seaboard.
At the same time Oglethorpe anonymously published an essay in which he solicited funds for the Georgia project. His primary purpose was to justify transporting many of England's worst social offenders to form their own community in a strange land. Oglethorpe carefully explained that he anticipated the serious problems that could arise among a group of criminals. His first step, he wrote, would be to place all of the settlers under his own supervision. Since Oglethorpe was a seasoned army officer, there was little question that he would be able to maintain discipline. He also pointed out that poverty would not be the sole requirement for participation in the venture, and he would control the selection of settlers.
The colony had a political purpose as well. In addition to serving as a refuge for paupers, Georgia would provide a barrier against Spain, which had been mounting raids on British settlements along the Atlantic coast. At the time the southernmost English colony was South Carolina. About 250 miles farther south was the heavily fortified Spanish seaport settlement of St. Augustine. Lying between the British and the Spanish was a wilderness frontier. The British proposed to establish Georgia on the frontier, then build forts that would give colonies to the north protection against the Spanish. For military reasons African slavery, which was a vital part of the South Carolina economy, would not be permitted in Georgia. In addition, rum could not be sold to Native Americans by traders in the colony. These prohibitions would later cause problems for Oglethorpe.
Oglethorpe and his trustees received generous funding for the Georgia colony—sizable private contributions were supplemented by 10,000 pounds (a sum of British money) from Parliament. In November 1732, Oglethorpe and 120 settlers sailed for America aboard the ship Anne. Oglethorpe immediately located a site for the settlement and built the town of Savannah. (Savannah is now considered one of the most beautiful historic American cities.) His next act was to establish friendly relations with the Yamacraws, the local Native American tribe. The colonists and the Yamacraws maintained a spirit of goodwill throughout Oglethorpe's stay in Georgia, and he was able to purchase more land for the colony from them. Within two years Oglethorpe had opened the colony to settlers other than ex-convicts, mainly German Protestant refugees and Highlanders (people who live in hilly or mountainous areas) from Scotland. New settlements expanded westward, and about sixty miles south of Savannah the town of Frederica was built on an island at the mouth of the Alatamaha River.
In 1734 Oglethorpe went back to England, accompanied by several Native American chiefs. Before he left he appointed a prominent shopkeeper as an interim supervisor of the colony. The choice was a disaster, revealing Oglethorpe's poor judgment and exposing just how difficult it was to manage such an unusual settlement. Some historians have observed that Georgia, a small colony, was organized on a community plan that functioned only if all of the inhabitants did their jobs and followed the rules. Moreover, Oglethorpe was a firm ruler who attended to even the smallest details himself. Not only did the shopkeeper turn out to be a dishonest and brutal man, as acting supervisor he was unable to keep order. Colonists were not interested in being good citizens, and he had difficulty enforcing the ban on rum and slave trade. When Oglethorpe returned he was welcomed by near chaos. He dismissed the interim supervisor, but the colonists continued to be disgruntled about not being able to trade in rum and slaves.
Unrest also resulted from the influence of Methodism (a Protestant religious group). John Wesley and Charles Wesley, whom Oglethorpe had invited to the colony, arrived in 1736; Charles was appointed Oglethorpe's private secretary and his brother John as head of missionary activities. Charles and Oglethorpe soon had a disagreement, however, and Charles returned to England after only a brief stay in Georgia. John Wesley remained, but his presence was a source of turmoil and discontent. While Oglethorpe was preparing a defense against Spain, John Wesley quarreled with other officials. Then Oglethorpe decided to replace Wesley with the popular evangelical preacher George Whitefield (see entry), who arrived in November 1739. Whitefield improved the situation somewhat by starting an orphanage, which he called Bethesda, on five hundred acres of land granted to him by the Georgia trustees. He was so dictatorial (oppressive or overbearing to others), however, that he alienated the guardians of the orphans. Finally, after a five-month stay, Whitefield left in April 1740 to continue his preaching tour, which sparked the religious revival called the "Great Awakening."
Heroically defends Georgia
While Oglethorpe was losing control of his colony, he took command on the military front. War between Spain and Britain was ready to begin at any time, and Oglethorpe knew that Georgia would become the field of battle. He received word that St. Augustine residents were being evacuated from their homes to accommodate a Spanish troop buildup. In September 1738 Oglethorpe raised a volunteer army of six hundred men, among them troops from South Carolina. Then in the summer of 1739 he led his regiment through the wilderness toward St. Augustine. Along the way he formed an alliance with several Native American tribes, accumulating a force of two thousand. By fall England had declared war on Spain, and the following spring Oglethorpe mounted an attack on St. Augustine. Although he succeeded in capturing three Spanish forts, he was not able to seize St. Augustine itself. In the heat of battle many Native American warriors left because they did not approve of Oglethorpe's fighting style. Also, sickness broke out and many Carolina soldiers deserted. In June 1740 Oglethorpe withdrew his troops. Nevertheless his efforts had been effective because the Spanish did not venture into Georgia for two years.
In 1742 the Spanish bombarded British defenses around Georgia. During his defense of the colony Oglethorpe achieved the victory for which he is remembered today. Although his forces were not prepared for the attack, Oglethorpe led them into battle and brilliantly fought off the Spanish invaders. At one point he even captured two Spanish soldiers single-handedly. Soon English ships sailed to the colonists' rescue, and Georgia remained intact. Yet Oglethorpe's difficulties were not over. The British government would not give him enough funds for military defense, so over the following year he had to rely on Native American allies to conduct raids into Spanish territory. Finally, Oglethorpe began using his own money to buy supplies and other necessities for the militia. Internal conflict was still brewing, however, and colonists complained about his rigid policies. Oglethorpe was recalled to England and charged with mismanagement. In an attempt to sort out his financial situation he submitted a bill to the British government. Although charges against him were eventually dropped, officials did not refund his money, saying the expenses had not been authorized.
Lives final years in England
Oglethorpe intended to return to Georgia, but he never saw his colony again. In 1743 he married Elizabeth Wright, a wealthy heiress who owned Cranham Hall, a large estate in Essex. Two years later he was involved in an insurrection (revolt against an established government), an act that led to his being court-martialed (tried by a military court) for treason. He was acquitted but his military career was over. When the Georgia trustees surrendered their patent in 1752, the colony was taken over by the royal government. Oglethorpe, however, continued to serve in Parliament until 1754, becoming a prominent member of London society. He lived for forty-two years at Cranham Hall, where he died in 1785, at age eighty-nine.
For further research
Spaulding, Phinizy. Oglethorpe in America. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1984.
Stephen, Leslie, and Sidney Lee, eds. The Dictionary of National Biography. London, England: Oxford University Press, 1917, pp. 937–43.
James Edward Oglethorpe
James Edward Oglethorpe
James Edward Oglethorpe (1696-1785), an English soldier, member of Parliament, and humanitarian, was the founder of the colony of Georgia in America.
James Oglethorpe was born in London on Dec. 22, 1696, the third and surviving son of Sir Theophilus and Lady Eleanor Wall Oglethorpe. The family influences which he reflected included sympathy for the claims of the English Stuarts, interest in the military, and a strong personal character inclined to moral causes. He was educated at Eton and attended Oxford before accepting commissions in the British army and on the Continent. Oglethorpe inherited the family estate of Westbrook and settled down in 1719 to the career of a country gentleman.
Member of Parliament
In keeping with family tradition, Oglethorpe was elected to Parliament in 1722; he served for 32 years, despite continued opposition. He became known as a Tory member, opposed to the administration of Robert Walpole, and advocate of an aggressive British posture in the world. More noteworthy were Oglethorpe's humanitarian interests. His initial activities on behalf of penal reform were spurred on by the death of a friend who had been imprisoned for debt. Oglethorpe's attacks on debtors' prisons led to the establishment of a parliamentary committee under his chairmanship in 1729. Subsequent investigations exposed the brutality of penal conditions and questioned the wisdom of imprisonment for debt. His humanitarian impulses were carried further in an antipathy to black slavery, attacks on the practice of impressment, and campaigns against drinking.
A continuing theme of the period of colonization was the idea that the new continents might afford a remedy for the ills of Europe. Oglethorpe and others, demanding reform, proposed to establish a colony which might provide a place for the rehabilitation of people imprisoned for debt. For this purpose Oglethorpe and 19 associates received a royal charter in 1732 to found a colony between Spanish Florida and South Carolina; the trustees were to govern Georgia for 21 years, after which the province would revert to royal control. The King accepted the philanthropic aims of Georgia in granting the charter, but he also made clear that the colony was supposed to increase the commerce of Britain and serve as a buffer state for the protection of the southern frontier. The genesis of Georgia arose from this threefold set of motives—philanthropic, commercial, and military.
The trusteeship eventually collapsed, basically because of the incompatibility of the colony's purposes. The size of grants was severely limited, land could not be sold freely, nor could estates be inherited by women. These policies, meant to enhance military security and ensure success, were self-defeating. For example, though immigration was to be encouraged, restraints on the size of estates and on the right of inheritance repelled new settlers. Of major importance also was the threat of war with Spain. Much of Oglethorpe's life in the colony over a 10-year span was devoted to this problem. In time, the military side of the colonial experiment predominated over everything else.
Given the conflicts that characterized the trusteeship, Oglethorpe's contributions have not always been recognized. Apart from his role in inspiring the colony, his fame in Parliament and military reputation secured the massive public and private funds needed for Georgia's beginnings. Oglethorpe's military leadership was crucial during the periods of war with Spain, although he was unsuccessful in two attempts to conquer St. Augustine in 1740 and 1743.
Road to Oblivion
When Oglethorpe returned to London in 1743, his days of active colonial leadership were coming to an end. Already the trustees were complaining about the cost of defending Georgia, and bitter charges were circulating in England regarding abuses by Oglethorpe and his appointees. Faced with growing discontent among the colonists and insurmountable economic problems, the trustees surrendered their charter to the Crown a year before its expiration in 1752. By this time Oglethorpe had lost much of his authority and had ceased to play a leading part in the life of the colony.
Shortly after his return to London, Oglethorpe married Elizabeth Wright, a wealthy heiress. Called to arms during the uprising led by the Stuart pretender in 1745, Oglethorpe was later charged with misconduct in the campaign. Although he was cleared and promoted to lieutenant general, his active military career was over. Finally, he lost his seat in Parliament in 1754. His last years were spent in relative obscurity, though he maintained a friendship with Samuel Johnson and others of Johnson's literary circle. Oglethorpe died on June 30, 1785.
Biographies of Oglethorpe are not entirely satisfactory in delineating his character or the complex history of Georgia's beginnings. The best accounts are Leslie F. Church, Oglethorpe: A Study in Philanthropy in England and Georgia (1932), and Amos A. Ettinger, James Edward Oglethorpe: Imperial Idealist (1936). A recent brief analysis is Trevor Reese, Colonial Georgia: A Study in British Imperial Policy in the Eighteenth Century (1963). Indispensable for the background to Georgia's settlement is Verner W. Crane, The Southern Frontier, 1670-1732 (1928). Of special value for the general history of the Colonies in the 18th century is Lawrence H. Gipson's five-volume The British Empire before the American Revolution, especially vol. 2: The Southern Plantations (1936; rev. ed. 1960). Useful for the English background is Basil Williams, The Whig Supremacy, 1714-1760 (1939; 2d ed. rev. 1962).
Ettinger, Amos Aschbach, Oglethorpe, a brief biography, Macon, Ga.: Mercer, 1984.
Garrison, Webb B., Oglethorpe's folly: the birth of Georgia, Lakemont, GA.: Copple House Books, 1982.
Oglethorpe in perspective: Georgia's founder after two hundred years, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989.
Spalding, Phinizy., James Edward Oglethorpe: a new look at Georgia's founder, Athens, Ga.: Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, 1988.
Spalding, Phinizy., Oglethorpe in America, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984, 1977. □