Morton: How Georgia came into existence
On this day (Jan. 13) in 1733, English philanthropist, Tory parliamentarian and military leader James Edward Oglethorpe reached America to found what became the 13th English mainland colony (named Georgia in honor of King George II).
Parliament, on June 20, 1732, had granted a charter (which would expire in 21 years, at which time Georgia would become a Royal Colony) to a group of London philanthropists, social reformers, and Anglican clergymen (known as the Georgia Trustees) to establish a new American colony south and west of the Savannah River.
As one of the two leaders of the Georgia Trustees (the other being John Viscount Perceval), Oglethorpe accompanied the first Georgia colonists across the Atlantic to America. He and the 116 carefully selected “first Georgia colonists” left England aboard the Ann on Nov. 17, 1732, arriving in America some eight weeks later (Jan. 13, 1733).
Parliament’s rationale in granting the charter was mainly militarily and politically motived (to found Georgia as a buffer against Native American, French and Spanish encroachments on South Carolina). The Georgia trustees’ motive, on the other hand, was primarily philanthropic. They wanted to establish in America a sanctuary for the English debt-ridden, urban poor (referred to in the charter as “miserable wretches” and “drones”), establish a haven for persecuted European Protestants (especially German Lutherans and Scotch Highland Presbyterians) and Jews, and, most importantly, establish a slave-free colony where hardworking, sober settlers would be able to enjoy economic sufficiency and relative political and religious freedom.
The trustees were, perhaps, overly idealistic in their regulations, rules, and laws for the new colony. Designed to be a colony of self-sufficient, sober, God-fearing yeoman farmers, the trustees limited the size of individual landholdings to 500 acres, banned the brewing and consumption of alcoholic beverages, and banned the importation and possession of slaves.
Under these “unenforceable” laws, Georgia grew slowly. By 1751, there were only about 3,000 Georgia settlers, of which about 1,000 were slaves. Under pressure from the colonists, the trustees were forced to modify several increasingly unpopular laws. In 1742, the law against large estates was modified, and in 1750 the ban on slavery, which obviously had not been rigorously enforced, was repealed. Growing popular discontent and non-profitability prompted the trustees to surrender the charter in 1752 – one year before it was due to expire.
Georgia then became a Royal Colony (13 original mainland American colonies – 10 Royal: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia; three Proprietary: Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.) Georgia was not only the last mainland English colony to be founded, but it was the only colony whose founding was largely funded by the English government; one suspects because of its perceived “strategic” importance.
Altogether, Parliament had, by 1752, appropriated over 136,000 pounds sterling for the “Georgia Experiment” that it hoped would serve humanitarian and imperialist purposes. As founders of Georgia, Oglethorpe and his fellow Georgia trustees had been primarily motivated by a humanitarian benevolence not shared by many other early American founders and settlers.
Thus Oglethorpe and his altruistic trustees colleagues join Quaker William Penn (founder of Pennsylvania) and Roger Williams (founder of Rhode Island) as founders who were not primarily motivated by economic concerns, as most others seemed to be.
Lamentably, the Georgia humanitarian experiment, failed because the altruism these benevolent founders of Georgia, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island displayed was not universally shared.
• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at email@example.com.