Georgia was founded as a grand experiment by a group of men with only the best of intentions: to provide new lives for the poor and indigent. The leader of this group, James Edward Oglethorpe, along with William Wilberforce and Granville Sharp, would become early voices for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. In addition to opening its doors to the poor, the Georgia Experiment also prohibited slavery and rum. This ideological foundation was untenable in a region dominated by a planter aristocracy just across the Savannah River in South Carolina. Though no legislation has been found to prove such, it is also reported that the “scourge” of lawyers was prohibited in the new Georgia colony. This writer is thankful such a prohibition did not prevail.
Albert Saye, the great Georgia historian and political scientist, was an expert on all things Georgia. His imprint on our history and thought is unmistakable. As a lawyer I have used Saye’s A Constitutional History of Georgia, 1732–1945 as a reference for legal research on many occasions. His insight and analysis are thorough and exhaustive. Saye would eventually write twelve books on Georgia history and government. Among Saye’s greatest achievements were his three books on Georgia history—each of which served as a textbook for middle schoolers in Georgia for decades. Saye sought to instill in these young students the love of Georgia that burned so brightly within him.
Saye was born in Rutledge, Morgan County, in 1912. He attended Emory University for two years and then transferred to the University of Georgia in 1933, graduating with a degree in history in 1934. Saye received a master’s degree at the University of Georgia in 1935. There he became the colleague of Georgia history giants E. Merton Coulter and Kenneth Coleman. After graduating from the University of Georgia, Saye spent a year studying at the University of Dijon in France. He began working on a doctoral dissertation and received his PhD at Harvard University in 1941. The subject of Saye’s dissertation was the charter of Georgia.
Though the charter for the Georgia colony—the subject of this pamphlet—had remarkable philosophical underpinnings, it also contained a healthy dose of pragmatism. More than just providing relief for indigents in the London area and acting as a shining beacon of free labor, Georgia also provided a buffer for South Carolina from Spanish Florida. Then, as now, the collision of greed and good intentions proved a powerful force.
Yet some aspects of the Georgia Charter were remarkably progressive. No Trustee could receive land in the new colony or pay for their service as a Trustee. This revolutionary idea was in contrast to the proprietary colonies that granted thousands of acres to their landed gentry. Herbert L. Osgood has observed that the prohibition of private gain by the founders was sufficient to demonstrate “a radical difference between Georgia and all other proprietary provinces” with regard to its founding.1 The transparent nature of the colony’s inner workings was also revolutionary. Meetings and records of the operation of Georgia and expenditures were reported annually. Such was the dream of the Georgia Experiment.
Though laudable, the Georgia Charter had problems in actual administration. The term of the Charter was twenty-one years, hardly the basis of erecting a long-term, stable governance of the colony. No law was final until approved by the king, a long and laborious process that British bureaucracy and transatlantic crossings unduly prolonged. The governor of the colony had to be approved by the king, a process so difficult a governor was never appointed during the Trustee Period. The command of Georgia’s militia was placed in the hands of the governor of South Carolina—an insult to the ability of Georgians to defend themselves. And then there were the reports. The Trustees were required to annually report all receipts and expenditures with any two of the Crown offices, and annual reports were required on each fifty-acre land grant. Governmental red tape is not a modern phenomenon—it seems to have been with us from our beginning.
Sadly, the utopian dream of this special place called Georgia was not to be. Throughout the Trustee Period “malcontents” agitated for more control, freedom from the moralistic strictures imposed by the Trustees, and most important the legal ability to engage slavery. During the Trustee Period, Georgians looked across the Savannah River to see the great wealth brought about by the labor of the enslaved. Despite the inhumanity and immorality of the institution, Georgians wanted the same opportunity at economic success. Georgians were demanding their share of America’s original sin. Negotiations began in 1751 to surrender Georgia’s Charter, and in 1752 the Crown took control of the colony with all the advantages and ills brought about by such status.
History is full of what ifs. What if the Georgia Experiment had been extended? Would Georgia have joined the other southern states in the Civil War? Probably not. Slavery was the guiding force in the Civil War and with no slaves, the secession movement probably would have foundered. The failed experiment in Georgia could have been a shining example of free people unburdened by greed. Such was not to be.
We are all thankful Albert Saye preserved the history and legacy of the Georgia Experiment with his Georgia’s Charter of 1732. The University of Georgia Press should be commended for keeping the memory of Dr. Saye alive as well.
ROY E. BARNES
1. Herbert L. Osgood, The American Colonies in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1924), 36–37.