Reassessing the Founding of Georgia:
Enrichment of the Social Mosaic
FEW EPISODES IN THE HISTORY OF THE BRITISH COLONIES IN North America received more loving attention from the English poets of the eighteenth century than the early years of the founding of Georgia. Figures no less than Alexander Pope celebrated either the virtues of the infant settlement or its preeminent founder, James Oglethorpe; yet it was a lesser poet of pedestrian verse whose enthusiasms captured the image of a future, vibrant with hope:
With nobler Products see thy Georgia teems!
Chear’d with the genial Sun’s directer Beams;
Here the wild Vine to Culture learns to yield,
And purple Clusters ripen thro’ the Field.
… Nor less the Care
Of thy young Province to oblige the Fair:
Here tend the Silkworm in the verdant Shade
The frugal Matron, and the blooming Maid.1
In reality the founding of Georgia was a far more complicated operation than idyllic rhymes, sung by the poets, would lead one to believe, as its historians, following the lead of the participants, have since discovered. Some of the popular images, however, die hard. Largely independent from the Crown in managing the internal affairs of the colony, the Trustees of Georgia received more financial assistance from Parliament than any other colony, proprietary or royal—130,000 pounds sterling according to Percy Scott Flippen. Idealism and humanitarianism supposedly motivated the settlement and yet, in sustaining these objectives, the Georgia trustees and their agents in the colony were frequently despotic, and, in the eyes of some critics, tyrannical. Established as a haven for the impoverished debtors from English prisons, Georgia achieved its highest distinction as a refuge for the oppressed of Europe. Moreover, the number of men and women who financed their own undertaking was sufficient to influence, indeed, finally to alter dramatically, the entire development of the colony. As an awed passenger aboard the Anne, the first ship to Georgia, remarked: “We have five or six familys amongst us that are deserving a Gentleman’s Conversation.”2
Although it was the southern outpost of the British continental colonies, Georgia did not resemble or develop in a pattern typical of the frontier. Welcomed by South Carolina as a buffer against Spanish and French expansion in the North American continent, the colony became an unwelcome competitor for the lucrative fur trade and a source of dismay in its operations against Spanish Florida. Here was a colony, reputedly created in large measure to serve the ends of humanity and philanthropy, which, in practice, served as a lethal weapon poised to strike at European rivals of Britain with possessions on the North American continent.
Although the first settlers reached Charleston in January 1733 and the plotting out of Savannah on Yamacraw Bluff took place in February of the same year, the founding of Georgia emerged out of a complex background. One significant strand emanated from the establishment in 1728 of a committee in Parliament entitled “The Committee to Inquire into the State of the Gaols.”
Its chairman was James Oglethorpe, a military man who, for the eighteenth century, possessed in equal parts an enviable family history and influence with men whose power and position were superior to his. Although destined to be recorded as the founder of Georgia, Oglethorpe, with his complex personality and the comfortable status that six centuries of sustained family prominence and activity could bestow, seemed an unlikely prospect for such an undertaking. Why should he leave familiar scenes where his worth was recognized to enter an environment largely unknown? Was not this a task for men of lesser standing? To employ one’s influence in the cause of settlement was one thing, but to participate was quite another.
Historians have learned, however, that Oglethorpe was not a pliable personality, animated solely by good works and high intentions, but an unyielding, often difficult person, demanding and imperious. His record as chairman of the Committee on the Gaols has been justifiably remembered, but the quick temper which twice provoked him to draw his sword against defenseless men has been mercifully forgotten. Perhaps Oglethorpe’s display of an inner ironlike discipline originated in misgivings for his early excesses. No one can deny his courage, but his judgment is open to question. Single-mindedness, often an invaluable asset in the lives of great men, in Oglethorpe’s case blinded him to reality and led him to the brink of disaster. But Oglethorpe recovered from disaster. He lived to become a legend and to witness the emergence of the royal colony of Georgia, for which he expressed no interest, survive a revolution and become an integral part of a new nation.3
The Committee on the Gaols, in making its report with its detailed description of filth, ill treatment, graft, and generally deplorable conditions, pricked the English complacency of the eighteenth century. Parliament swiftly adopted an enactment in 1730 that freed many debtors who had been thrown into prison for trivial offenses. Equally if not more important, leading statesmen began to consider whether the nation was being properly served when able-bodied, capable men wasted their energies under debilitating circumstances. Under proper conditions, their efforts could be made to improve not only their own lot but also the wealth, power, and prestige of the nation. So wrote Joshua Gee, a prominent political economist, in his The Trade and Navigation of Great Britain Considered, recommending that “useless people,” including those reduced to poverty, would be of greater value to the nation appropriately employed in the colonies. Gee’s arguments were not lost on the Georgia founders, and as a consequence two separate ideas were joined in common cause, the humanitarian impulse to help the indigent and the compelling mercantilistic aspiration to profit the nation.
The philanthropic thrust did not operate indiscriminately; it was channeled through the specific agency of the Associates of Thomas Bray. Dr. Bray was well known in the southern colonies for his active part in the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts and for his service in sending libraries to the colonies in North America. The Associates of Bray had been formed to administer a charitable trust. Bray sought out Oglethorpe after the latter won national recognition as chairman of the Gaols Committee. The Associates of Bray, together with the support of prominent members of the Committee on the Gaols, were utilized by Oglethorpe and others to reinforce the drive to found a colony on the southern frontier to be called Georgia.
The Georgia charter was granted in June 1732, although the application had been in process for some two years. Originally the document included the names of twenty-one men called trustees. Easily the most familiar were Oglethorpe, James Vernon, connected with the leading families of England, and John, Viscount Percival, who would soon receive a title as the first Earl of Egmont. The charter forbade the trustees from obtaining any land in Georgia, a clause that Parliament insisted should be inserted. It also created a simple governing organization, a Common Council among the trustees, which, unlike any other English colony in North America, kept governance for all practical purposes within England. Most influential members among the trustees were also members of Parliament, which proved to be advantageous during the desperate early decades.4
The establishment of Georgia is so well known that we tend to overlook the fact that it is unique in the history of the English colonization of North America, another piece of the mosaic reflecting the character of the colonial South. Its form, functions, source of authority, and directed objectives, considered together, have no counterpart elsewhere in the British empire.
Scholars have disagreed on two questions that involve the development preceding actual settlement. It has been asserted that the Bray associates should properly be thought of as the genesis of Georgia, but it has also been effectively argued that the men who became Bray associates were Parliament men first and associates second and that the idea of the colony of Georgia was conceived in their political capacities rather than in their philanthropic impulses.5
The second question is of far greater importance: What light do these events shed on the motivations of the founders of Georgia? Did official Britain wish to strengthen its position in the international competition with Spain and France? Was the colony truly designed to relieve the debtors recently released from English prisons? Or was the primary purpose to establish a settlement that could produce goods useful to the mother country but unavailable in other colonies?
Evidence can readily be advanced to support the validity of each motivating force, and certainly the founding of Georgia represented a fusion of various motives; but it becomes increasingly evident that Georgia’s principal function was to act as a buffer against Spain and France. The word “defense” rings out incessantly in almost every significant extant document. Indeed, a case can be made that the establishment of Georgia is a singular instance, with the possible exception of Virginia, in which a decision to plant a colony was based primarily on imperial rather than mercantile considerations.
The creation of a model community to suit, so it was thought, the needs and designs of the empire or the objectives of a group of farsighted trustees in England was decidedly a second order of priority.6 In some respects, these two motivating factors did not conflict; certainly they were not wholly separated in the minds of the trustees, philanthropic enterprise being so rare in the secular mind of the eighteenth century that it required a somewhat exotic taste. But the final judgment must rest upon the execution of the task.
There can be no question whatever on one point: Georgia was not a colony composed of debtors taken from the prisons of England. There remains the possibility—one that is impossible to check—that some of the earlier settlers, sent at the expense of the trustees, were selected from those who were released from prison in 1730 several years before the colony was established. Generally, however, Georgia was composed of a great diversity of people, each group with its special motivation, interests, and goals, a circumstance that, more than any single factor, accounts for the sharp conflicts that arose within the colony which finally transformed it from a flawed trusteeship into a flourishing possession of the Crown.
What these broad differences demonstrate is that, contrary to assumptions generally advanced, no single unitary plan for Georgia, much less a “grand design,” ever existed. No scholar has perceived this more clearly than Paul Taylor in his thoughtful study entitled Georgia Plan: 7732–1752. “The plan was not monolithic,” he writes. “The motivations and purposes of the trustees as individuals had much in common, but they were not identical.” Quoting a single contemporary source, Taylor does conclude that the prohibition of slavery served as the “fundamental” core of the Georgia plan, a challenging but not wholly convincing thesis.7
Taylor understates rather than overstates the case against the existence of a Georgia plan. The record reveals that each trustee had his own image of what the focus of the enterprise should be. For Thomas Coran it represented an opportunity to advance religion; Lord Egmont believed the colony could be molded into a model society; James Vernon became the spokesman for policies simply to encourage a flourishing colony; and James Oglethorpe regarded the Georgia settlement fundamentally as an outpost of empire. The colony had no contemporary collective image. Historians created it, and textbooks have popularized it.
In any discussion of the trusteeship period the three celebrated restrictive policies affecting the colony are mistakenly offered as convincing evidence of a grand design for Georgia: forbidding the use of rum; a land policy limiting ownership to no more than five hundred acres with a qualifying covenant, tale male, meaning only males could inherit; and finally, the prohibition of slavery. In themselves these policies do not constitute a plan, because they do not inform us as to the objectives these policies were expected to achieve. Why forbid the use of rum? Why restrict land policy? Why prohibit slavery?
These queries raise a barrage of fresh questions requiring intelligent and documented responses. Was rum prohibited because Oglethorpe believed it made settlers, but more particularly soldiers, ill, and thus diminished the defense posture? Or was policy on rum adopted because of the fear that its use would invite slave merchants into Georgia? The correspondence between Oglethorpe and other agents in Georgia repeatedly reveals complaints of the consumption of rum. When the act was adopted in April 1735 to prohibit importation and use of rum and brandy, its preamble focused on the “hurtful” and “pernicious” effects on health which could ruin the colony. Neither the early restrictions on rum nor the specific act prevented its continuous use.8
Were the restrictions on land a mechanism to strengthen the defense of Georgia for the inevitable confrontation with Spain and France? Oglethorpe asserted that a settler automatically became a member of the militia, and a grant of land involved a military commitment. “And as the Military Strength of the Province was particularly to be taken care of; it seemed necessary to establish such Tenures of Lands; as might most effectively preserve the Number of Lots of Land; and therefore each Lot of Land was to be considered as a military Fief,” he wrote. Because women could not serve as soldiers—“for Women being equally incapable to serve on Juries as to act as soldiers”—they should not inherit the land.9 Some trustees also argued that the land policy was instituted to prevent large planters from absorbing the property of small landholders so that neither the defenses would be weakened nor the agricultural experiments to produce exotic staples for export to England be undermined. It has also been asserted—and there is evidence to support this position—that the policies governing land grants served as a barrier to a plantation economy, based on slave labor. If so, was not defense again the underlying issue?
Indeed, the critical question arises whether slavery was prohibited because of moral and humanitarian considerations or because its presence weakened defenses. In the act adopted to prohibit slavery, the rationale was offered in the phrase: “An Act for rendering the Colony of Georgia more Defencible.” The preamble is even more explicit:
WHEREAS Experience hath Shewn that the manner of Settling Colonys and Plantations with Black Slaves or Negroes hath Obstructed the Increase of English and Christian Inhabitants therein who alone can in case of a War be relyed on for the Defence and Security of the same, and hath Exposed the colonys so settled to the Insurrections Tumults and Rebellions of such Slaves & Negroes and in Case of a Rupture with any Foreign State who should Encourage and Support such Rebellions might Occasion the utter Ruin and loss of such Colony, For the preventing therefore of so great inconveniences in the said Colony of Georgia We the Trustees
wish to prohibit blacks from entering the colony.10
Until Oglethorpe became wholly preoccupied with the founding of Georgia, he served as deputy-governor of the Royal African Company, an office that certainly appears incompatible with a stance that slavery was unjust and morally wrong. Oglethorpe repeatedly argued against slaves as a labor force because they would weaken Georgia’s defensive position as an outpost of empire, and a diligent search of his writings fails to reveal a clear-cut statement that he regarded slavery as inhuman or immoral. The historian is hard pressed to discover any of the trustees, including Egmont, finding slavery to be morally wrong or socially repellent. It is illuminating that when the affairs of Georgia reached their most urgent crisis in 1741–1742 and its fate was being debated by Parliament, Lord Egmont, in a personal letter to Oglethorpe revealing his most intimate thoughts, did not speak of the colony as a social experiment, a model society, or charitable enterprise but rather as the cornerstone of British interest in confrontation with its international rivals:
The Colony is this day undone, for upon presenting our Petition and the Motion to refer it to the committee, Sr. John Hynd Cotton divided the House and it was carried by 13 not to refer it. We intend if possible to recover it, but it is doubtfull. Mr. Verelst will write you more upon it; Such Ignorance of Great Britains true Interest, in giving up a Province without one Word of debate, and such breach of Publick Fath [sic] to the poor Foreigners and natural born Subjects must Surprize all Europe, and rejoyce the Spaniards. The Carolinians may triumph in annexing Georgia again to their province, for that must be the Consequence, (if not retrievable) and our Clamarous Malecontents may rejoice to be Subjects under them, but I question whether Carolina will not be urgent for as great sums to defend her self now this Barrier is gone.11
Only the Salzburgers found the slave system extremely distasteful when they first witnessed its operation in South Carolina.12
What one must conclude is that not only was there no uniform “grand design” for Georgia, but also that the objective of the three policies considered to be the core of the comprehensive plan can be variously interpreted. This observation seriously undermines the assertion, perhaps most felicitously articulated by Daniel Boorstin, that the Georgia plan, conceived in England without regard to the American environment, foundered on the shoals of reality in the New World—a classic example of Old World ideas becoming obsolete when transplanted to the American wilderness. Indeed, the so-called plan for Georgia did not need to traverse the Atlantic to fail, if “fail” is the appropriate word. The absence of a clear definition of objectives by those who advocated the establishment of the colony and controlled its development was destined to result in unrealized expectations in Georgia, in England, or any other territory on earth.
The so-called Georgia plan, ill-defined, especially in terms of its goals, was even further distorted in its execution. The first group of colonists, led by General Oglethorpe who volunteered to accompany the expedition, sailed from Gravesend in England in the Anne, a stout ship of two hundred tons, owned in part by Samuel Wragg of London, with John Thomas, master, to arrive in Charleston harbor 13 January 1733.13 Governor Robert Johnson of South Carolina had warned Oglethorpe to “send none but People used to Labour and of Sober Life and Conversation, for others will never be govern’d nor make good Settlers, for much hardship, sickness and Labour will attend their first Settling, which will not be born by People used to Idleness or Luxury, and So far from being thankfull for the Bounty bestowed upon them, will be discontended and mutinous.”14 His note of caution arrived too late, for the expedition was already on the Atlantic; yet the group was described as “sober, industrious, and moral men,” one hundred and more first settlers equipped with a variety of skills. Unfortunately, as the record proved and the lists of passengers showed, too many lacked experience in the most desirable skill of all—farming. It was a handicap that was not easily overcome.15
The future Georgians were warmly welcomed by the citizens of South Carolina, for that colony saw beyond any charitable settlement to the ultimate purpose of establishing a shield between Carolina and Spanish Florida. Carolina gave money and provisions, more than a hundred breeding cattle no less, to assist in the founding of Georgia, and sent some of its most prominent and experienced leaders, such as William Bull and James St. Julian, to advise Oglethorpe in laying out a settlement, a suggestion made earlier by Governor Johnson. Ironically, in view of Georgia’s intended prohibition of slavery, black slaves from South Carolina were employed in the first months of the settlement—by order of the trustees—to assist in clearing land and in constructing buildings. The hospitality of Carolina was eventually to wear thin when it realized that the new colony might interfere with its Indian trade or, even later, when the valor of Carolinians was challenged in a campaign against Spanish Florida. But in February 1733 spring was approaching; no one could foresee the future. Fractious thoughts and discord seemed remote.16
Oglethorpe’s first task was to establish friendly relations with the Indians in the area. In this he was eminently successful, in part because the tribe nearest the proposed settlement was a frail castoff from the mighty Creek Nation. “They [the Indians] came to bid us welcome,” wrote one of the settlers, “and before them came a Man dancing in Antick Postures with a spread Fan,” a token of friendship. After the dance was completed, accompanied by a “very uncouth Hollowing,” the Indians approached Oglethorpe’s tent where they were hospitably treated and presented with gifts.17
An agreement was drawn up giving the land to the English, a pretense of legal fiction that was so often scrupulously observed in the English colonies only to be grossly violated as the pressure to move inland mounted. According to one report, the chief, Tomochichi, attended church services. Certainly Tomochichi remained a firm friend of Oglethorpe, in part because of his dependence for supplies and provisions from the trustees’ store. Whether Tomochichi was rewarded in the afterlife will forever remain a mystery, but upon his death his station among whites was duly recognized; at his own request he was buried with ceremony in a prominent square in Savannah. A failure among the red men, Tomochichi was content to accept his new status among the whites.
Peaceful relations having been established with the Indians, Oglethorpe set in motion a plan for settlement on Yamacraw Bluff, a site that towered some thirty to forty yards above the river. Savannah, for so the settlement was named, was laid out in a regular pattern with lots measuring approximately twenty yards by thirty yards, although some of the lots, according to complaints made later, were laid off in a triangular fashion. The colonists first lived in tents, but small single-story frame houses were begun, measuring eight paces by five paces. Garrets, the space between the ceiling and roof joists, were made habitable. One observer reported that most of the first houses were raised two feet above the ground and floored with one-and-a-half-inch plank. Primitive fortifications were quickly erected; indeed, they took priority, another manifestation of Oglethorpe’s anxious concern that the Spanish were looking over his shoulder.
Oglethorpe’s concept of the extent of Georgia in a rather surprising way was imperfect. The territory south of the Savannah River had been subject to dispute between Spain and Britain for centuries. At one time Spain held the view that Georgia was not only a part of its dominion but much of the Carolinas as well. In view of Oglethorpe’s military background, it would be assumed that his knowledge of the region would have been precise, based on the best available materials. Yet, upon his arrival, Oglethorpe confessed to his fellow trustees: “This Province is much larger than we thought it, being 120 Miles from this River [the Savannah] to the Alatamaha.”18
After a few months Oglethorpe left the colony for Charleston to make arrangements for provisions and other supplies. Upon returning to Savannah in August 1733, Oglethorpe found the colonists “grown very mutinous and impatient of Labour and Discipline.” He declared that “some of the Silly People desired their Provisions that they might be able to gratify their Palates by Selling a large Quantity of wholesome food for a little Rum Punch.” Oglethorpe found it difficult to revive what he called the spirit of labor, but “by Degrees” he “brought the People to Discipline.” The cause of the trouble, Oglethorpe was convinced, was the use of rum.19
But the future of Georgia and its character as a colony depended primarily on the type of settlers whom Oglethorpe and the trustees enlisted in their enterprise. Somehow this essential factor seemed never to be fully recognized. As a result people whose expectations differed dramatically from those of the trustees were encouraged to come, thereby planting the thorn of discord with the seed of life.
The first group to be considered in the category were those people of British extraction sent at the expense of the trustees, estimated at more than seven hundred souls in the first five years of settlement. According to the lists which serve as a partial inventory of personnel, the occupations and backgrounds of these individuals varied greatly—from surgeons and apothecaries to peruke-makers and carpenters. What they needed most they lacked—a common ideal to match the image, or, more accurately, the multiplicity of images, of Georgia envisioned by the trustees. A fatal flaw remained undetected when the trustees assumed that other men, in agreeing to settle in Georgia, automatically shared a set of ideas that they were willing to transform into reality.
Two other groups to appear shortly after the first settlement were the Irish convicts and the Moravians. Widely different in background and conviction, they shared the experience of being equally hostile to key concepts of what the Georgia settlement was intended to be.
A boatload of Irish convicts was purchased by Oglethorpe when a vessel, originally destined for another port, entered the Savannah River. Of course, Oglethorpe had the best of intentions: he needed workmen to clear the land and to cultivate the soil. Following the precedent set by his fellow trustees, Oglethorpe neglected to ask himself whether a model community could be established without the assurance that all hands wished to pursue a particular objective. The Irish convicts, some of whom contributed to the well-being of the settlement and others who caused discord, were not consulted on whether they found the goals of the trustees attractive or even desirable. As a group, the instinct of these convicts for survival, regardless of artificially established policies, thwarted the aims of the colony.
From a different vantage point, the same observation holds for the Moravians. Fleeing to the New World to escape the disharmony and conflict of the Old World, the Moravians, who held firmly to the pacifist position that taking up arms was dishonoring God, were poorly equipped to settle in a community whose watchword was defense and one of whose principal purposes was to confront the enemy. Guided by their consciences, dismayed with their economic prospects in Georgia, and attracted by the rolling countryside in Pennsylvania, the Moravians, in contrast to the convicts who had no choice, left Georgia, their presence unmarked except for a few epitaphs.20
Forty Jewish settlers, a project underwritten financially by a group of wealthy Jews in London, arrived quite unexpectedly in Georgia in the summer of 1733. Governor Johnson of South Carolina was alarmed. “We cannot fathom,” he wrote, “the Design of sending forty Jews to Georgia, they will never I believe make Planters.”21 Although advised by the trustees to ask them to leave the colony, Oglethorpe welcomed them. A number of the original Jewish contingent failed, but others weathered the first stormy decades of settlement. Their names never appeared on the petitions from the dissatisfied elements, not because they were content but because the petitioners were afraid their case might be prejudiced if Jewish names were included. Because property restrictions were practiced against Jews in many countries in the eighteenth century, the land restrictions in Georgia may have appeared less offensive to the Jewish settlers than to the other colonials.
Finally, there were two additional clusters of Georgia settlers so different in motivation that they neatly illustrate the cleft between those who could accommodate themselves to the aims of the settlement and those who could not, in the first case because the ends they were seeking did not directly contradict those of the trustees while, in the second case, they did. The Salzburgers from Germany, who introduced a new element into the Georgia colonization scheme, constituted the first group. The second group is commonly called adventurers, men of differing backgrounds who came to Georgia on their own account, usually carrying with them a number of servants and often receiving large grants of land. Their aim: to become commercial planters.
As early as 1732 adventurers were introduced into the colonizing scheme of Georgia, thus injecting a potent divisive force in the so-called grand design. When their numbers were augumented during the first half decade, this division was merely accented, as events were to prove; yet Oglethorpe, as late as 1736, failed to perceive the obvious collision between the aims of the trustees and the goals of the adventurers, for he suggested that the Trust send additional “gentlemen” as well as four hundred servants.
These adventurers, the gentlemen of early Georgia, have not received the attention that is due a group which best explains why the colony failed to live up to its expectations. Not poverty-ridden tradesmen or toil-worn farmers, these men assumed that their high status would entitle them to special rewards. Individuals brought to the colonies by the grace of the trustees might accept trustee regulation, but gentlemen accustomed to favored treatment were not so eager or prepared to conform, particularly if a conflict of interests were to arise; and the adventurers had neither a desire to create an outpost of empire that could defy the French and Spanish, nor a particular stake in establishing a model community, either for defense or charity. The adventurers sought economic opportunities, and they were willing to invest their own money in hope of substantial returns. A policy that interfered with this ultimate goal became an undesirable threat. Therefore, if the consideration of creating a special community is laid aside, the trustees’ policies with respect to land and slaves were, in effect, potential barriers to wealth and affluence, the essential objective of the adventurers.
As if this conflict of goals were not sufficient grounds for a contest of wills, circumstances in the early stages of settlement widened the fissure between the trustees and their generalized concept of the colony’s future, and the adventurers and their concept of what actions should be taken. According to letters they sent to the trustees soon after arriving, several adventurers had expected to receive the same encouragement that was given the colonists sent by the trustees: namely, provisions for themselves and their servants for a period, preferably a year, and tools for building houses, clearing the land, and cultivating the soil. None of these benefits had been granted them. As a result, they were compelled to expend capital from the beginning. Considering only the industrious adventurers, thus setting aside those who were so dismayed at the outset that they failed to cultivate their lands, their investments failed to bring a reurn before their capital was exhausted, leaving them if not destitute, certainly seriously reduced in circumstances. That this outcome should awaken a clamor for a modification of existing trustee policies is scarcely surprising.
The first group of Salzburgers, whose methods and motivations stood in sharp contrast to the adventurers, arrived in April 1734, although preparations had been made as early as 1732. The Salzburgers’ ranks were supplemented in the years to follow, but as late as 1740, the Reverend John Martin Bolzius, leader of the flock, reported that their settlement had not yet reached two hundred souls, a pitifully small number in view of their arduous labor and the continuous support they received from the trustees. Despite its slow development, however, this group must be considered the most successful settlement in Georgia.22
The Salzburgers were a devout group of Lutherans, who had been driven from their homes in the Archbishopric of Salzburg by an order from His Highness Leopold Anton who, on 31 October 1732, Reformation Day, issued an edict ordering all non-Catholics to leave the province within three months and those holding no property to leave within three days. It is estimated that more than thirty thousand Protestants were affected by this decree. No more than four score, urged on by Dr. Samuel Urlsperger of Augsburg and the British Society of Christian Knowledge, originally sailed for the New World. The Salzburgers were cordially welcomed in Georgia, greeted by the firing of cannon in their honor and provided with a splendid banquet, creating a festive air that did not prepare them for the disappointments that lay ahead.
Allotted a grant of land north and west of Savannah, the Salzburgers called it Ebenezer. The soil proving sandy and barren, the Salzburgers begged for permission to move. John Vat, who accompanied the second group of Salzburgers, reported that the soil in the original settlement would not yield a livelihood despite the most industrious effort and that the first Salzburger settlers were “exceedingly Struck down and dishearten’d.”23 The trustees were reluctant to allow the Salzburgers a new grant, for they realized that if a concession were made to the Salzburgers, it would invite petitions from everyone who was dissatisfied with his grant. Permission was finally secured in 1736, however, and the Salzburgers moved to Red Bluff, this time naming their settlement “New” Ebenezer, meaning new hope.
Although reinforced with members of their faith from Europe and consistently assisted by the trustees in obtaining provisions and other essentials by means of their store in Savannah, the lot of the Salzburgers was not a happy one. Their cattle herd dwindled and their crops failed. Only the will to create a Godly community as a supreme objective enabled them to endure hardships and sacrifices that others less patient or zealous would have found intolerable. They lived as a community. The men, for example, worked in the fields in groups, apparently in teams of six members. Jointly they cleared land and raised buildings. A single herdsman, with occasional help, cared for the livestock. Women and children were an integral part of the working community. Each evening, after the day’s work was completed, the entire group assembled for worship services. Even with such devotion and labor, the Salzburgers would have starved without the necessities continually provided by the trustees, “being hitherto forced without their fault,” wrote Bolzius in 1737, “to live from ye Trustee’s Stores at Savannah.”24
That the Salzburgers endured when other settlements in Georgia eventually collapsed is attributable to a number of factors. First, of course, they were aided with supplies and provisions from the trustees’ store. Second, their desires tended to harmonize rather than conflict with those of many trustees. The Salzburgers were trying to create their own model community, which, though it did not have defense or other considerations of empire as its object, was based on an ideal of mutual concern rather than individual entrepreneurship. Third, settling and working as a group rather than individually made them a far more efficient economic unit, in contrast to the other settlements in Georgia. Fourth, their lack of political experience enabled them to accommodate to vigorous definition of policy by superiors without the favor of consultation, a contrast to native Britons, particularly “gentlemen,” who considered themselves as entitled to speak and act rather than merely listen and obey. Fifth, of the trustees’ policies most subject to criticism—the prohibition of rum and slavery and the limited title to land—only the last immediately affected the Salzburgers. Rum was not important to a people with the convictions of the Salzburgers—it was an inconsequential issue in any case—and they managed to adjust to the problem of land titles in part because of their distinctive group settlements. Introduction of slavery tended to undermine the ideals that the Salzburgers carried to the New World; but by the 1750s, when slaves were permitted, a number of them compromised, making modest fortunes as a result of using slave labor. In such cases the urge to prosper overcame the commitment to an ideal.
Such diversity of goals among the settlers was seriously complicated by the inability to meet the first requirement of a new colony, an adequate food supply. The testimony on this point is conclusive. The Salzburgers, for example, failed to obtain so much as the return on their seed when planting at Ebenezer. Hugh Anderson, a “gentleman” who worked his land assiduously, became utterly discouraged when his garden crops as well as his commercial undertakings failed. As late as 1741 Oglethorpe remained dubious regarding the ability of the colony to secure provisions. “I think,” he wrote, “I have got the people of Savannah on Such a footing that they can now buy or raise their provisions.”25
Subsistence itself, therefore, became a daily concern; finding a commercial crop, without which the future, particularly for adventurers, was limited, compounded the problem. The objective, as with most English colonies, had been to raise a product useful to Britain. Indeed, the trustees and some of the inhabitants looked upon this aspect of the settlement as a grand experiment. Vineyards, fruit trees, and cotton were planted, and lumbering as well as the production of pitch and tar were tried. Silk making in particular attracted every possible incentive: land was allocated on condition that a proportion be devoted to planting mulberry trees, the services of an artisan skilled in soil production were obtained, and subsidies were provided for finished silk. The trustees engaged botanists to sail to the Spanish Caribbean, assigning specific ports of call where exotic plants including a cinnamon tree were acquired and dispatched to Georgia.26
The soil of Georgia, however, did not cooperate. Early reports predicted glowing prospects, especially for silk; but most crops that were later to become such an important part of Georgia’s economy, such as rice and cotton, lacked either the market or the proper conditions for growth. Promising crops that grew well in carefully tended gardens failed when the experiment was carried into the fields. Moreover, the shortage of labor limited the time and attention that could be given to any crop. In practice Georgia failed to solve its agriculture problem during most of the trustee period. Only dispensing provisions by the trustees’ store prevented starvation. This practice departed from the original plan which had advocated supplying individuals brought over by the Trust for one year. The closing of the trustee’s store in 1740 contributed substantially to the emerging crisis in the colony’s affairs.27
As early as 1734 Thomas Christie, the recorder for the colony, recognized this problem and reported it to Oglethorpe. “All those Productions will be a Considerable time before they are brought to any Perfection and we shall be always Poor and Needy till we are able to make Exports of our Own.”28 This observation was to be repeated frequently in one form or another in subsequent years.
Indian trade served as the only immediate avenue of commerce. Because of the itinerant character of this activity, it, too, militated against the design of a stable, settled, compact community envisioned by the trustees. Preoccupied with defense, Oglethorpe and the trustees regarded the Indians largely in terms of military strategy rather than as an integral part of a flourishing economy. A policy on Indian trade, therefore, was not defined for several years, and remarkably few Georgians engaged in it.
The faulty execution of a design that lacked clarity and uniformity in its conception resulted in predictable consequences, albeit an unforeseen social legacy. Dissatisfaction, articulate and broadly based, emerged. Rooted in social and economic discontent, the complaints became increasingly political in expression and content.
Politics in early Georgia remained remarkably uncomplicated; the trustees, in practice, retained total control. Within the body of the trustees, a Common Council, generally composed of the most active members of the group, customarily made the critical decisions. These decisions were translated into deeds when either the secretary, Benjamin Martyn, or the treasurer, Harman Verelst, issued instructions to an agent in the colony, Oglethorpe being the first. No form of either colonial or local government comparable to a colony such as Virginia or North Carolina ever existed.20
Oglethorpe returned to England several times between 1733 and 1740, leaving Thomas Causton in charge, invested with the title of chief magistrate as well as the trustees’ storekeeper. As the dispenser of provisions as well as the dispenser of justice, Causton held an enviable position; this combination led to an abuse of power. In 1737 William Stephens was sent to Georgia by the trustees and designated as their secretary in Georgia. He also served them as a reporter, keeping a fulsome daily journal in which he recorded everything that happened. Causton was eventually removed from his position of eminence, to be replaced, at least in terms of the responsibilities of the foremost civil officer, by William Stephens. In this process Oglethorpe was gradually relieved of his authority in civil affairs, although his position as the military head of the colony was never questioned. For a brief period Oglethorpe was made the highest civil officer in Frederica, but he was ultimately displaced. Oglethorpe never fully accepted the changes made in the disposition of civil affairs by his fellow trustees; he always believed that the colony was most successful when he managed daily affairs single-handedly, unhampered by the few magistrates appointed by the trustees meeting in England.30
In effect, Georgia was subjected largely to one-man rule, as the trustees placed authority seriatim upon selected individuals, and it was not always the rule of the wise. The complaints against Causton, for example, were numerous. It was said that he used the goods and servants of the trustees for his own purposes and that his house was “well furnished with Plenty of every thing to Profuseness.”31 He abused his power as chief magistrate, wasting people’s time with unnecessary ceremony to inflate his own importance. There is conclusive evidence that Causton was opening much, if not all, of the outgoing mail, thereby acting as a one-man censor. Whenever a complaint was forwarded by a settler, for instance, Causton’s letter to the trustees of the same date would include answers to each specific charge.
By catering to some settlers and withholding from others, Causton built up a group of supporters. Eveleigh, the Carolina merchant, visiting Georgia in Oglethorpe’s absence in 1735, found the people divided “like Court and Country in England.” Eveleigh further observed that “the Magistrates and the better Sort” seemed to be on one side and the “Populacy … with a few of the better Sort on the other.”32 If such an alignment existed, it was shattered in the years to follow when the magistrates stood, for the most part, alone against the prominent spokesmen for the colony. At first Oglethorpe, with his prestige and his earnest desire to do justice, served as the safety valve for a dissatisfied populace, but his usefulness in this respect disappeared by 1738.
With the motivations and objectives of the people who settled in Georgia at such variance from those of the trustees, with the difficulty of raising sufficient provisions to maintain the settlement, and with the inability to produce a staple that could instill commercial life in the colony, it is small wonder that the Georgia outpost should be torn with dissension. The truth is that the colony, after the first enthusiasms of settlement had ebbed, was in serious trouble. The trustees were misled by taking the early descriptions of success literally, and this misconception was fed by the Salzburgers, who, when they sought additional help, adopted a subservient tone. “God reward You a thousand times for all your Goodness presented to us in the former time,” their spiritual leader wrote in 1734. As a result, the trustees regarded any complaint with suspicion, the voice, so they deceived themselves, of chronic grumblers.33
By the late 1730s, however, the hardship and indicators of failure were everywhere apparent, even to the officials who represented the trustees. Drought, illness, and the fear of invasion coupled with crop failures caused distress throughout the colony. The Salzburgers, the most successful group, found conditions depressing. Reverend Bolzius wrote in 1737, when a chilling despair was seeping into the settlement, that half of his group had died and the remaining half were hard pressed to survive. The Salzburgers could live, declared Bolzius, only through the goods supplied by the trustees’ store.
Three years later, when conditions were approaching a crisis, George Whitefield, the celebrated preacher, thought it his “duty” to inform the trustees of the “declining state” of the colony, noting particularly the sad conditions of Frederica, Darien, and Savannah. Outlying settlements were abandoned. Although Savannah had given the appearance of relatively rapid growth because planters, having lost their capital, moved to town, it was estimated that by 1740 fully seventy houses were vacant. Whitefield claimed that without his pump priming activities in hiring men to build the Orphan House facilities, which he had established, conditions would have been even worse. James Habersham, left in charge of the Orphan House, reported to Whitefield: “Most of the Inhabitants, except the Saltsburghers having left the Colony, our Supplyes of that nature [provisions] are brought to us from other Provinces.”34 The trustees, by closing their store in 1740, inadvertently intensified the problem. “The people throughout the Province are discontented & uneasie,” wrote a soldier stationed in the colony, “(not from any apprehensions from the Enemy).”35
The crisis that developed can be best traced through a series of letters and petitions to the trustees, beginning in 1735, and culminating in 1741 with the publication of A True and Historical Narrative of the Colony of Georgia in America, From the First Settlement Thereof Until this Present Period; Containing the Most Authentic Facts, Matters, and Transactions Therein. … At the outset redress was directed to two requests: one, that a limited number of slaves be permitted in the colony; and two, that there be some alterations in land tenure. By 1740, however, when the dissatisfaction reached a crescendo, the emphasis was broadened to include: self-government; release from excessive quitrents; and the right to take up land where it was convenient rather than by trustee assignment, as well as the familiar issues of slaves and a more drastic change in land tenure. To appreciate the intensity of the movement for modification of trustee policy, it is well to underscore the transition from the limited objections of 1735 to the sweeping ones of 1741, and to note the marked increase in the proportion of colonists who were clamoring for some modification of policy.
Unfortunately, historians have employed the word “malcontents” or as contemporaries spelled it, “malecontents,” to identify the advocates of change. This expression, used by agents of the trustees in the colony when writing their superiors to describe those who were dissatisfied with conditions as they existed, has a pejorative connotation. As such it does the movement an injustice, for it suggests that opponents of the trustees were ill-tempered men, unwilling to respond to the natural challenges of settlement, when, in reality, the dissatisfaction arose out of a fundamental conflict in goals. The trustees and a major proportion of the population had contradictory objectives, a problem exacerbated by an inability to solve the colony’s economic problem and the absence of self-government.
In creating the myth that the malcontents were the cause rather than the result of conditions, historians have tended to follow the lead of contemporaries. William Stephens and Thomas Jones, for instance, two officials of the trustees in America as well as Lord Egmont, a prominent trustee, called the leaders of the dissatisfied group a “Scotch Club,” given, so they said, to plotting against the trustees’ representatives, living wastefully and wantonly, with “an imperios manner of behaviour.” Thomas Causton, first bailiff of Savannah and storekeeper employed by the trustees, reported that ill feeling between the Scotch group and others was so intense that a millwright worker, having taken more than his share of spirits, threatened two stalwarts of the Scotch Club “8c swore if he could have his will, he would knock them Scotch Sons of Bitches brains out.” A delegation from the “Club” visited Causton after this incident and complained heatedly, but received little satisfaction. Others, especially Thomas Jones, offered a more sweeping indictment against the group: dressing gaily; setting up a Free masons club, a St. Andrews club and “other Tipling Societies”; keeping concubines; and holding horse races for pleasure at a time when the colony was in danger of an invasion from the Spanish.36
Although the Scotch Club and other dissatisfied elements obviously were not responsible for Georgia’s troubles as some contemporaries erroneously believed, it is equally apparent that the problems that arose in the colony presented the leaders of the movement with an opportunity to seek their own ends: first, to force concessions from the trustees that would enable the planter who wished to carry on commercial agriculture to use greater discretion in exploiting his holdings; and second, to assure the planter and his associates of extensive policy-making power over the affairs of the province, a political objective. It is possible and, in fact, highly probable that the leaders of the malcontents did not have these goals clearly in mind initially, but there can be no question about their intentions by 1741. They wished to alter fundamentally the character of the colony, to refashion it in the image of other English settlements with control firmly retained by themselves. The demand that originated with a specific adjustment of policy concluded on a note that nothing less than the principle of liberty was at issue.
Individual grievances had been presented to the trustees since the founding of the colony, but formal evidence of deep-seated discontent did not appear until 9 December 1738, when approximately 130 prominent settlers, largely from Savannah, signed a memorial protesting against the management of the colony. William Stephens asserted that Robert Williams and Patrick Tailfer were the “chief fabricators,” but it would be a mistake to think that the memorial was the product of an inconsequential minority.37 Considering that it was signed only by men, it represented perhaps as many as five hundred colonists, a substantial number from the infant settlement.38 Moreover, it was signed despite a warning from the officials of the trustees not to participate in the memorial. When it is recalled that these officials had absolute control of the colony’s affairs, it is surprising that anyone signed.
The memorial of 1738 is not an impassioned document but a remarkably able, logical disquisition—from a distinct point of view. It included a discriminating description of the progress of the Georgia settlement and its problems, stressing the limitations of the soil and the absence of a staple for export. Each year, the memorial argued, a planter loses money, thereby reducing him to bankruptcy. Without a staple for export there could be no market, no trade, and no prosperity. Using lumber products as an example, the memorialists complained that it was difficult to compete with the cheaper slave labor of South Carolina, adding that their inability to obtain credit seriously hampered the colony’s economy. So far as the money provided by Parliament and dispensed by the trustees was concerned, it had been used primarily for defense. And what would bring about a solution, asked the memorialists? Land tenures should be modified, giving the landowners titles in fee simple, and permission should be given to import a limited number of black slaves.
Many of the problems described were genuine enough, but it is difficult to see how the changes suggested would have quickly disposed of them. As later generations were to learn, what could be grown in Virginia or the Carolinas could not necessarily be produced profitably in Georgia. The memorialists, in advocating limited slavery and a change of land tenure, were unquestionably led to the conclusion that the relative prosperity of the remaining southern colonies as opposed to their distressing conditions must be attributable to the most obvious dissimilarities, a distinctive labor force and land system.
When the trustees learned of the memorial in April 1739, they remained unmoved by the request for limited slavery, and they hesitated to act on the issue of land tenure. But, more important, they tended to minimize the depressed circumstances prevailing within the colony, to dismiss the discontent as inspired by men of limited vision who were guided only by self-interest, and to magnify the accomplishments of the colony and its immediate prospects.
The trustees replied with some heat that they “should deem them Selves very unfit for the Trust reposed in them by his Majesty on their behalf if they could be prevailed upon, by such an irrational Attempt, to give up a Constitution framed with the greatest Caution for the Preservation of Liberty and Property; and of which the Laws against the Use of slaves, and for the Entail of Lands are the Surest Foundation [.]” Under the present system, they declared, property was protected. If modifications were permitted, all property would soon be in the hands of the Negro merchants. In short, the trustees placed little confidence in the accepted concept of property rights as generally, if not universally, accepted by Englishmen in the eighteenth century.39
Despite the obvious sincerity and good intentions on the part of the trustees, no attitude, in fact, could have been better calculated to provoke animosity among those who signed the memorial than a complacent reply. It could only result in more strenuous efforts to break through the ring of self-satisfaction, the acceptance of things as they were, efforts that by their very nature would be less moderate in tone, less concerned with good faith and reasonableness.
This mood of restlessness and frustration on the part of the memorialists was intensified by the actions of the supporters and representatives of the trustees in the colony. In October 1739 Governor Oglethorpe himself sent a long message to the trustees under the general title of the “State of Georgia,” defending the policies that had operated in the colony since its founding. And on 19 November 1739, William Stephens, secretary to the colony, called a meeting of the inhabitants of Savannah, placed a memorial before them entitled “A State of the Province of Georgia” which noted the colony’s accomplishments and flourishing condition, and asked them to sign it. It is instructive to compare the similarity between many parts of “A State of the Province of Georgia” and Oglethorpe’s original “State of Georgia.” It becomes evident that the Savannah inhabitants were being asked to sign a statement, prepared in substantial part by Oglethorpe, giving Oglethorpe’s and the trustees’ view of the condition of the colony. Yet the document was to be forwarded as representing the views and opinions of the settlers. Pressure from local spokesmen for the trustees did not prevail, and only twenty-odd inhabitants signed the document.40
In another effort to counter the memorials of the discontented, Oglethorpe organized petitions among the Scotch Highlanders and Salzburgers, reaffirming the importance of the trustees’ policy to prohibit the importation of black slaves. Interestingly, about the same time the Highlanders received additional cattle bought at Oglethorpe’s order, and the Salzburgers reported that Oglethorpe had promised assistance in getting more of their like-minded Lutherans transported to Georgia.
These countermoves did not halt the developing crisis. Not only was a remonstrance forwarded to the trustees by the dissatisfied colonists, enlarging upon their earlier complaints, but also the group drew up a petition, dated a month later and thus before the remonstrance could be acted upon, to carry their case directly to the Crown and Parliament. To familiar demands, modification of land titles and the limited importation of slaves, new demands were added: land should be granted where it was convenient for settlers, excessive quitrents should be eased and their imposition delayed, and a voice be given the settlers in choosing colonial magistrates. Complaining that the trustees regarded the request of Georgia as coming from a “Set of Clamourous people, Influenced by designing men and Negroe Merchants,” the petitioners asserted that their sole objective was to alleviate the conditions within the colony, appealing, significantly, to “ye [the] famous Declaration of Rights made by our Fore Fathers at ye [the] Glorious Revolution[.]”41
Indeed, it was the theme of rightful liberty that began to assert itself in the petitions of 1740–1741. It was thought in the “nature of Britons” to establish their own system of local magistrates. The management of the colony’s affairs as it was now operating was contrary to the Declaration of Rights, an elemental document defining British liberty in the eighteenth century. Unless the colony’s affairs were altered, “a number of Members of the Common wealth, that with Law-full liberty might be usefull in the Society, will sink into destruction and ruin.”42
John Fallowfield, appointed bailiff by the trustees because he was admired for his industry, loyalty, and intelligence reported in the same tenor, thoroughly critical of the trustees’ representatives in Georgia. The province “Groans under the insupportable Tyranny” of some people here who operate under the authority of the trustees, he wrote. “Their [the Georgia settlers] naturall Rights are denyed them, the priviledges of British Subjects are withheld from them, The protection of the Laws of the Nation, whereof they are members if [are] refused them.” Fallowfield particularly identified Thomas Jones as the chief actor in “Dispotick Measures.” When Fallowfield was sharply criticized by the trustees because of his letter, he boldly retorted, “Your honours say persons not content with Government are equally unable to Govern themselves, we are able to Govern our selves, and think you unable to chuse Governors for us, as we best know the people, and who is fittest for the Magistracy,” phrasing that reminds the reader of Tom Paine’s Common Sense, which was not to appear for more than three decades.43 What had obviously begun as a challenge to the policies of the trustees had now turned into a question of principle: Who has the right to govern?
With the dispatch of the remonstrance to the king and Parliament, events now began to take shape for the publication of A True and Historical Narrative, the composition that brought the Georgia issue to a climax. The background of this extraordinary document, written by Patrick Tailfer, a physician, Hugh Anderson, a well-educated gentleman, and David Douglas, all former residents of Georgia now living in South Carolina, has been explored elsewhere. Suffice it to say that it demolished the image of Oglethorpe, swept aside trustee claims of Georgia’s potential success as a colony, detailed every shortcoming of the colony, provoked an outpouring of pamphlets authorized by the trustees rebutting the claims of the Narrative, and crystallized the case against further subsidies to Georgia by Parliament. Although the authors of the Narrative overstated the case, the true conditions in Georgia were revealed. It was only a matter of time before the Crown would regain control of the colony, which it did in June 1752. By that date land policies had been drastically altered and ownership of slaves on a limited scale had begun.44
But the trusteeship period in Georgia history left a legacy that enriched the southern mosaic, not to mention writing a unique chapter in the history of the British colonies in North America. The absence of genuine colonial and local government in Georgia meant that social obligations such as the care of the poor and orphans, colonial defense, and a host of other human problems were not resolved in the same ways as in other colonies. The establishment of an orphans’ house by the Salzburgers and the creation of the celebrated orphans’ house of Whitefield on a grander scale became Georgia’s answer to social responsibilities that county courts resolved in North Carolina and Virginia or that parishes accepted in South Carolina. (It is scarcely an accident that similar projects for orphans failed to develop in other colonies.) These governmental institutions did not exist in trusteeship Georgia, so the solution to social problems became a private rather than a public responsibility, privately rather than publicly funded. The trustees’ store served as the vehicle to care for the indigent, only in the case of Georgia the percentage of inhabitants who were eventually included in this category constituted perhaps the majority of the settlers. When Georgia did become a royal colony, the development of county government lagged.
The need for local defense in other British colonies in North America rested exclusively on the settlers. In the case of Georgia, although it had been planned so that each grantee held a military fief and everyone would fly to the call of arms when danger threatened, the burden of defense fell, ironically, upon the mother country, which supplied a permanent contingent of British Rangers. In some ways, especially in southern Georgia, the colony became a military settlement.
Encouraging a variety of peoples from widely separated backgrounds and holding dissimilar beliefs—how strikingly the Georgia “model” differs from that of Massachusetts Bay—gave Georgia a rich ethnic diversity that it never lost. Indeed, trustee policies, regardless of the controversy over why they were adopted, attempted to develop a slaveless society, and, somewhat less well understood, a womanless society because of its land policies. Outside of New Ebenezer, the Salzburger settlement, demographic estimates confirm this conclusion. The imbalance in the ratio between men and women appears to have been carried beyond the years of the American Revolution, making the social composition of Georgia distinctive from its colonial counterparts, another aspect of the texture of the mosaic reflected in the southern colonies.