This volume of the Colonial Records of Georgia provides scholars and interested readers with the opportunity to look closely at the paperwork generated by “The Trustees for Establishing the Colony of Georgia in America,” more commonly known as just “the Trustees.” As stated in the subtitle, that paperwork includes a wide variety of documents such as formal appointments to official positions, specific directions to those officials, land grants of all sizes and to all types of colonists, and other important correspondence. Oftentimes, historians overlook these records because of their dense legal prose, but hidden within this complicated language lies the opportunity to study this unique governing body for its successes and its failures.
In most studies of early Georgia, the Trustees appear as aloof administrators who are completely out of touch with reality. As an organization, they seem like an amorphous body of aristocrats who supervised the colony from afar. They are criticized for designing an idealistic, impractical, and ultimately unworkable plan whereby the “worthy poor” of England—men experiencing hard times because of circumstances beyond their control—would have the opportunity to start their lives over in a new place with close supervision to prevent them from falling into poverty again. The Trustees would provide that close supervision by retaining all power—legislative, executive, and judicial—for themselves, and they expected their subjects to comply willingly and gratefully with all their directives. They issued a series of strict regulations that included very specific rules about land inheritance, agricultural activities, labor policy, the Indian trade, and even alcohol consumption in an effort to protect their colonists from venturing back down the path to financial ruin. As it became apparent that their ideas were not working as they had planned, the Trustees entrenched and defended their position instead of making practical modifications to conform to the reality of the situation in coastal Georgia. This choice, however, only led to more problems and added to their not wholly undeserved reputation as being detached from reality. They eventually lost interest in their charitable venture as their administrative duties became more tedious and the entire project decreased in popularity in England, and they finally surrendered their colony to the Crown in 1752 after almost twenty years of countless challenges and complications.
This overly negative portrayal of the Trustees wrongly casts them as the “bad guys” who exerted a heavy hand over their poor and destitute subjects simply because they could. In fact, the Trustees had almost no applicable experience when it came to running a colony and were simply addressing issues as they became aware of them. They seemed to have good intentions when they kept all authority to themselves because they knew their subjects lacked any practical knowledge about governance and also suffered from the stigma of previous economic adversity. By expecting their colonists to consult with them on all matters, however, the Trustees stalled any developments that might occur in the meantime. The vast distance between Savannah and London obviously frustrated any possibility of quick communication, and other extenuating circumstances such as weather and war postponed ships carrying correspondence even longer.
Moreover, the very bureaucracy of the Trustees worked against speedy responses as well. They needed to have a quorum to vote, and they often sent matters into committee for further investigation, which resulted in additional delays. Many of the documents contained in this volume come from the Common Council, which consisted of a certain number of Trustees tasked with finalizing the decisions that the entire body of Trustees had made. Because the original conceivers of the Georgia project anticipated that the number of Trustees would increase over time and because it would be unwieldy to expect all of them to participate fully in every aspect of administration, it made sense to delegate the actual writing of their orders to only a select few.1 However, by doing so, they added another time-consuming layer of bureaucracy to the governing process. Nevertheless, their resulting paperwork represents a valuable source of documentation, much of which occupies this volume.
Rather than creating one overarching governmental organization run by local colonists to attend to everyday activities, the Trustees chose to appoint specific officials to certain offices as the need appeared. This volume contains many of those appointments and shows the emergence of the various issues that required some sort of immediate oversight. Obvious positions included a minister for religious affairs and a secretary to direct the Indian trade, but others such as a botanist seem almost trivial to modern readers in comparison. The Trustees did create the fundamental managerial offices of bailiffs, constables, court recorder, and several others to provide basic law and order, but these essential positions also necessitated selection of capable individuals to fill them as well as explanation of their responsibilities. Those explanations usually involved lengthy lists of instructions that went far beyond the main duties that should be expected of that particular job. Oftentimes, to stay informed about what was happening in the colony and issue orders accordingly, the Trustees commanded these individuals to supply lengthy, detailed, and even daily records of the situation in the colony. This volume includes many of those appointments along with those precise instructions and provides historians with a window through which to view the Trustees’ excessive attempts at administering their colony from afar, which contributed to the charitable project’s ultimate demise.
Historians may criticize the Trustees for their micromanagement of their colony, but they should also recognize that their meticulousness demonstrates just how seriously they took this endeavor. According to their charter, they could not profit in any way from their activities in Georgia, but they could help their subjects do so. The Trustees wanted to provide as many opportunities as they could while forestalling the possibility of failure, and they believed they were making decisions that would support the colonists, not hamper or hurt them. This volume represents the very beginning of the colonial project, when the Trustees were full of enthusiasm and zeal for their undertaking and had a positive attitude about the future. Their diligence and dedication are admirable and are reflected in the attention to detail that went into these documents. The Trustees did not know how their colonial venture would turn out when they began, and when historians look back and evaluate what the Trustees did not accomplish, they should also acknowledge the original aspirations of these well-intentioned aristocrats and how they went about trying to realize them. This volume embodies their initial optimism and offers numerous opportunities to study what the Trustees sought to achieve.
The time has also come to revisit the Trustees themselves, as individuals and as an institution. James Oglethorpe has obviously received the most scholarly attention, but other men back in England also worked hard to make Georgia a success and should be recognized for their efforts. The Trustees as a unit serve as one example of the many different approaches the British Empire took toward administering its colonies. A close examination of the Trustees’ inner workings and its relationships with other British governing bodies such as Parliament and its many committees as well as the various royal councils has yet to be done.
In addition, scholars can treat the Trustees’ endeavor as an exercise in colonialism. The British Empire had already established countless colonies by the time the Trustees founded Georgia, and it would go on to create many more over the next century and a half. Comparing the Trustees’ approach to colonialism with other ventures elsewhere in the world would yield interesting results and bring Georgia into the fold of global history. Too often, individual colonies get pigeonholed into their own niche by limited and exclusive studies that fail to make broader connections to other colonial projects, but with the surge of interest in globalization in the twenty-first century in all aspects of life, it is only reasonable, and indeed necessary, to apply that same approach to history and to colonial Georgia. This volume showcases the administrative aspect of those endeavors and provides an excellent opportunity to compare it with other colonial undertakings around the world.
More specific opportunities exist within this volume as well. Environmental historians can get a closer look at the Trustees’ land policies, both in terms of how they divided up the landscape as well as how they expected their subjects to use it. Economic historians can benefit from looking at these same documents and gleaning from them the ways that the Trustees planned to make their colony financially viable. Legal historians can watch the colonial court system develop and evolve from its very beginning. Biographers can find the names of the important characters that grace the stage of early Georgia, such as Thomas Causton, Henry Parker, Thomas Christie, Peter Gordon, and Patrick Tailfer.
In the end, the Trustees failed to achieve their objectives when it came to colonial Georgia. Scholars, however, must temper their judgement of that failure and also appreciate what the Trustees sought to accomplish by teasing out the important lessons they offer to the many facets of colonial history. This volume allows historians to do just that.
Julie Anne Sweet
1. James Ross McCain, Georgia as a Proprietary Province: The Execution of a Trust (Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1917), 100–101. Despite its age, McCain’s study still remains the best, and only, in-depth analysis of the Trustees.