In 1962 the University of Georgia Press published the first journal of John Viscount Percival, the Earl of Egmont, long recognized as one of the important founding Trustees of Georgia. The original publication was edited by Robert G. McPherson, a University of Georgia faculty member and scholar of British history. He edited lightly, making changes only for clarity. His introduction, however, is an enlightening summary of Egmont’s life, including his family background and education, his rise to an Irish earldom, and some of the personal political issues that existed between Egmont and Sir Robert Walpole. McPherson also provides a helpful provenance of the journal.
Covering the years 1732 to 1738—the beginning of the Georgia project, when the foundling colony’s success and even survival were often in doubt—this is the first of three journals kept by Egmont during his tenure as a Trustee. The other two had been more widely available after former Georgia governor Allen Candler’s effort to compile and publish many of Georgia’s records in the early twentieth century; volumes of the Candler records can now be accessed online through the HathiTrust Digital Library. Egmont’s second and third journals comprise volume 5 of the Candler’s Colonial Records of Georgia, while volume 1 includes the charter, laws and by-laws, and the minutes of the Georgia Trust, and volume 2 contains the minutes of the Common Council. Egmont was a committed record keeper; in addition to these journals, he also authored three volumes of a personal diary, also now accessible online. While the diary touches on his work with the Georgia project, it focuses on his personal life and gives an engaging picture of early eighteenth-century Britain.
Much of the scholarship on colonial Georgia focuses on the story in the colony itself, and many Georgia leaders in the Trustee period have received biographical treatments. James Oglethorpe, the only Trustee who actually came to Georgia, has long fascinated scholars. More recently colonial secretary William Stephens, teacher and later entrepreneur James Habersham, and interpreter Mary Musgrove have been the subject of scholarly monographs. Groups including Native peoples, women colonists, Salzburgers, Scots Highlanders, and others have also been analyzed. While this journal provides some information on all of them, it also illuminates the operations in England as the Trust sought to manage the colony, secure its funding and protection, and ensure that the Trustees’ charitable vision survived. It is an important source for any study of these early years.
The journal is an interesting read. While McPherson did not annotate it, Egmont added his own annotations and helpfully his own index. In the originals the notations are to the left side of the journal, but McPherson added them as “N.B” at the end of a day’s entry. In these notes, Egmont often identified people whose letters, requests, or business came before the Common Council or the Trustees. Especially interesting are Egmont’s candid opinions, such as referring to colonist Robert Parker as the “Sauceyest fool and errant knave I have met with” (211).
Egmont’s journal also added facts and opinions about the issues and business before the Trust and the Common Council. While the minutes of these two bodies covered the same ground Egmont did, the focus of the journal was often different. Egmont gave details about decisions or discussions, especially on controversial matters, that were either not mentioned or were succinctly dealt with in the minutes. Two of the most controversial issues in these early years revolved around religion and gender. On several occasions the question of Jews settling in Georgia arose. On December 29, 1733, the council minutes listed one piece of business but made no mention of what Egmont noted in his journal: “The affair of the Jews debated, whose going Surreptitiously over offended every member present” (38). Among Trustees themselves in this early period, one of the most contentious issues to emerge was how to support the minister—glebe land or salary. The debate in February 1736 was so heated that Egmont believed resignations would result. He was right. When one Anglican priest did not preach for the Trustees’ anniversary service, Egmont wrote that the minister had the fact that they had not granted the Savannah minister glebe land “Stuck in his gizard” (246).
While the prohibition on using enslaved labor would become a major issue in later years, it only appeared briefly in the journal. But the issue of women’s inheritance of land was a recurring theme from the beginning. On several occasions Egmont noted potential settlers deciding not to colonize because of the requirement of Tail Male (male only) inheritance, from the forty Vaudois who knew the silk trade to a group of Swiss Grisons. Various Trustees made proposals over the years to change the official policy to allow for some inheritance by daughters, but none were accepted. While Egmont was in favor of some change, James Oglethorpe remained opposed throughout these years, and the majority deferred to him. Many of these attempts and the resulting discussions did not appear in official minutes, so Egmont is the sole source, and his explanations of the rationales on both sides are enlightening.
Another Egmont addition are the summaries at the end of each Trust year. His statistics give a helpful glimpse into the colony: the number of persons, helpfully divided into gender, sent on Trust charity, and the acreage granted to others who paid their own way. In 1735 he began adding financial income and disbursements to this annual report. Also included are the number of total meetings in a year, then a tally of the attendance of every member at meetings of the Trust and the Common Council. It is immediately revealing. From the beginning Egmont stands out as the most conscientious attendee, followed by James Vernon, whose attentiveness also ranks highly. Oglethorpe was a regular when he was in-country. As initial zeal among the Trustees waned, attendance became an increasing problem. Egmont regularly vented his frustration that the Council could not take any action because as he wrote on many dates, “We were not a board.” He saw his colleagues as being petty, as not living up to their responsibilities; his disbelief at their reasons for absences is often clear. In April 1736 he feared that it would be difficult to continue without a working council. He appealed to “consciences, honour, & humanity” for members “not to be careless in their duty of attendance” (149).
In the last two years of the journal, the fate of Georgia was intertwined with the larger geopolitics of relations between Great Britain and Spain. As the buffer colony, Georgia’s defense was crucial; both Egmont and Oglethorpe knew that Parliamentary assistance was a necessity. Egmont candidly wrote the inside story of Oglethorpe’s dealings with Robert Walpole, including one confrontation when Oglethorpe asked Walpole point-blank if the British planned to give up Georgia. If that was indeed the case, Oglethorpe said, he would instruct the Trust to write the inhabitants so that they could save themselves—he would not simply abandon “over 3000 souls . . . to be destroyed by the Spaniards” (296–97). At Oglethorpe’s request, Egmont sent a letter attesting to the necessity of support. This journal also demonstrates how the complicated internal politics of Britain at this time could have consequences on the enterprise—who supported whom could affect how Parliament voted on Georgia needs.
One theme that clearly comes through in the journal is the precariousness of the Georgia project, not just on the Georgia side, but across the Atlantic. The Trust dealt with many challenges—the yearly need for but uncertainty of Parliamentary support, the problem of garnering enthusiasm among members of the Common Council, threats of Spanish invasion, crop failures. On the front line was Egmont, who persevered in his role as a public servant. While he did not always agree with Oglethorpe, like Oglethorpe, he believed in the vision of the Georgia venture and he felt responsibility for those they sent across the Atlantic. He was the leader in England that Oglethorpe was in Georgia.
In February 1738 Egmont wrote that many on the Common Council were resolved to quit what they thought was “a falling house” (333). He scathingly noted that they were glad to be involved when things were going well and found it an honor to serve, but when the situation became difficult, “they meanly deserted their Office, and the Service of the Publick” (333). When resignations did come, he characterized those Trustees as “Seeds Sown on Stony ground” (334). But through all the successes and challenges of those early years, the Earl of Egmont persevered. In his last summary in this volume on June 7, 1738, the meetings for that year totaled fifty-four; Egmont had attended fifty. While James Oglethorpe rightly deserves the scholarly interest he has received for his role, John Viscount Percival, Earl of Egmont’s persistent work in the mother country also merits additional scrutiny from historians.
LEE ANN CALDWELL