How does one who has worked and, in a sense, lived with James Edward Oglethorpe for more than thirty years, do a foreword to such an ambitious, scholarly, and useful volume as this? Where is the proper starting place; where should it end? In fact, should there be a foreword at all? After mulling over these and allied problems I concluded the obvious: Oglethorpe speaks for himself today just as he did two centuries and more ago. So the best introduction to Oglethorpe is in his own words.
Still, there is a need for some kind of interpretation, particularly as the tricentennial of Oglethorpe’s birth looms and as the world faces only its second millennium since the birth of Christ. Not that Oglethorpe and Jesus had much in common, even though the former’s enemies or friends on two continents probably thought a comparison not completely inappropriate.
Other points indicating that a foreword might be useful relate to Oglethorpe’s personality and the way he handled himself. He was controversial, outspoken, driven; he always carried a message with him. Oglethorpe was certain of his own rectitude; he did not brook fools lightly. In most respects he was fearlessly outspoken, but Oglethorpe was certainly no martyr, unless his sacrifices for Georgia be put in that context. He was opinionated, obstinate, and probably not very easy to get along with, particularly as a young man. “Things” pretty much had to go his way, and it is part of the determined nature of Oglethorpe that they generally did. Except, once again, in Georgia-his province and, in a sense, his major disappointment. So in spite of my own inclinations, and in spite of the presence of Oglethorpe’s own words, a foreword of some sort seems at least marginally desirable. As we used to say half-mockingly in graduate school on the subject of one another’s research topics, “It needs to be done!”
From his youth this unusual man James Oglethorpe showed the signs of independence that never left him throughout his long life. It is possibly quite true that “Jamie,” as some of his family called him, was badly spoiled. As the last of a long series of children born to Eleanor Wall and Theophilus Oglethorpe, he was adored by his parents and by his siblings, particularly his sisters who lived to see their youngest brother reach maturity and prominence. An irony of this strong bond of affection—a bond powerfully returned by their brother—is that James’s three married sisters wed French husbands. And Oglethorpe detested France. Although he carefully distinguished between the French themselves—“a gay and agreeable people” — and French policy, he had contempt for those he termed “Frenchified” or for the “Bourbonite Pensioner.” These “leeches” on society were, though, English, a development Oglethorpe viewed as uniquely deplorable. So he consistently denounced French influence in English society, even blaming it for the deterioration of relations between England and her American colonies. In his opinion, French bribes in an unreformed, cynical Parliament were behind the passage of the disastrous Stamp Act of 1765, and kept William Pitt, a leader for whom Oglethorpe had abiding admiration, out of power at crucial times. In addition, the influence of France’s tactics exacerbated Whig-Tory strife in England, turned Scots and Irishmen against Britons, put “Churchman and Presbyterian” at odds, and even got “cyder and malt” counties on bad terms.
Oglethorpe must have been aware of the hyperbolic nature of some of his writings about France, and he was certainly conscious of the occasionally humorous picture his words created. The image conjured by his vivid word description of effete Frenchmen permeating English cities and countryside surely struck his readers as at least charmingly simplistic. The reality of “legions of friseurs and dancers amongst the women; and pimps, taylors, and cooks” agitating “the rich families,” all of which presumably spread continental corruption, creates a delicious Fieldingesque scene. His fear of French influence in America, however, was never handled lightly; France was England’s most dangerous foe and posed particular challenges to frontier outposts such as Oglethorpe’s own Georgia. Such a palpable danger was no laughing matter. His published works, official reports, and correspondence are studded with schemes, most of them imaginary, outlining vicious French plots to undermine Georgia’s—hence all of British America’s—security. Oglethorpe was, if such a term be permissible, a kind of professional Francophobe, a trait appropriately reflected in his writings. His heirs were French, as implied earlier, an irony of which the old general was well aware.
Oglethorpe’s incident with Arthur Onslow might today be ascribed to youthful indiscretion. He was, after all, a high-spirited lad in his mid-twenties when this affair occurred. Even so, it is hard to view the young Oglethorpe in this unhappy role as more than a rather brutish fellow with an egotistical bent. This latter tendency ultimately formed another pattern in Oglethorpe’s life. His personal vanity, observed at first hand by James Boswell as well as others, was legion. Rodney Baine has even caught Oglethorpe praising his own previously printed (but anonymous) work. There was, some might say, a touch of the academic reflected by such an exposé.
With maturity, the political rigidity, to which Oglethorpe fell heir from his mother and sisters, altered. James Oglethorpe evolved, particularly after assuming the seat in Parliament that his father and brothers had held before him, into an avowed independent. He became an intense and dedicated public servant whose interest in hard work and moderate reform within the framework of the existing system caught the attention even of the ruling political elite. This devotion to achievable aims and his determination to bring these goals to reality are best reflected in Oglethorpe’s various reports on English jails and in his stirring writings on the sorry plight of imprisoned debtors.
Oglethorpe’s obsession with such issues and his search for solutions to these sorts of social ills led logically to his advanced concept for the colony of Georgia. Although he was no utopian, Oglethorpe aimed at the improvement of English society, at least partly by the creation of a colony in British America where the forces that drove him might be documented through settlement, practice, and prosperity. Georgia was, then, his brain-child completely, as John Percival, the Earl of Egmont, readily confirmed. Oglethorpe looked upon his province in much the same way John Winthrop viewed Massachusetts Bay and William Penn saw Pennsylvania: as a sort of holy experiment where rational reforms, once safely in place and proven, might be transplanted to the mother country’s own soil. Oglethorpe’s Georgia was to be a sort of secular, rational, eighteenth-century Zion. It looked to him to be so good, so achievable, so commendable. His basic optimism on the beneficial role Georgia was to play in the national scheme of things is most cogently expressed in his published works contained in the body of the present volume.
Perhaps it would all have been possible, this earthly paradise where lawyers and black slavery and “spiritous liquors” were barred. But the person responsible for bringing the loose ends together—Oglethorpe himself—was incapable of the sort of intellectual resilience the New World demanded. His staunch independence in England, a stand most interested parties could accept at face value, also had a fixed side to it. “At home,” the rigidity remarked upon by some could, given the circumstances, be an asset. “In the plantations,” though, Oglethorpe’s approach more often than not took on a doctrinaire tone that even his best advisers could do little to modify. In a kind of late-medieval society, aspects of which still existed in eighteenth-century England, men knew their places; they recognized their betters and followed their lead. This was particularly true in rural counties such as Surrey, where Oglethorpe’s role as lord of the manor had more than simply ceremonial significance.
Once in the New World Oglethorpe found his position to be subtly altered. Recognized as the leader of the Georgia experiment, although lacking a specific title, he discovered to his chagrin that his position on a subject was no longer necessarily the definitive one. Even before the ship Anne sailed from Gravesend controversies had surfaced, and more appeared during the voyage to America. No few of the early settlers grumbled openly under his leadership; they were frankly worried about basic questions relating, for example, to female inheritance of land in Georgia. Slavery—to have it or not—was an immediate issue, just as the availability of rum or strong drink other than beer and wine. It would be stretching the situation unbearably to maintain the view often expressed by American historians that the Atlantic Ocean was the first liberating step for colonists as they left the Old World. Even so, Oglethorpe found himself, once in America, faced by a new environment in more than simply the physical sense. So did his settlers. The leader’s resourcefulness and his ability to compromise were immediately tested, just as surely as was his body on this wild riverbank in this bizarre, challenging New World.
Some like to think of Oglethorpe’s reforms, if thus they may be called, as harking back to the Middle Ages. But to view Oglethorpe’s efforts in this direction poses the danger of interpreting his opposition as more politically and intellectually “liberated” than Oglethorpe. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Historians too often tend to view events as black or white, and to fit developments into presentist molds to suit their own approaches to contemporary situations. Fortunately there is no easy way to “fix” Oglethorpe in the eighteenth century, much less in the twentieth. To paraphrase Charles A. Beard, each person must search the record — in this case Oglethorpe’s written corpus—and decide for himself. He was perceived by his contemporaries as intelligent, determined, and free from cant. To a typical twentieth-century eye such an interpretation may appear hopelessly naive. But Oglethorpe should, I think, be looked at within his own frame of reference, not ours, and his record upon examination is a good one.
Politically, Oglethorpe went far beyond the stand taken by his energetic and foolish mother and sisters. His position is probably best reflected by his early break with the Stuarts and the “fringeites” who agitated for the overthrow of the Hanoverians and a return to High Toryism. And yet he shared much in common with those dissatisfied by a system that produced a George I and, most particularly, a Robert Walpole. The Jacobites yearned for a more centralized—perhaps even despotic—church and monarchy, and for a time when such families as the Oglethorpes had been in favor. “Jamie” Oglethorpe could never quite shake the feeling that these simpler times had been somehow more honest and that civic virtue was more often rewarded then than during the rule of “the Father of Corruption,” as he described Walpole, who “slept over the Helm of State.” In his last years Oglethorpe even reminisced to James Boswell on the many virtues of late-Stuart England.
This inclination to reflect on the period before the Glorious Revolution in an objective yet faintly romantic fashion caused Oglethorpe to be viewed with suspicion throughout his career. In fact it helped bring him a courts-martial after he bungled an assignment during the fateful invasion of England by Prince Charles Edward in 1745–46. The Duke of Cumberland, George II’s son, considered Oglethorpe a secret Stuart supporter. Cumberland saw to it that Oglethorpe never actively commanded English troops again, even though the charges against him were dismissed as groundless.
It is this curious admixture of concept and behavior that is part of the Oglethorpe enigma. In his writings he spoke for the downtrodden, for those with little or no voice in society. His sympathies lay with the farmers and agricultural workers, displaced by enclosures and demographic changes none then understood; for common sailors, whose grievances were legion but who had no constituency; for imprisoned debtors, whose position in eighteenth-century British society seemed hopeless. Oglethorpe also claimed to speak for a broad cross-section of the English middle class—for merchants, shopkeepers, landowners, and the like, who bore the brunt of the nation’s war effort. Although he was born into a secure position in society, based on a solid relationship to the land and to the then-ruling house of Stuart, Oglethorpe disliked favoritism and the sort of special treatment given, for example, to influential prisoners who enjoyed wide freedoms and creature comforts not unlike some of the semipalatial minimum security prisons, complete with golf courses, that we hear of today. Oglethorpe was, in some respects, a creature of the society he critiqued, and yet this too says something about the powers of observation that permitted him to sense the failings in a system from which he himself sprang.
In this regard Oglethorpe was not unlike America’s Thomas Jefferson. Was Oglethorpe, then, inconsistent? If so, Jefferson was as well. My reaction on this question is that Oglethorpe would have agreed wholeheartedly with his friend Samuel Johnson’s definition that consistency was a characteristic most often found lodged comfortably in small, smug minds.
The Jefferson reference leads me to another observation. Both men were strongly pro–laissez faire in their approaches, although Oglethorpe’s ideas in this regard precede Adam Smith’s famous publication of 1776. Oglethorpe knew that it was the yeoman farmer who jelled English society and gave it the strength and resilience it possessed. The prosperity of the lower class was immediately mirrored in the influence and impact that the English upper class possessed. It was a kind of “trickle up” economic system as Oglethorpe viewed it and it worked for all concerned when not tampered with. This was particularly clear in the area of international trade and in English commerce generally. It was sound British mercantile practice that made Britain great.
Just as with Jefferson, Oglethorpe deplored changes in the simpler system, particularly the evolution of industrialism and the desertion of the countryside. He warned that such a serious movement meant lowering the status of the urban laborer to the subsistence level materially, and to the emotional and spiritual point of personal despair. His interest, just as Jefferson’s, appears genuinely to have been for that elusive “common man,” whom Oglethorpe consciously set out to help by reshaping certain fixtures of English society and by founding Georgia. Jefferson tried to achieve the same goal by simplifying and economizing government and by orienting it toward the elements he perceived to be the productive ones in American society. In Oglethorpe’s “perfect” colony all would be ruled by an agrarian law he best articulated in Select Tracts. There would be no manufacturing in Georgia, hence no industrial class to be downtrodden. Georgians would raise “Silk, Wine, and Oil”; trade and commerce would come from these products. Georgia’s productivity would benefit the mercantile system and the average citizen; her people would bask in the reflected glory of Oglethorpe’s province. Thomas Jefferson could hardly have said it better.
Georgians most certainly disliked the liquor prohibition, particularly those nascent Indian traders who saw in rum an invaluable exchange commodity. No few of the natives resented it too, particularly those called by the eminent historical anthropologist Charles Hudson “the trading Indians.” Their influence was founded in some part upon the trade in “kill devil” and their relations with the white man. To Oglethorpe, who tended to deal at times in oversimplifications, it was obvious that the English traders had debauched the natives by the use of rum, for “they are miserable sights” when under its baleful influence. Still he thought it “a vulgar Error” to assume that all natives were “addicted to this Vice.” Many were strong of limb, admirable in their honesty and integrity, and excellent associates. Obviously, however, Oglethorpe was not above using the native Americans against Britain’s enemies; but what other position could he realistically assume, located, as Oglethorpe and Georgia were, on a troubled international frontier where there was a larger concentration of indigenous peoples than in any other single area of North America?
In his writings Oglethorpe could be extremely graphic when he set out to be. His hard-hitting report on the Stono River uprising of 1739 is, in my opinion, the best surviving account of that incident. His views on the suppression of this rebellion are fairly shocking to the twentieth century, just as they were—intentionally—to the eighteenth century. He wrote plainly, eloquently, and with a double-barreled purpose: to speak out in no uncertain terms on slavery itself, and to outline vividly what terrifying dangers were inherent in a province where slavery was permitted. After all, the Stono Rebellion has been recently described in appropriately lurid terms as “the most violent slave uprising in the entire history of the mainland colonies before the coming of the nineteenth century,” in Katz, Murrin, and Greenberg’s Colonial America: Essays in Politics and Social Development, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993). Those who observed the rebellion and its effects, such as Oglethorpe, were profoundly moved by the experience. Slavery, once planted, tended, like kudzu, to dominate the area where it was permitted. The mind as well as the pocketbook of the slaveholder became hypnotized by the institution, but as the number of slaveholders increased—as was occurring rapidly in South Carolina — fear of insurrection ballooned. Life was hard, Oglethorpe wrote, on the Southern Frontier, but neither Carolina nor Georgia would act leniently when faced by slave revolt; such a weakness would simply play into the hands of England’s enemies, especially Spain, who took a role in the Stono affair. Spain’s part in the rebellion was actually wildly exaggerated by the Carolinians, who lived in fear of a joint native-slave insurrection backed by either France or Spain or—unspeakably—both. Time and effort, Oglethorpe seemed to say, might best be concentrated elsewhere. He did not have to exaggerate, though, when he wrote in a rather offhand way that no Stono slaves were tortured once caught but were “only put . . . to an easy death.” Many were pardoned, he said, and cited this “Humanity” as playing a major role in putting down the rebellion. There is no reason whatever to suspect that Oglethorpe was being facetious in these remarks. A leniency of spirit, he went on, had sapped “the very Spirit of Revolt,” but who knew what the dastardly Spaniard might do next? Or the slaves?
It is fairly well documented in his writings that Oglethorpe had a certain way with words. He does not compare to many of his contemporaries and friends, such as Johnson, Boswell, and Goldsmith, but then who does? Oglethorpe’s writing style is not always what I might call “elevated,” but only rarely if ever did he address a subject that called up elegance of style. Debtors, sailors, imperial trade, Gallic intrigues, slave uprisings, Carolina provincials satiric attacks upon his person, political jottings—none of these excited whichever of the muses encouraged finely honed phrases and thrilling syntax. But Oglethorpe could, at rare times, be earthy and altogether surprising. His story about the “Clap and Pox,” which refers to an internal English political situation, is daring and focuses attention through its grim but humorous allusion. It reminds me of the rather wicked (and human) remark in one of his official letters to the government during the War of Jenkins’s Ear, that although his troops lacked ammunition and proper support, at least they had the balls to meet an onslought as it should be met.
Oglethorpe could also coin a phrase. It is rather surprising that none of his best quotations has been picked up as a monograph title. On the settlement of Georgia, “the Asilum of the Unfortunate” would seem to hold all kinds of possibilities for an author with a strong message to impart. My own favorite phrase, though, is “By a lucky Kind of Poverty,” which, continued to its logical ending, maintains that the British overseas plantations had been fortunate in never discovering the fabulous riches claimed by the Spanish. Spain’s dependence upon American treasure held back the development of trade in her empire, held down the status of the common laborer and yeoman farmer, and fixed the mother country in a continuous search for what had really proven to be fool’s gold and not the real thing. Without the gold and silver, England developed her trade, her farms, her middle-class merchants, her Indian traders, and her staple crops, all of which redounded to the benefit of the mother country. Spain’s and France’s empires shriveled by comparison. He had a point.
Oglethorpe could be perfectly blunt in discussing such a matter as economics. “Profit and Gain,” as he viewed it, was “the meanest Motive” on which to found a colony. His calling out for “prudent Beneficence” was intended to touch uneasy consciences, possibly even his own. This simple phrase, in fact, might best describe Oglethorpe’s public career as reflected in his writings. Oglethorpe, classical scholar, could write with tongue-in-cheek in his witty, if not very subtle, line on the subject of the government of South Carolina: “All Carolina is divided into three Parts.” A sharp sense of humor, though, was never one of his defining features. This, taken with his inability to accept constructive criticism and his well-developed ego led him into problems at home and in America that could have been avoided. His judgment in making appointments was often faulty, and his abhorrence of the dull particulars of finance are well known and need no discussion here. In my estimation, however, the sympathetic prose he devoted to the plight of those imprisoned for debt more than makes up for deficiencies of personality and wit in other areas.
Oglethorpe’s notion of prohibiting female inheritance of Georgia’s land sprung from no misogynist’s mind. Rather it reflected his concern that Georgia’s frontier women, unaccustomed to the use of firearms and defensive military measures, might be easy prey for Britain’s enemies. He also feared that unscrupulous elements of society would take advantage of widowed property owners and, in one fashion or another, end up with title to their land. The end result, he feared, might be concentration of land in but a few hands. Such intensive elements, with economic interests that ran beyond the production of silk and oils, would agitate for slavery and, given the tenor of the British House of Commons, might succeed in having this regulation, one of Trustee Georgia’s only three laws, revoked. The agrarian economy would be undermined, the purified agrarian law (which was to dominate the province) would be but a faint memory. Trading interests and manufacturing elements would assume control of the colony. Again the similarities, especially in the theoretical field, between Oglethorpe and Jefferson are worth making.
It was not just the slaves who were recipients of Oglethorpe’s pity and sympathy, but the native Georgians as well. From his first day in the colony Oglethorpe had felt a rapport with the Indians, and they with him. His triumphant return to England, with a delegation of natives in tow (could Oglethorpe have been thinking of Christopher Columbus or of Raleigh?) proved a brilliant public relations success. The London newspapers, who could sense a good story, covered almost every move the native “Americans” made. Interviews with the royal family and the Archbishop of Canterbury would naturally be given full attention, but the natives could hardly draw a private breath without having it reported in the journals and magazines of the day. The most dramatic incident during the visit came with the death from smallpox of one of Tomochichi’s warriors. Oglethorpe provided the native entourage with sufficient time for mourning at his own country house in Godalming, following the warrior’s burial in the church yard of St. John the Evangelist.
Although he angled for peaceful relations for Georgia through his hospitality, and although he rather shamelessly kowtowed to the Yamacraws in order to give them status among larger tribes, it is clear that his affection for the native people was genuine. His romanticized picture of Tomochichi, the man of natural integrity and honesty, surely influenced later writers, such as Philip Freneau, who were in part responsible for the emergence in literature—and history too—of the myth of the natural man, the Noble Savage. There is no legitimate reason to doubt Oglethorpe’s sincere affection for these people, an affection that extended to the Creeks, Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and other tribes. His working relationship with Mary Musgrove, the invaluable “half-breed” who acted as Georgia’s spokeswoman among her mother’s Creek family, was always conducted on an equal basis. Nor should Oglethorpe’s sorrow, openly expressed at the impressive funeral given Tomochichi in 1739, be questioned. These two men “got along” well and spoke easily and confidentially to one another. Oglethorpe’s grief at his old ally’s death was sincere. It may be worth noting that it was only after Oglethorpe left Georgia in 1743 that relations between the colony and the backcountry Creeks began to fall apart.
The admiration Oglethorpe had for native Americans he found in Georgia is nicely reflected in his writings. His descriptions in New and Accurate Account were verified by firsthand experience. He admired especially the absence of guile, and their charming use of metaphor and simile—traits Oglethorpe stressed in his own writings, but not always with the effect he intended. As a garrulous, opinionated Britisher, Oglethorpe enjoyed hearing his own voice on a subject, and was accustomed to the experience. It appears that he treasured his stays among the natives, particularly his important visit to the backcountry in 1739, when he succeeded in underscoring England’s urgent desire for alliance and peace with the Creeks. How much better it must have seemed to him to smoke the peace pipe and drink the black drink with the Creeks than face down the raucous and déclassé Georgia malcontents or the arrogant, rude Carolinians.
Oglethorpe thought it was preferable, I suspect, to parlay with the natives than engage in the cat-and-mouse political game he sometimes found himself playing with William Stephens, secretary for the trustees in Georgia. In fact, as the years went by Stephens, through his capacity as secretary, assumed the role of competitor with Oglethorpe for the good will of the Georgia board. Although the two men remained roughly civil to one another, at least as far as the official record goes, there could only have been powerful tensions between them. Stephens was Oglethorpe’s senior by a full generation, but the two had careers that overlapped in the Parliament of the 1720s. The men must have known one another, for England was a tight little island in those days, especially socially and politically, but there is no sign of recognition between the men in their correspondence, or in Stephens’s exhaustive Journal and letters sent to London from Yamacraw Bluff.
One plank in the Georgia Trustees’ platform for Georgia affected the natives directly and mirrors, in part, Oglethorpe’s paternalism toward them as well as toward the English settlers. Before coming to America he had been advised by those who knew the situation—including several highly considered natives themselves—that it would be wise to prohibit the use of rum or strong liquors in the Indian trade. Those were the staples used by the Carolinians and Virginians to close a deal to the traders’ benefit. The traders knew no shame, Oglethorpe heard, and often plied the natives with rum until the latter were drunk and unable to bargain rationally. Oglethorpe himself disliked strong liquor and extended the ban on hard drink, formalized by an act of the trustees in 1735, to include his colonists as well as “the Georgia Indians.” His idealism was, then, to be spread all round; the colony as a rather mildly structured biblical state began to form. The huzzas from England echoed and re-echoed. He was to be the vessel by which achievable British reform of the 1720s and 1730s was to be realized.
Oglethorpe’s image for Georgia was to see a colony of closely knit farmers, traders, and artisans living within reasonable proximity of one another. As a result of limiting the size of land grants to fifty acres for the average male landholder, he aimed to create a self-sufficient society where each property holder raised the necessities of life for himself. In times of crisis these close neighbors could gather quickly and effectively to fend off attackers—an impossibility in rural South Carolina owing to the huge landholdings, many of them uninhabited except for roving bands of natives. These virtual empires were held by important provincials as well as Briton for speculative purposes only and were detrimental to the security and defense of the colony. In Georgia, the modest white farmer would not have to compete with a plantation economy and a system of slave labor. Speculators, a major scourge of the Southern Frontier in Oglethorpe’s eyes, would have to search elsewhere to satisfy their insatiable desire for money and power; Oglethorpe’s colony would not be turned into just another Carolina.
His opposition to slavery and large land grants uncovered for Oglethorpe few admirers in America, and even fewer at home. Oglethorpe found that he was having particularly to defend the slave prohibition over and over again, even within the trustee ranks, and before the House of Commons. As his determination grew that Georgia would not bow to special interests, so did his opponents’, who sent Thomas Stephens, son of William, as their agent in London. Pamphlets, booklets, and general rhetoric on the subject of Georgia and how it was to develop filled the air. Once again this avowedly “different” colony to the south of Carolina became a “hot” news item in the 1740s that could not be ignored.
As for his adamant stand on the question of slavery, it was pointed out with telling effect that Oglethorpe was listed in London’s Historical Register for 1731–1732 as a deputy governor of the influential slave holding firm known as the Royal African Company. Oglethorpe, though, had not taken an active role in the affairs of this organization and found it reasonably easy to fend off attacks from that direction. But it also was bruited about that in spite of what his official position on large landholding might be, it was indisputable that Oglethorpe himself leased significant acreage in South Carolina where slave labor was utilized, or so wrote William Stephens. Still, Betty Wood’s balanced and carefully considered assessment that Oglethorpe was sincere in his antislavery stance and was, in fact, far ahead of his time, should be looked upon as an accurate interpretation of this difficult man.
At the very least, the charge against Oglethorpe made by William Stephens did nothing to cement a friendship that apparently did not exist robustly in any case. Stephens’s contention weakened Oglethorpe’s position along the high road of moral rectitude and tended to lessen his authority in Georgia. Moreover, Stephens reported that Oglethorpe had tried to get South Carolina to establish a ferry from his property across the Savannah, a river “equal to the Rhine,” he said. (His financial interest on one bank of this noble stream probably made him view the river in a more romantic light than he might otherwise have done.) Rhine or no Rhine, the South Carolina Assembly demurred; Oglethorpe’s scheme came to nothing. The publication of these startling bits of news may have been the immediate cause of the friction between Stephens and Oglethorpe, and might well be viewed as retribution for a slight Oglethorpe directed toward Stephens’s son, Thomas. William Stephens disliked subterfuge and deception, and his discovery that Oglethorpe was capable of speaking out of both sides of his ample mouth may have led the older man to develop an urge to puncture at least one segment of the “palladin of philanthropy” image that Oglethorpe nourished about his person.
One of the most valuable aspects in the present collection of Oglethorpe’s published writings is that it reflects a sharp image of what English society was like during this period. And Oglethorpe, of course, is juxtaposed against this historical scrim. His writings underscore some of both the weaknesses and strengths of eighteenth-century England and, for this reason, have a virtue in themselves. But they do more than just that, obviously. They reflect one influential man’s desire to improve society while being keenly aware, at the same time, that what England already had was the best the civilized world offered in the areas of politics, social virtue, and opportunity. And it was never Oglethorpe’s notion to change the status quo radically.
Obviously, Oglethorpe did not work alone for these ends. Oglethorpe’s England, and this phrase embraced virtually the entire century, groped for reform of a system that would not at the same time destroy its strengths and undeniable assets—that would not throw out the baby with the bath. At first his efforts, and England’s, were sporadic and sluggish, but by the time the French Revolution came such attempts assumed a sense of understandable urgency for the reformers. Oglethorpe’s active and most productive years preceded the “revolutionary generation,” but he continued to embrace various efforts to make the system a more manageable one. Even as an octogenerian, when most such citizens of the land denounced change as they shakily lifted their Madeira glasses in London’s public houses, Oglethorpe kept in mind a more equitable England by supporting William Pitt, by continuing to express sympathy for America and Americans, and through his involvement with prison reform. He also added his voice to the movements that aimed to topple slavery from its imperial pinnacle. Oglethorpe backed Georgia’s move in the American Revolution, but he thought that the push for complete independence was premature. His denunciation of English administrative and political mismanagement continued until his dying day, although he was out of any spheres of influence and was seen by most contemporary politicians as an ancient carryover from an earlier age.
As is apparent in his writings, it is certain that Oglethorpe was no radical; the reforms he pushed were moderate and rational. He was, after all, a man of the Enlightenment—well read, outspoken, fair-minded, self-conscious, opinionated, a trifle stuffy perhaps, but on the whole not an unattractive figure. If he lacked the humor and wit of some of his sharper contemporaries, such as Fielding, Swift, Addison, Sheridan, or Goldsmith, at least he had a quickness and unmistakable style. He loved give-and-take, whether it be with young or old, and he was afraid of nothing. This slightly crotchety old gentleman in 1785 had the same feeling of relevancy to England that he had fifty years earlier.
At the very end of his life Oglethorpe had a courtesy visit from John Adams, first ambassador of the United States to the Court of St. James. Even Adams was struck by the vivacity, the youth, and the spirit that the founder of one of the original thirteen states personified. Their meeting was cordial, brief, noncommittal. Oglethorpe returned Adams’s call, and not long after, the old Georgian was dead. If only the caller, instead of the staid, reserved New Englander, had been Thomas Jefferson! But historians must not deal in “if” history. They must be satisfied with the record as it is. And Oglethorpe’s, I submit to the impartial reader, is a good one.