James Edward Oglethorpe directed the group of founders of the thirteenth British colony in North America in 1733. He would return to England for the final time ten years later and live another half century as a minor political figure and friend to such famous men as James Boswell and Samuel Johnson. Oglethorpe has been described as a liberal and an idealist, a man responsible for the only colony that was to be prohibitionist, abolitionist, and egalitarian. But he, like all historic figures, is much more complicated than a simple listing of traits reveals.
This new foreword to The Publications of James Edward Oglethorpe comes more than a quarter century after the original publication. There has been a dearth of writing on the Georgia founder since the glut of scholarship in the late 1980s and early 1990s coinciding with the 1983 semiquincentennial of Georgia. With the exception of Thomas D. Wilson’s The Oglethorpe Plan: Enlightenment Design in Savannah and Beyond (2012), which focuses mostly on Georgia’s colonial capital but also discusses Oglethorpe in depth, and a handful of articles in the Georgia Historical Quarterly on specific aspects of Oglethorpe’s life and legacy, this volume, republished in a more accessible and e-book format, will hopefully lead to a renewed interest in the unique (and final) British colony and its enigmatic founder.
Edited by Rodney M. Baine, longtime University of Georgia professor, the present volume is the only collection of Oglethorpe’s published writings, with the exception of a few widely available Georgia propagandic pamphlets. The Publications of James Edward Oglethorpe was most likely a preview of Baine’s planned (but never realized) The Papers and Speeches of James Edward Oglethorpe, almost three thousand pages of which are in his Hargrett Rare Books and Manuscript Library archival collection at the University of Georgia. Containing more than twenty complete works from Oglethorpe’s verified print record, ranging in time from Oglethorpe’s early life as a young man (1714) to just three years before his death (1782), this volume offers a chronological snapshot of the Georgia founder’s philosophies, influences, and leanings. Baine even tempts the reader that other treasures of anonymous or lost articles or letters penned by Oglethorpe await discovery. (In fact, in the current age of digitization of archival material and periodicals, time might be ripe for a new historical investigation!)
So how does the current reader, with a twenty-first-century lens, assess an eighteenth-century nobleman? Is it ever possible to evaluate a historic figure without either forgiving based on contemporariness or convicting based on modernity? As Phinizy Spalding, imminent Oglethorpe scholar and longtime historian at the University of Georgia, wrote at the beginning of his original foreword, “The best introduction to Oglethorpe is in his own words.” But before a person’s own words can be evaluated, one must understand the life and world of the character.
The last of ten children born to Lady Eleanor Wall and Sir Theophilus Oglethorpe, James was christened on December 22, 1696. He attended Eton and then entered Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in 1714. James temporarily left Corpus Christi to serve under Prince Eugene of Savoy in Austria against the Turks. In 1722, Oglethorpe was elected to Parliament from the same district previously represented by his father and two older brothers. There, he would begin to develop his own principles outside the influence of his politically active family. He would serve in the House of Commons until 1754.
In 1728, Oglethorpe lost his friend Robert Castell to smallpox contracted while Castell was jailed in London’s Fleet Prison for unpaid debts. A year after Castell’s death, Oglethorpe formed a Parliamentary committee to investigate debtor prisons in England and recommend reforms. The spotlight encouraged less corruption between the prison system and the judiciary, and overall conditions improved. The improvements, in turn, gained Oglethorpe national fame, and he used his newfound platform to garner support for the establishment of a colony in British North America to offer financial and social equality for those who could achieve neither in England.
In 1732, George II granted a charter for the colony of Georgia, partially inspired by Oglethorpe’s idealistic plan but also to create a buffer between Spanish Florida and the rest of colonial Great Britain. On February 12, 1733, Oglethorpe led the settlers to Yamacraw Bluff, the future site of the colony’s capital city of Savannah. He had explored the area with Yamacraw chief Tomochichi, the local Native American leader with whom Oglethorpe would form a lifelong relationship. The most exactingly planned of new colonial cities, Savannah was to embody Oglethorpe’s egalitarian vision with its predetermined plot sizes, identical homes, and individuals working their own land. The charter guaranteed religious freedom for all non-Catholics (“papists” were excluded to guard against Spanish interference), and Oglethorpe would even fight for the acceptance of Jewish settlers in Georgia. Slavery was banned, though the colonial government would soon legislate that runaway slaves from other colonies be returned to their owners if found in Georgia.
Military threats from the Spanish began to take up more and more of Oglethorpe’s time. He earned military fame during the War of Jenkins’ Ear with his victory at the Battle of Bloody Marsh in July 1742 proving fatal to Spanish plans to capture Georgia, and George II promoted Oglethorpe to the rank of brigadier general. The next year, Oglethorpe would attempt one last time to expand British influence into Florida by attacking St. Augustine. The unsuccessful invasion led a disgruntled soldier to accuse Oglethorpe of misconduct, and Oglethorpe was summoned back to London to answer the court-martial. In 1744, he was cleared of all charges.
Now permanently back in England, Oglethorpe married Lady Elizabeth Wright, baroness and heir to a considerable annuity. Being the youngest child, Oglethorpe would need the financial security of his wife to live out his life as a retired general and member of the gentry. He and Lady Elizabeth would spend much time in London, where they became active among the intelligentsia.
In 1745, Oglethorpe again served England militarily by attempting to put down an invasion by the supporters of Charles Edward Stuart, the “Younger Pretender.” His campaign strategy led to another court-martial, but he was again acquitted. There was concern that Oglethorpe intentionally slowed his arrival due to influence from his Jacobite sisters, known supporters of Bonnie Prince Charles. Oglethorpe was later asked to return to British North America to fight his former colonists, but he refused, favoring Edmund Burke’s push for conciliation between Britain and its colony. In 1785, Oglethorpe met John Adams, America’s first ambassador to Britain, in London. That same year, six months shy of his eighty-ninth birthday, Oglethorpe died after a brief illness. Lady Elizabeth died two years later.
With an understanding of the life and experiences of the man, how should the reader evaluate Oglethorpe based on his published words? Ideally, a figure’s own writings shed light on the person’s character and motivations. To simply read selected writings, however, even with historical background, does not allow us the permission to evaluate solely with the lens of our own time and experiences. Baine offered context but, of course, made decisions on what writings to include and what to leave out. The Sisyphean task of the historian is to remove as much bias as possible and evaluate the character through the lens of objectivity. Of course, no historical figure can be completely represented. No minds may be read for motives. No time travelers can bring a people into the present and quiz them on their reaction to circumstances or occurrences.
In his waning years, Oglethorpe himself would inflate his earlier liberality. He would recall that his abolitionist vision for Georgia stemmed from an acceptance of the equality of all men. He would forget that laws were passed in the colony to ensure the return of runaway slaves to South Carolina. He would forget that enslaved Africans were used to clear the site of Savannah. He had briefly served as a governor of the slave-trading Royal African Company but also was instrumental in the emancipation of Job ben Solomon, a prince who had been kidnapped into slavery. Oglethorpe wrote sympathetically of the Native Americans (though in a paternalistic and patronizing way) but unsympathetically of the Stono Slave Rebellion. He wrote of great respect for his friend Yamacraw chief Tomochichi but equated English Jews with traitors who placed love of money above love of country. Oglethorpe would offer religious freedom in Georgia to Jews and Lutherans but not Catholics—even though his mother was raised Catholic and his sisters practiced Catholicism in France.
But maybe it is a human trait to remember with more optimism than reality. Based on the political tone of the writings here as they move chronologically, Oglethorpe did appear to become more progressive in his later years. His progressiveness was, of course, built on the foundation of his family’s political activity and his own penal reformation and liberal colonial intentions. In letters to the editor, he supported the protection of the Commons to guarantee that the regular man would be able to have the financial stability to ensure the success of his family, even blaming the rich and their capitalistic motives for the eventual extinction of the shared space.
Since this collection was originally published a quarter century ago, readers of history have become much less likely to lionize historical figures while ignoring the more complicated parts of their life, behavior, or legacy. As students of history know, all people are real, three-dimensional characters living in a time and place, responding to events around them as best as they can. History does not change, of course, but our understanding of it can evolve as more voices are able to join the discussion. This is not an erasing of history but rather a widening of historical remembrance and study. James Edward Oglethorpe, based on the writings included here, is worthy of continued assessment, and this reprinted volume will, hopefully, bring more voices into the conversation.