James Edward Oglethorpe (1696-1785), an English soldier, member of Parliament, and humanitarian, was the founder of the colony of Georgia in America.
James Oglethorpe was born in London on Dec. 22, 1696, the third and surviving son of Sir Theophilus and Lady Eleanor Wall Oglethorpe. The family influences which he reflected included sympathy for the claims of the English Stuarts, interest in the military, and a strong personal character inclined to moral causes. He was educated at Eton and attended Oxford before accepting commissions in the British army and on the Continent. Oglethorpe inherited the family estate of Westbrook and settled down in 1719 to the career of a country gentleman.
In keeping with family tradition, Oglethorpe was elected to Parliament in 1722; he served for 32 years, despite continued opposition. He became known as a Tory member, opposed to the administration of Robert Walpole, and advocate of an aggressive British posture in the world. More noteworthy were Oglethorpe's humanitarian interests. His initial activities on behalf of penal reform were spurred on by the death of a friend who had been imprisoned for debt. Oglethorpe's attacks on debtors' prisons led to the establishment of a parliamentary committee under his chairmanship in 1729. Subsequent investigations exposed the brutality of penal conditions and questioned the wisdom of imprisonment for debt. His humanitarian impulses were carried further in an antipathy to black slavery, attacks on the practice of impressment, and campaigns against drinking.
A continuing theme of the period of colonization was the idea that the new continents might afford a remedy for the ills of Europe. Oglethorpe and others, demanding reform, proposed to establish a colony which might provide a place for the rehabilitation of people imprisoned for debt. For this purpose Oglethorpe and 19 associates received a royal charter in 1732 to found a colony between Spanish Florida and South Carolina; the trustees were to govern Georgia for 21 years, after which the province would revert to royal control. The King accepted the philanthropic aims of Georgia in granting the charter, but he also made clear that the colony was supposed to increase the commerce of Britain and serve as a buffer state for the protection of the southern frontier. The genesis of Georgia arose from this threefold set of motives—philanthropic, commercial, and military.
The trusteeship eventually collapsed, basically because of the incompatibility of the colony's purposes. The size of grants was severely limited, land could not be sold freely, nor could estates be inherited by women. These policies, meant to enhance military security and ensure success, were self-defeating. For example, though immigration was to be encouraged, restraints on the size of estates and on the right of inheritance repelled new settlers. Of major importance also was the threat of war with Spain. Much of Oglethorpe's life in the colony over a 10-year span was devoted to this problem. In time, the military side of the colonial experiment predominated over everything else.
Given the conflicts that characterized the trusteeship, Oglethorpe's contributions have not always been recognized. Apart from his role in inspiring the colony, his fame in Parliament and military reputation secured the massive public and private funds needed for Georgia's beginnings. Oglethorpe's military leadership was crucial during the periods of war with Spain, although he was unsuccessful in two attempts to conquer St. Augustine in 1740 and 1743.
When Oglethorpe returned to London in 1743, his days of active colonial leadership were coming to an end. Already the trustees were complaining about the cost of defending Georgia, and bitter charges were circulating in England regarding abuses by Oglethorpe and his appointees. Faced with growing discontent among the colonists and insurmountable economic problems, the trustees surrendered their charter to the Crown a year before its expiration in 1752. By this time Oglethorpe had lost much of his authority and had ceased to play a leading part in the life of the colony.
Shortly after his return to London, Oglethorpe married Elizabeth Wright, a wealthy heiress. Called to arms during the uprising led by the Stuart pretender in 1745, Oglethorpe was later charged with misconduct in the campaign. Although he was cleared and promoted to lieutenant general, his active military career was over. Finally, he lost his seat in Parliament in 1754. His last years were spent in relative obscurity, though he maintained a friendship with Samuel Johnson and others of Johnson's literary circle. Oglethorpe died on June 30, 1785.
Biographies of Oglethorpe are not entirely satisfactory in delineating his character or the complex history of Georgia's beginnings. The best accounts are Leslie F. Church, Oglethorpe: A Study in Philanthropy in England and Georgia (1932), and Amos A. Ettinger, James Edward Oglethorpe: Imperial Idealist (1936). A recent brief analysis is Trevor Reese, Colonial Georgia: A Study in British Imperial Policy in the Eighteenth Century (1963). Indispensable for the background to Georgia's settlement is Verner W. Crane, The Southern Frontier, 1670-1732 (1928). Of special value for the general history of the Colonies in the 18th century is Lawrence H. Gipson's five-volume The British Empire before the American Revolution, especially vol. 2: The Southern Plantations (1936; rev. ed. 1960). Useful for the English background is Basil Williams, The Whig Supremacy, 1714-1760 (1939; 2d ed. rev. 1962).
Ettinger, Amos Aschbach, Oglethorpe, a brief biography, Macon, Ga.: Mercer, 1984.
Garrison, Webb B., Oglethorpe's folly: the birth of Georgia, Lakemont, GA.: Copple House Books, 1982.
Oglethorpe in perspective: Georgia's founder after two hundred years, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989.
Spalding, Phinizy., James Edward Oglethorpe: a new look at Georgia's founder, Athens, Ga.: Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, 1988.
Spalding, Phinizy., Oglethorpe in America, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984, 1977.