VICTIMS OF PHILANTHROPY: The Settlers of Georgia

“It is a melancholy thing to see how zeal for a good thing abates when the novelty is over, and when there is no pecuniary reward attending the service.”


SOMETHING about the fabled lushness and tropical wealth of Georgia inspired both extravagance and rigidity in the plans of those who wished to develop it. The supposed prodigality of the land seduced men to believe that they could cut the colony to their own pattern. These early planners combined a haziness about the facts of life in Georgia with a precision in their schemes for that life. What cosmopolitanism and self-purity did to Pennsylvania, paternalism and philanthropy did to Georgia. How and why Georgia became the victim of its benefactors, and what that story tells us of the character of American life, is the subject of the following chapters.


The Altruism of an Unheroic Age

THE VIRTUES, like the vices, of any age bear its peculiar flavor. The swashbuckling grandeur of the projects of Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake expressed the aspirations and daring of Elizabethan England. The clarity, simplicity, and doggedness of the purposes of William Bradford and John Winthrop were that special combination of grand end and commonplace means which characterized the England of Oliver Cromwell. Similarly the altruism of the founders of the Georgia colony in 1732 was a touchstone of the limited aspiration of the England of that day.

In England, the middle decades of the 18th century were distinctly unheroic. It was an age more concerned about living within its spiritual and intellectual means than with seeking unfamiliar horizons. Its aesthetic ideals were sobriety and good sense; never were people more content that their reach should not exceed their grasp. They were as thoroughly reconciled to the narrow limits of life as was Alexander Pope to the confinement of the heroic couplet. It was an age which chose David Hume for its arbiter of Truth, Dr. Samuel Johnson for its arbiter of Beauty, and Pamelaand Tom Jones for its epics. There was probably never an age with more limited possibilities nor one which so thoroughly exploited them. There has probably never been an age with a more narrow imagination, nor one which used its imagination more robustly.

In English domestic politics, the second quarter of the century was corrupt and pettifogging. If Sir Robert Walpole was effective as England’s “first Prime Minister” it was as much because of his readiness to persuade with pensions, peerages, and ecclesiastical sinecures, as because of his other political talents. The prevalent cynicism was expressed in the facetious rumor on the death of the Queen in 1737 that there had been prepared a third place in the royal burial vault—“designed by his Majesty for Sir Robert Walpole; so that when both the latter die there will lie together, King, Queen and Knave.” The machinery of parliamentary politics worked by corrupt bargains, patronage, and influence.

The philanthropy of the age was directed toward the removal of poverty, especially those forms of poverty and of vice which were an eyesore to a gentleman walking the streets of London or which added to the cost, danger, and stench of life in the great city. One of the largest English philanthropic enterprises was the so-called Charitable Corporation, incorporated in 1707 with a capital of £30,000, which it increased to £600,000 through small loans to the poor and to small tradesmen. In 1731 it was discovered that the cashier and storekeeper had made themselves beneficiaries of the Charitable Corporation by absconding with £570,000 of its capital. The resulting debate in the House of Commons was somewhat restrained by the fact that relatives of members of the House were among the culprits.

In such an atmosphere of selfishness and cynicism, some poets and social critics looked hopefully westward. Contemporary Europe seemed almost a perfect contrasting background for any grand gesture of truly disinterested philanthropy. Bishop Berkeley, himself promoter of a Bermuda project, wrote in 1726:

There shall be sung another golden age,

   The rise of Empire and of arts,

The good and great inspiring epic rage

   The wisest heads and noblest hearts.

Not such as Europe breeds in her decay,

   Such as she bred when fresh and young,

When heavenly flame did animate her clay,

   By future poets shall be sung.

Westward the course of Empire takes its way,

   The four first acts already past,

A fifth shall close the drama with the day,

   The world’s great effort is the last.

We cannot find it hard to understand, then, why the proposal in 1730 to establish a colony to be called Georgia between the Altamaha and the Savannah Rivers, south of the Carolinas, made such a welcome impression on the English mind: Georgia, alone of all the continental American colonies, was sponsored by men who promised to make no profit from the undertaking. The rare example of a vast enterprise with a thoroughly altruistic motive became the subject of much poetry and self-congratulation.

General James Oglethorpe was in many ways an appealing figure, and enthusiasts were ready to invest him with the heroic qualities for which the age was starved. No sensitive observer could fail to note the contrast between the selfless zeal of the Trustees of Georgia and the cynical spirit of many leading figures in English public life. “They have, for the benefit of mankind,” we read in a promotional pamphlet reputedly written by Oglethorpe himself, “given up that ease and indolence to which they were entitled by their fortunes and the too prevalent custom of their native country.” It would be hard to find another venture of 18th-century colonizing and empire-building whose leaders were more disinterested or more free of sordid motives. Nevertheless, although the motives of the founders of the colony were altrustic, they were still distinctly this-worldly. Their altruism bore the birthmark of the age: it was practical, limited, and without any of the theological fantasy or grandiloquence which had flavored the older colonies. The fulfillment of the colony would properly be measured by its strength and prosperity.

Almost from the beginning, plans for a colony south of the Carolinas had been embellished with extravagant hopes for that “Most delightful Country of the Universe.” In 1717, even before Oglethorpe, Sir Robert Montgomery had published a blueprint for such a colony. The prospective investor was assured “That Nature has not bless’d the World with any Tract, which can be preferable to it, that Paradise with all her Virgin Beauties, may be modestly suppos’d at most but equal to its Native Excellencies.” The promotional literature for Georgia fifteen years later seemed to qualify its extravagances only to make them more credible. The author of A New and Accurate Account of the Provinces of South Carolina and Georgia (1733) promised a climate matchlessly temperate, a land where “all things will undoubtedly thrive … that are to be found in the happiest places under the same latitude.” The woods were easily cleared, and the oranges, lemons, apples, pears, peaches, and apricots were “so delicious that whoever tastes them will despise the insipid watery taste of those we have in England”—and yet so abundant that men fed them to the hogs. Wild game, fowl, and fish easily supplied a bounteous table. “Such an air and soil can only be fitly described by a poetical pen, because there is but little danger of exceeding the truth.”

The reader who comes to the history of Georgia, after seeing the dogmatic clarity with which the New England Puritans built their “city upon a hill” or the mystic grandeur which enveloped the Pennsylvania Quakers’ hope for a community of peace and brotherhood, cannot fail to be interested, and puzzled, by the curious combination of sentimental vagueness and detailed concreteness of the aspirations for Georgia. Founders of other colonies tried to follow large blueprints of the Truth; the promoters of Georgia started with detailed, almost petty, specifications.

There is a remarkably intimate record of the motives of the founders in the diary of Lord Percival, first Earl of Egmont, who, with Oglethorpe, was among the leading spirits. His private journal displays the prosaic patchwork of motives which stirred English life in the Age of Walpole: the incongruous combination of corruption, sycophancy, virtue, hard-headedness, honor, and philanthropy. On one page he reveals his strenuous effort to wangle an Irish earldom for himself so that his children might marry into families of solid wealth; on another he worries over the spiritlessness of religion in his day. At one time he describes his own attempt to buy an official post in the East India Company for a cousin; at another he denounces the unprincipled behavior of his Prime Minister. On one page he maliciously gossips about the amours of the Prince of Wales, on another he reveals his own efforts to gain the favor of the Prince. Never did an age display a more engaging ambidexterity.

Out of the mouth of Egmont came the authentic aspiration of the day: at once vague, secular, common-sensical, and practical. “Ah, Madam,” he told the Queen, “’tis for persons in high station, who have the means in their hands to do good.” This aspiration needed no particular theology to support it. Sensible Englishmen, exasperated by the wild fanaticism which had turned England upside down in the Age of Cromwell, were glad to see reformers fenced about with moderation and common sense. In the lexicon of the Age of Walpole, to do good was to do certain very specific things. And whatever one might have criticized in the project for Georgia, one could hardly deny that it was detailed, concrete, and intelligible to a man of good sense.

General Oglethorpe was an imperious and tough-minded military man of good will, endowed with a zest for action and a strong body that carried him into his 90th year. Yet he possessed, in Boswell’s phrase, an “uncommon vivacity of mind and variety of knowledge” which earned him a place in Dr. Johnson’s circle of dinner-companions beside Edmund Burke and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Johnson warmly admired Oglethorpe; no man’s life, he said, could be more interesting, and he even offered to write the General’s biography. Many admired Oglethorpe’s combination of an active temperament with what Alexander Pope called a “strong benevolence of soul”—a benevolence without the severity of a Cromwell, the passion of a Bunyan or the subtlety of a Milton. Such a virtue commended itself to an unheroic age.

The promises and the weaknesses of the Georgia venture were symbolized in its two leaders: Lord Percival, the wealthy aristocrat, interested in doing good for his fellow Englishmen and in strengthening his nation, insofar as this could be accomplished from an upholstered chair in a town-house, on the floor of Parliament or in a coffee-house, or from the lordly ease of his Irish estates; and General Oglethorpe, the man of action, clear and specific in his purposes, arbitrary and impatient, and unbending with the doctrinaire rigidity of the completely “practical” man. Together Percival and Oglethorpe expressed the combination of vagueness and concreteness which was the virtue and the fault of 18th-century humanitarianism. Their enterprise was to suffer because of the haziness of their purpose of doing good; it was also to suffer because of the excessively detailed specifications of the particular good deeds they were bent on doing. Compared with the Puritans or Quakers, they were clearly men of this world, neither befuddled by theological dogma nor distracted by mystic enthusiasm. Actually their crucial mistake was in having made specific plans too far in advance and too far from the scene of the experiment—plans which they sanctified as though they were principles.

Of the twenty-one trustees named in the Georgia Charter of 1732, all had been active earlier in purely charitable ventures. Ten of them had been members of the House of Commons committee on the state of the jails (1729); some were interested in the Parliamentary committee to relieve imprisoned debtors; all had been associates of Dr. Thomas Bray in his enterprise to convert Negroes in the British Plantations, and some were active supporters of the protestant missionary societies of the day. But as the project for the new colony moved from dream into reality, its prudential aspect became more and more important.

A strong colony of English families on the river Savannah (which marked the southern boundary of Carolina) would protect the borderlands from Indian, Spanish, and French invasions; and improvement of these lands would enrich Great Britain. How this was to be accomplished was agreed upon in advance by Oglethorpe and other respectable associates of Lord Percival:

It is proposed the families there settled shall plant hemp and flax to be sent unmanufactured to England, whereby in time much ready money will be saved in this Kingdom, which now goes out to other countries for the purchase of these goods, and they will also be able to supply us with a great deal of good timber. ’Tis possible too they may raise white mulberry trees and send us good raw silk. But at the worst they will be able to live there, and defend that country from the insults of their neighbours, and London will be eased of maintaining a number of families which being let out of gaol have at present no visible way to subsist.

Oglethorpe himself never neglected to emphasize the practical purpose of the enterprise. In his now-classic statement of purposes (in a letter to Bishop Berkeley in May, 1731), he boasted the motives of “charity and humanity,” but he also declared that to this undertaking Englishmen would “owe the preserving of their people, the increasing the consumption of their manufactures, and the strengthening their American dominions. Mankind will be obliged to it, for the enlarging civility, cultivating wild countries, and founding of colonies, the posterity of whom may in all probability be powerful and learned nations.” The official statement of purpose in the preamble to the Royal Charter of the colony (June 9, 1732) recorded His Majesty’s desire to relieve the plight of his poor subjects “through misfortune and want of employment, reduced to great necessity,” by offering them the opportunity to support themselves comfortably in a new land. To settle the regions south of Carolina would at the same time “increase the trade, navigation, and wealth of these our realms.” These purposes were repeated with monotonous regularity on the floor of the House of Commons when the Trustees of Georgia made their periodic appeals for money.

The promotional literature of the Trustees sometimes seems crudely calculating. In A New and Accurate Account of the Provinces of South Carolina and Georgia, written perhaps by Oglethorpe, “the benefits which may arise to Great Britain by peopling this fruitful continent” were reduced to simple arithmetic. “A man who is equal in ability, only to the fourth part of a laborer, (and many such there are,) we will suppose to earn four-pence per diem, five pounds per annum, in London; his wife and a child of above seven years old four-pence per diem more: upon a fair supposition (because it is the common cause) he has another child too young to earn any thing. These live but wretchedly at an expense of twenty pounds per annum, to defray which they earn ten pounds; so that they are a loss to the rich and industrious part of the nation of ten pounds per annum.” In Georgia this same family could raise rice and corn and tend cattle, earning from the prodigal fertility of the soil not less than sixty pounds per annum. The moral was obvious. How improvident to lay out ten pounds every year to support a family on charity when barely twice that amount spent transporting them to Georgia would make them permanently self-supporting and an asset to the British economy! “England will grow rich by sending her Poor Abroad.”

Roman precedent appealed to these empire-builders. “The Roman state discharged not only its ungovernable distressed multitude, but also its emeriti, its soldiers, which had served long and well in war, into colonies upon the frontiers of their empire. It was by this policy that they elbowed all the nations round them.” From the Georgia outpost the British people could also expand. Despite their occasional protests to the contrary, their ancient model was surely not Jesus but Caesar.

The Trustees and Common Council of Georgia went to great trouble in selecting settlers. Although one of their stated purposes had been to provide refuge for foreign Protestants, they distrusted “enthusiasts who take it in their head that everything which comes uppermost is the immediate impulse of the spirit of God.” They agreed to send over the Protestants who had been persecuted by the Archbishop of Salzburg, only after they were satisfied of their industry and sobriety. Whenever possible they interviewed a prospective emigrant. They were careful not to encourage the emigration of men who were already earning their own livings (and so were already useful in Great Britain); they chose from needy applicants only those likely to strengthen a frontier outpost. Again and again the Trustees rejected applicants whose only fault was that they “could get their bread at home.” They did not forget that Parliament was supporting their project (by a sum which eventually amounted to over £130,000) in the hope, as one member put it, that they would “carry off the numbers of poor children and other poor that pester the streets of London.”

While unwilling to enrich the prosperous, the Trustees were equally wary of subsidizing the vicious. They wished, in Oglethorpe’s phrase, to help “such as were most distressed, virtuous and industrious.” They investigated the moral character of applicants and the circumstances which accounted for their distress. They even advertised the names of prospective emigrants in London newspapers a fortnight before departure so that creditors and deserted wives might have ample warning. Very few, perhaps not over a dozen, imprisoned debtors were brought to Georgia. Even these were chosen because they showed promise of becoming sturdy colonists.

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