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London Blueprint for Georgia Utopia

WHEN Sir Robert Montgomery in 1717 offered his romantic plan for a Margravate of Azilia, he insisted that the disappointments of all earlier colonies in that land “of natural Sweetness and Beauties” had been the result only of “a want of due Precaution in their Forms of Settling.” “Men once got together, ’tis as easy to dispose them regularly, and with due Regard to Order, Beauty, and the Comforts of Society, as to leave them to the Folly of fixing at Random, and destroying their Interest by indulging their Humour.” In the area which was to become Georgia, Montgomery therefore proposed a geometric scheme of settlement delineated in a drawing accompanying his pamphlet.

No plan could have been neater, more concrete, or more fantastic. Each district was to be laid out as a precise square, in each quarter of which was centered a square park for cattle to graze in. The remainder of the district was divided into numerous smaller squares. “The 116 Squares, Each of which has a House in the Middle, are, Every one a Mile on Each Side, or 640 Acres in a Square, bating only for the High Ways, which divide them; These are the Estates, belonging to the Gentry of the District, who, being so confin’d to an Equality in Land, will be profitably Emulous of out doing Each other in Improvement, since that is the only way, left them to grow richer than their Neighbours.” The Governor-in-Chief was to be placed exactly in the center of a system of radiating paths and clearings: “By these means the labouring People (being so dispos’d, as to be always watchful of an Enemies Approach) are themselves within the Eye of those, set over them, and All together under the Inspection of their Principal.” Montgomery looked forward to the time when the whole colony would be covered by such checkerboard villages. Never had anyone better mapped the geography of a pipedream.

The plans of Oglethorpe and the Trustees of Georgia differed from the earlier scheme of Montgomery not in spirit, but in execution. Conviction that they were doing good for the settlers, for the neighboring colonies, and for all Great Britain hardened their obstinacy against the facts of life in Georgia.

The basic error of the Trustees, from which many other evils flowed, was the rigidity of their rules for the ownership, use, sale, and inheritance of Georgia’s primary resource—land. By preventing the free accumulation, exchange, and exploitation of the land they stultified the life of the colony.

What could most profitably be grown in that remote part of the New World? How many acres did a man need for subsistence? The Trustees knew the answer to neither of these questions—nor, for that matter, to any of the other elementary problems of land-use or natural resources in their colony. Their sin was not so much that they were ignorant (although they might have done more to acquaint themselves with the facts), but that they acted as if they did know, and by their laws imposed their ignorance upon the settlers. Had they been more willing to learn the lessons of the New World, their enterprise might have had a different end.

The Trustees’ plan would have served just as well for a colony on the borders of Timbuktoo. In any border colony, they reasoned, the population should be prepared for defense. On each parcel of land, therefore, an able-bodied man should reside. Since there should be no gaps through which an enemy might penetrate, each man should possess only a small parcel of land. Since everyone should be industrious, the parcels should not be so large that any owner might live in indolence off the labor of others on his land. To prevent speculation or emigration, land should not be salable.

Guided by these specifications, the Trustees devised a system of land tenure which they imposed on the colony. They limited the size of individual holdings to no more than 500 acres. Each family going “on the charity” received a grant of 50 acres which was neither salable nor divisible. Land, held by a tenure which the lawyers of the day called “tail male,” could not be willed; it could be inherited only by a male heir. If the deceased tenant had only daughters, or if a son did not want to work the land himself, the land reverted to the Trustees.

The Trustees sitting in London saw the Negro as a menace to their scheme. “It was thought the white man, by having a negro slave, would be less disposed to labor himself; and that his whole time must be employed in keeping the negro to work, and in watching against any danger he or his family might apprehend from the slave, and that the planter’s wife and children would by the death, or even the absence of the planter, be at the mercy of the negro.” The Londoners thought the possession of Negroes would promote absentee ownership, and that, in time of war, the Negroes would be the logical allies of any invaders threatening the security of the colony. Moreover, the Trustees reasoned, “the produces designed to be raised on the colony would not require such labor as to make negroes necessary for carrying them on.” To prohibit slavery and to forbid the importation of Negroes was therefore integral to the whole design.

The paternal interest of the London Trustees led them beyond land and labor to morals. To preserve the colonists against luxury and indolence, they sought to protect them against strong drink. Soldier-settlers had to be sober to defend the border. The problem of drunkenness, which was still far from solved in London, seemed easily soluble in a new colony. The Trustees aimed to dispose of it by their Act of 1735, which declared that “no Rum, Brandies, Spirits or Strong Waters” could be brought into Georgia, that kegs of such liquors found in the colony should be publicly destroyed, and that sale of liquor should be punished as a crime.

The fantastic neatness of the Trustees’ scheme for the strength and virtue of the colonists was equaled only by their plans for Georgia’s place in the economy of Great Britain. According to the mercantilist theory expounded by the propagandists for Georgia, “It is at all times our interest to naturalize as much as we can the products of other countries; especially such as we purchase of foreigners with ready money, or otherwise to our disadvantage…. Because by so doing we not only gain a new provision for our poor, and an increase of our people by increasing their employment, but by raising such materials ourselves, our manufactures come cheaper to us, whereby we are enabled to cope with other nations in foreign markets, and at the same time prevent our home consumption of them being a luxury too prejudicial to us.” Luckily for the logic of their scheme—but not for the future of their enterprise—one product, silk, seemed perfectly suited to become Georgia’s staple product. In such pamphlets as Reasons for establishing the Colony of Georgia, with regard to the Trade of Great Britain (London, 1773), the friends of Georgia developed the economic argument. The annual cost of Italian, French, Dutch, Indian and Chinese silks imported into Great Britain, they pointed out, amounted to £500,000. This large sum of foreign exchange or bullion could be saved by simply raising enough silk in Georgia. Such a silk industry, furthermore, would provide employment for at least 20,000 people in the colony during the four months of the silk season and for at least 20,000 more in England the year round. Italian competition, they argued, could be easily defeated because in Georgia land could be had for the asking and the precious mulberry leaves grew wild. They even hoped to export silk from Great Britain and eventually capture the European market.

What evidence had nourished these hopes? There was the tradition, which had gained all the authenticity of legend, that in Georgia mulberry trees grew wild and in great abundance. The promoters had not yet discovered that it was the black mulberry (with leaves too harsh for silkworms) which flourished in their colony rather than the white mulberry. As early as 1609 adventurers to Virginia listing the “most excellent fruites by planting in Virginia” had reported “silke-worms, and plenty of mulberie-trees, whereby ladies, gentlewomen and little children (being set in the way to do it) may bee all imploied with pleasure, making silke comparable to that of Persia, Turkey, or any other.” Much publicity had been given to the fact that in 1660 the coronation robe of Charles II was woven of Virginia silk. “The air, as it is healthy for man, (the latitude about thirty-two,)” the promoters of Georgia argued, “is also proper for the silk worms.” Sir Thomas Lombe, who had won fame by smuggling himself into an Italian silk mill in 1718 and taking the secrets to England, was probably the foremost English authority on the manufacture of silk. Engaged as adviser to the Trustees, he wrote a strong testimonial—as rich in enthusiasm as it was poor in first-hand knowledge—to the possibilities of silk-culture in Georgia.

From such threads of legend, hope, and half-truth, the Trustees wove their illusions. The forty-odd thousand persons to be engaged in silk-production would include many not otherwise employable. “Nor need they be the strongest, or most industrious part of mankind; it must be a weak hand indeed that cannot earn bread where silk-worms and white mulberry trees are so plenty. Most of the poor in Great Britain, who are maintained by charity, are capable of this, though not of harder labor.”

The Trustees fastened these illusions on the unfortunate settlers of Georgia. Not only did they encourage silk-culture by a guaranteed inflated price and by bounties and prizes for the product delivered in England, but they even wrote into land-grants provisions requiring each grantee, in order to validate his claim, to plant at least 50 white mulberry trees on every 50 acres; every grantee of 500 acres had to plant 2000 trees within twenty years. When the laws against holding Negroes were revised, each planter was required to possess one female Negro well-trained in silk-culture to every four male Negroes. When at long last the Trustees provided a representative assembly, they required that to serve in it an inhabitant must have planted at least 100 white mulberry trees on each 50 acres of his land.

Had the Trustees succeeded in building Georgia according to their blueprint, it would have been a neat, antiseptic, efficient, and thoroughly dull community. Its people would have been settled along the border on equal plots of land, each defended by an able-bodied man fit for the militia. A sober, unenvious, industrious population would have worked with uniform zeal while, of course, they would lack ambition to accumulate more land, to move to better land, or to rise in the social scale. Such a cheerful and diligent people would be immune to fatigue, boredom, or despair, and hence would not need strong drink. There would be no merchants from neighboring colonies to sell Negroes, rum, or superior land. The people, possessed of equable temperaments in an equable climate, would employ their women, their children, and their aged in the care and feeding of silkworms, because silk was, after all, so valuable to the economy of the empire. The Georgians were to be ignorant of or indifferent to the profits of other enterprises.

The only flaw in this scheme was that it had to be carried out by real people at some real place on earth. And there never was a people or a place suited to this purpose—least of all the unhappy refugees from 18th-century London who had been transported to the pine-barrens of Georgia.

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