The Perils of Altruism

IF THE FOUNDERS of the colony of Georgia lacked the grand vision which inspired the Massachusetts Puritans or the mystic enthusiasm of the Pennsylvania Quakers, they did possess a precise prosaic frame within which they hoped to build a colony. Their difficulties came, not from lack of a plan, but from too much of one. Their problems and their opportunities arose neither from the dogmatic clarity of their principles nor from the consuming intensity of their conviction nor even from any vagueness in their notion of what they were about. Their essential weakness was a frame of mind which stifled the spontaneity and experimental spirit which were the real spiritual wealth of America. However noble the impulses of Percival, Oglethorpe, and some of their associates, these impulses found expression in niggling prudential gestures. Had their aspiration been larger and more abstract—or had it been more self-seeking—there might have been elbow-room for the possibilities opened by life in the New World.

But philanthropists, like martyrs, missionaries, and apostles of the Good, have never been noted for their experimental spirit; they are philanthropists precisely because they know what is good and how to accomplish it. By nature they are inclined to be too clear and too dogmatic about any situation. So, indeed, were the Trustees of Georgia. The discontented settlers properly complained that, what an American colony needed was a willingness to experiment: “At first it was a trial, now it is an experiment; and certainly no man or society need be ashamed to own, that from unforeseen emergencies their hypothesis did misgive; and no person of judgment would censure for want of success where the proposal was probable; but all the world would exclaim against that person or society who, through mistaken notions of honor or positiveness of temper, would persist in pushing an experiment contrary to all probability, to the ruin of the adventurers.”

This part of the Georgia story holds more than the lessons of irony and defeat. For the clue to the failure of the Trusteeship is a clue to the success of other forms of community in America. The Georgia project was not abandoned because its settlers had found America unpromising but, on the contrary, because what its settlers wanted was opportunity—with all its risks—and what they were given was a plan. The opportunities of the New World could not be encompassed by any plan, however selfless or noble, devised by the Old World imagination. The dream to be fulfilled here was more exotic than 18th-century London could believe. American possibilities were not the same as European impossibilities; they had a character all their own. Even to dream fruitfully of the life here, it was necessary to compound the English dream with the American experience.

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