The first successful English colony in America was Virginia. The last was Georgia. While all the colonies were unique, Georgia’s founder had a special goal and mission. He wasn’t seeking fame or fortune; he wanted to help people. Today, Georgia’s state motto – “Wisdom, Justice, Moderation” – reflects the ideals of its founder.
James Oglethorpe (c. 1730’s)
The Prison Reformer
Meet James Oglethorpe. A member of the British House of Commons, Oglethorpe led an investigation of the English prison system. He was appalled by the cruelty.
In this period of English history, if a person could not pay his or her debts they were thrown in prison, leaving little hope of ever being able to repay. And prisons weren’t like the ones we have today. No, prisons in Georgian England were filthy, crowded, disease infested…and there was little hope of getting out.
Oglethorpe wanted to do something to help these people. He realized many people had got in debt because they’d lost their job. Many were honest people, but they were literally imprisoned by the legal system. He wanted to create a place were debtors could go and work, earning money to repay their debts…and where they might have a chance of a successful life when their compensating work was over.
The colony of Georgia was named for King George II of Great Britain
The King’s Permission
King George II gave James Oglethorpe a large tract of land below the Carolina colonies and north of the Spanish settlements (which were in modern-day Florida). The colony administration would be a board of trustees and would be run as a non-profit venture for 21 years. After 21 years, the colony would become the property of the crown.
Was George II really being charitable to the prisoners? Maybe. Maybe not.
There were probably more influential political motives at work in the king’s decision. The new colony could be a sort of frontier between the prosperous Carolinas and the “greedy” Spanish down in Florida. Also, it could open a new fur trade avenue and maybe even raise silk-worms. Oooh…the king will get rich from the new colony!
Georgia Is Founded
In 1733 James Oglethorpe and his band of colonists set sail across the Atlantic for their new home. Oglethorpe wouldn’t make a profit from his venture; he went along as a trustee of the colony and to help everything get started smoothly.
Once they arrived, they named their colony “Georgia”, in honor of the king. Their first town was Savannah. Oglethorpe planned out the division of land and each settler got a tract to develop and farm.
The colony was started with noble ideals and principles. Peace with the Native American tribes was promoted. Oglethorpe prohibited liquor in the colony and also attempted to put a strict ban against slavery. Georgia was the only colony whose government took measures against the importation of slaves.
Map of Georgia – late 1700’s (This work is in public domain only in the United States)
Sadly, Oglethorpe’s vision of a colony where people could work to get out of debt failed. Only about a dozen settlers in the colony were actually debtors…and the English prisons remained full.
However, his dream of a land where people could build a new life flourished. People of many different backgrounds came to Georgia. Some sought relief from religious persecution and found the southern colony more welcoming than the strict Puritan, Quaker, and Catholic colonies farther north.
The new colonists weren’t delighted with the small tracts of land Oglethorpe had planned and pressured for more land and more control. The board of trustees’ good principles were undermined, and slavery became part of life in the colony.
A Royal Colony
In 1752, before the 21 years had past, Oglethorpe and his trustees decided to return the colony to the crown. Georgia became a royal colony, under the control of the British monarch and his royal governor.
Georgia joined with the other colonies in the revolt against British rule. Freed of colonial status, a state government was established in 1777.
After the end of the war, it was the 4th state to ratify the Constitution of the United States of America.
“Wisdom, Justice, Moderation”
Georgia’s motto reminds us of James Oglethorpe’s dream – a wise plan, justice with hope, and moderation or self-government as a principle of life. While his colonial idea was not ultimately successful, his belief in giving people a new opportunity has become part of the American dream.
P.S. Do you agree with Oglethorpe’s vision to provide people with a way to work toward a better life?