Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Oglethorpe, James Edward
OGLETHORPE, JAMES EDWARD (1696–1785), general, philanthropist, and colonist of Georgia, born in London on 22 Dec. 1696, was baptised next day at St. Martin's-in-the-Fields. An elder brother, also named James, born on 1 June 1689, died in infancy (Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. xii. 68). James Edward was third and youngest surviving son of Sir Theophilus Oglethorpe [q. v.] of St. James's parish, London, by his wife, Eleanor Wall of Tipperary. He matriculated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, on 8 July 1714, but had already obtained a commission in the British army in 1710. After the peace of 1712 he appears to have served as a volunteer under Prince Eugene in Eastern Europe.
In 1718, by the death of his brothers, he succeeded to Westbrook, and in 1722 he became member for Ilaslemere, and acted with the Jacobite tories who supported Atterbury . Soon afterwards a friend named Castell, who had fallen into debt, was imprisoned in the Fleet, and, being unable to pay the accustomed fees to the warder, was confined in a house where the small-pox was raging. There Castell perished of the disease. The sad incident directed Oglethorpe's attention to the horrors and brutalities of debtors' prisons. At the beginning of 1729 he brought the matter before parliament, and the result was the appointment of a committee, with Oglethorpe for its chairman. The investigations of the committee revealed infamous jobbery and more infamous cruelty on the part of the prison officials (see Lecky, England in the Eighteenth Century, i. 500 sq.; and art. Bambridge, Thomas).
The insight which Oglethorpe thus obtained into pauperism and its consequences led him to the great work of his life. In all times colonisation has suggested itself as a remedy for the economical ills of old countries. In June 1732 Oglethorpe, with twenty associates, obtained a charter for settling the colony of Georgia in America, a tract lying between the rivers Savannah and Alatamaha, named in honour of George II, who gave Oglethorpe every encouragement. Almost simultaneously he published anonymously an essay setting forth the amount of distress extant, and unfolding his scheme of colonisation as a cure for it. It is true, as Bacon says in his 'Essay on Plantation,' that 'it is a shameful and unblessed thing to take the scum of people and wicked condemned men to be the people whom you plant.' Oglethorpe, however, was careful to introduce certain conditions which lessened, though they could not avert, the evils resulting from his choice of settlers. In the first place, he intended from the outset that they should be under his own personal supervision; and, whatever might be Oglethorpe's faults of character, he was born with the gift of ruling men. Moreover, there was to be some sort of discrimination exercised in the choice of settlers. Mere poverty was not to give a claim for a place in the colony; nor is there any reason to think that Oglethorpe ever expected wholly to escape the evils inherent in his experiment. The results are full of interest and instruction for the social reformer.
Oglethorpe and the other trustees, who opened an office in Old Palace Yard, Westminster, received liberal private subscriptions and a grant of 10,000l. from parliament. The settlement was designed not only as a refuge for paupers, but also as a barrier for the British colonies against aggression by Spain on their southern frontier. On grounds of military expediency, rather than of social economy, negro slavery was wholly prohibited.
On 30 Oct. 1732 Oglethorpe embarked in the Anne galley at Deptford, and in November set sail with 120 settlers. For nine years the life of Oglethorpe and the history of the colony of Georgia are identical. He at once found a satisfactory site, on which was built the town of Savannah; and he established friendly relations with the natives, which remained unbroken during his whole sojourn in the colony. Fresh colonists, and of a more effective stamp, were added: some, German protestants, whose religion had banished them from Austria; others, Scottish highlanders. Settlements were thrown out westward, and an outpost formed at Frederica, on an island at the mouth of the Alatamaha, about sixty miles south of Savannah.
In 1734 Oglethorpe returned to England (bringing with him several Indian chiefs), and the effects of his absence at once illustrated the instability of a colony which rested solely on the energy and capacity of one man, and whose inhabitants had in them no element of thought, industry, or civic virtue. Oglethorpe was at times precipitate in his choice of subordinates, and unduly and obstinately confident in them when chosen. The storekeeper, a person of no small importance in a little community organised on almost communistic principles, was dishonest and tyrannical. In such a colony as Georgia malcontents were sure to be found. Two restrictions, the prohibition of rum and of negro slavery, were specially irksome. On his return to Georgia, Oglethorpe dismissed the offending storekeeper. But he and his co-trustees stood firm upon the other points, and the result was a continuous undercurrent of dissatisfaction and disloyalty.
That was not the only element of discord in the colony. Oglethorpe's impetuous and sympathetic temper led him to select for the spiritual staff of his colony John and Charles Wesley, heeding only their high moral excellence and the attractive side of their characters, and overlooking the absence of that tact, forbearance, and subordination which for this special task were to the full as needful. Charles Wesley went out in 1736 as Oglethorpe's private secretary. He had not been long in the colony before he displeased Oglethorpe. If we are to believe Wesley's own account, his employer treated him not only with harshness, but with pettyminded malevolence. But the solemnity of their parting, when, in the spring of 1736, Oglethorpe went forth against the Spaniards with a wholly uncertain prospect of return, seems to have touched the hearts of both, and they were sincerely reconciled. But, even if friendahip had been restored, cordial cooperation had become henceforth impossible; and Charles Wesley, with the consent and approval of Oglethorpe, laid down his secretaryship and returned to England. His brother, John Wesley, remained behind, and became even a greater source of trouble and of discord in the colony. But during Wesley'*s sojourn in Georgia, Oglethorpe was fully occupied with the chances of a Spanish invasion. Wesley's quarrels were with other officials, not with Oglethorpe. The selection of Whitfield to succeed Wesley did not greatly mend matters. He founded an orphanage, and embroiled himself with the settlers by the dictatorial fashion in which he claimed to overrule the authority of natural guardians. But his energy as a religious revivalist led him for the most part to choose work in the old-established colonies, and left him but little time for disturbing the peace of Oglethorpe and his followers. That portion of Oglethorpe's career which stands out conspicuous in importance and interest is the defence of his colony against the Spaniards. His alliance with the Indians was an embarrassment as well as a safeguard. It was certain that the Spanish authorities at St. Augustine, a chief seaport of Florida, would eagerly seize on any pretext for an attack, and such a pretext might at any moment be given by the natives, acting, it well might be, under just resentment. A guard was posted by Oglethorpe at the Alatamaha, to prevent any of the Georgian Indians crossing into Spanish territory. During 1786 civil messages passed between Oglethorpe and the Spaniards; yet it is clear that all along he distrusted their intentions. He strengthened the defences of Frederica, and sent for help to South Carolina. In the spring of 1736 the governor of St. Augustine, without any declaration of war, sent a force to reconnoitre the English position, with discretionary orders to attack if it seemed safe and advisable. Oglethorpe, however, used his ordnance so as to mislead the Spaniards regarding his position and resources, and the intended attack came to nothing.
The political prospect in England made it almost certain that war would soon break out with Spain; and as soon as America became the field of war, Oglethorpe knew that his colony would be in danger. He utilised a short season of security to return to England, and to organise the defence of his colony. While he was there a memorial was presented by the Spanish government to the ministry, demanding that neither Oglethorpe himself nor any fresh troops should be allowed to go to Georpa. Meanwhile it became known that the citizens of St. Augustine were being cleared out of their homes to make room for troops. Oglethorpe, with the approval of government, raised a volunteer regiment of six hundred men, with whom, in September 1738, he reached Georgia. It is possible that the same lack of judgment which made Oglethorpe unfortunate in his clergy also acted on his choice of soldiers. A plot was discovered which was to have ended in the surrender of the officers and the desertion of several soldiers to the Spaniards. The summer of 1739 was spent by Oglethorpe in a journey through the wilderness, in which he invited and secured the alliance of several distant tribes of natives. In that autunm war was declared against Spain, and Oglethorpe was ordered to harass St. Augustine. The mode of operation was left to his own choice. The Spaniards struck the first blow. Oglethorpe had fortified and garrisoned Amelia Island, some fifty miles south of Frederica. This the Spaniards attacked, but their only success was to find and kill two invalids straggling in the woods. Oglethorpe soon retaliated with the capture of a Spanish outpost. He then determined to attack St. Augustine. Time was important; Cuba was then under blockade by the English fleet; the failure of that blockade, or even a composition, might at any time set free a relieving force. To make the expedition successful, it was needful that South Carolina should take part in it. But here, as was so often the case in our operations on the northern and western frontier, it was impossible to secure efl^ective co-operation. In May 1740 Oglethorpe set forth with a land force, composed of his own regiment of Georgian militia and of Indian allies, numbering in all two thousand. They were also supported by four king's ships and a small schooner from South Carolina. Oglethorpe advanced as far as St. Augustine without encountering any serious opposition. He seized and occupied three small forts by the way; but it soon became plain that the capture of St. Augustine was beyond his power and resources. The harbour had been so effectually secured that the ships were useless. A bombardment was tried and failed. The Indian allies withdrew, indignant at Oglethorpe's attempts to restrain their ferocity. Sickness, as might have been foreseen, broke out, and the Carolina troops deserted. The garrison which Oglethorpe had placed in one of the captured forts ventured, in defiance of his express orders, on a sortie, and were cut off. In June Oglethorpe gave up the attempt on St. Augustme as hopeless,
and retreated. Yet it is not unlikely that his invasion had acted as a check on Spanish aggression, since for nearly two years Georgia remained unmolested.
But in the spring of 1742 came the crisis which was to form the most glorious incident in Oglethorpe's career as a colonist and a soldier. Thanks in part to Oglethorpe's arrangement, in part to the natural features of the position, an attack on the colony by land was fraught with difficulty. The colony was covered by St. Simon's Island, and no invading force could with safety leave that position in the rear. The island was guarded by a small fort — St. Simon's — to the south, by Frederica to the north. The only approach to Frederica was flanked by a dense forest, offering a secure protection to a defending force. Oglethorpe abandoned and destroyed St. Simon's, and concentrated the whole strength of his defence on Frederica. He was well served with information by his Indian scouts. At the first approach of the Spanish vanguard he made a sally and beat them off. With a force ill-organised and of doubtful stability, a display of personal prowess was sure to be of service, and the knight-errant temper always present in Oglethorpe made such a line of action attractive. Fighting at the head of his troop, he captured two Spaniards with his own hands. But the real brunt of the battle came later, when the flanking force, protected by the wood, attacked the main body of the Spaniards. The invaders fared much as Braddock fared thirteen years later in the Ohio valley, and were routed with heavy loss. Yet Oglethorpe was glad to avert by stratagem the possibility of a second attack. A Frenchman had joined the English as a volunteer, and had then deserted to the invaders. Oglethorpe astutely used him as a channel for conveying to the Spanish commander belief that the English were ready, and even eager, to meet a second invasion. He also said that he expected a fleet to come to his relief. By a strange and fortunate chance his statement was confirmed by the appearance of some English ships out at sea. Oglethorpe's combination of daring and strategy succeeded. Georgia was safe, and the pauper colony had moreover served its secondary purpose ; it had proved a bulwark to the more prosperous neighbour on the northern front frontier. Whitfield did not exaggerate the severity of the danger and the insufficiency of the means whereby it was repelled when he wrote: 'The deliverance of Georgia from the Spaniards is such as cannot be paralleled but by some instances out of the Old Testament.' Yet the peril was not yet at an end. One of the chief elements of danger was the 'self-sufficiency,' as one of their own colonists called it, of the officials of South Carolina. Not only were they supine in raising forces, but a pilot known to be a traitor m the employment of Spain was suffered to make himself well 'acquainted with Charlestown harbour.
Oglethorpe had other difficulties to face. The Duke of Newcastle was then secretary for the southern department, and as such had control over colonial affairs. The duke's ignorance of colonial geography was astounding, while the ministry carried on without spirit a war into which they had been dragged against their will. During the spring of 1743 Oglethorpe, while dreading the annihilation of his colony — a blow which would at once have involved South Carolina in invasion, and probably in servile war — had to confine himself to utilising his Indian allies for raids into the neighbourhood of St. Augustine. On 13 Feb. of that year he was promoted to the rank of brigadier-general. Hitherto the title of general, habitually applied to him in connection with Georgian affairs, was purely honorary and conventional.
The military operations against Spain soon involved Oglethorpe in financial difficulties, which compelled his return to England. The state of affairs well illustrates the unsatisfactory want of method in the colonial administration of Great Britain in those days. No fixed sum was voted for the defence of Georgia, nor is there any evidence that instructions were given to Oglethorpe authorising him to spend money on that account. Yet it was manifest that supplies and the like must be paid for, and Oglethorpe accordingly incurred the necessary expenses, and met them by drawing bills on his English agent, a Mr. Verelst, while at the same time he appears to have made it clear to Verelst by the form of the bills that the money was for the king's service. Verelst therefore applied to Walpole, who was then chancellor of the exchequer, and Walpole authorised him to draw on the treasury for the sums required to meet the bills. After a time, however, Walpole withdrew this authority; but before the notification of this change reached Oglethorpe he had drawn more bills. The matter was then referred to the lords justices, who had been specially authorised to supervise the finances of Georgia. They approved of the expenditure ; but when the bills were presented at the treasury, the lords of that department refused to meet them, nor is there any proof that Oglethorpe was ever reimbursed.
It was Oglethorpe's intention to revisit
Georgia after he had settled these financial troubles ; but two events changed his purpose. On 15 Sept. 1743 he married Elizabeth, the only surriving daughter and the heiress of Sir Nathan Wright. She brought him a much-needed fortune, including Cranham Hall in Essex, which was his home for the rest of his days.
Soon afterwards, while Oglethorpe was raising troops for the defence of the colony, the Jacobite insurrection of 1746 broke out. He at once received orders to join General Wade, and to take with him the soldiers whom he had raised. He joined Wade at Hull, and accompanied him in his march into Lancashire, where he and his men were transferred to the force which, under the Duke of Cumberland, harassed the retreating Jacobites. It is not unlikely that Oglethorpe's hereditary associations with the house of Stuart laid him open to suspicion. An absurd story found currency in later days to the effect that Oglethorpe was detected on the eve of Culloden in treasonable correspondence; that he therefore fled, and fortified himself as an armed rebel at his country seat in Surrey. It is certain that if Oglethorpe had any treasonable designs, of which there is no proof, they had been effectively anticipated. When, in December 1745, the Duke of Cumberland returned to London, having, as he believed, crushed the rebellion, he lodged a charge of misconduct, accusing Oglethorpe of having lingered on the road in his pursuit of the retreating Jacobites. A court-martial followed, and Oglethorpe was acquitted, but his career as a soldier was at an end, and he did not return to Georgia. For eight years longer he sat in parliament. The utter collapse of opposition while Pelham was prime minister had relaxed the bonds of party discipline; the cause of the whigs was too triumphant, that of their opponents too hopeless, for either to insist on obedience. Oglethorpe was able to take up that position of a freelance which his keen and ready sympathy and his independent temper made congenial to him. He had plainly cast behind him all lingering attachment to the house of Stuart. An attitude of sturdy independence towards Hanoverian ministers and a tendency to look with disfavour on all authority of which they were the centre were all that remained of his hereditary Jacobitism. We find him twice supporting measures whereby foreign protestants might enjoy full civic rights in the colonies, and doing his best to limit the arbitrary powers granted to courts-martial. In 1754 Oglethorpe was defeated in the contest for the representation of Haslemere, for which he had sat in parliament for thirty-two years. Thenceforth he disappeared from public life. In 1752 the trustees of the Georgian colony had resigned their patent, and Georgia had become a royal province. For many years longer, however, Oglethorpe filled a prominent position in social life in London. He won Dr. Johnson's regard by the support which he gave his 'London' upon its appearance in 1738, and increased it by the stand he made against slavery in Georgia. In return, Johnson wished to write Oglethorpe's life. He was the friend of Walpole, Goldsmith, Boswell, Burke, and Hannah More, keeping to the last his boyish vivacity and diversity of interests, his keen sense of personal dignity, his sympathv with the problems of life, his earnestness of moral conviction. His name is enshrined in the well-known couplet of Pope —
One, driven by strong benevolence of soul,
Shall fly like Oglethorpe from pole to pole
(Imitation of Horace, ep. ii.)
On 1 July 1785 Oglethorpe died at Cranham. As if he was at once to become by an appropriate fate a hero of legend, he was described in two contemporary accounts as 102 and 104 ; but, though his age is not mentioned on his monument, there seems no reason to doubt the accuracy of the record which makes him eighty-nine. A monument, with an extravagantly long inscription, was erected in Cranham Church to Oglethorpe and his widow, who died on 26 Oct. 1787. The Cranham estates descended to the Marquis de Bellegarde, the grandson of one of Oglethorpe's sisters. A three-quarter-length portrait of Oglethorpe in armour, engraved in mezzotint by T. Burford, is in the print-room at the British Museum. Another, engraved by S. Ireland, is mentioned by Bromley.
[Mr. Robert Wright has gathered together all that can be known of Oglethorpe in an admirable biography. Mach of the material, especially that relating to Georgia, is still in manuscript. See, however, A True and Historical Narrative of the Colony of Georgia, 1741, and Account of the Colony of Georgia, 1741, both of which are reprinted in Force's Tracts, Washington, 1836, and Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. x. 63, where private letters — one from Oglethorpe — describe Georgia in 1738; Bosweirs Life of Johnson, ed. Hill, i. 127 ; Walpole's Letters ; Hannah More's Letters; Southey's Life of Wesley; Franklin's Memoirs, i. 162; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. ii. 19-22 ; Elwin and Courthope's Pope, iii. 392 ; Lecky's England in the Eighteenth Century, i. 600-3; Gent. Mag. for 1785 and 1787.]