Georgia and the American Revolution, I: Colonial Background, 1732-1763 (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 12)

[NOTE: In the winter of 1976, I offered an eight-week course (meeting one evening a week) on “Georgia and the American Revolution, 1763-1783,” to interested members of our parent body. A new book on the subject, combining narrative with primary sources, had just been published, so the choice of textbook was easy. The course also offered me a chance to invite a couple of scholarly acquaintances as guest speakers and use one of my articles and one by another colleague as supplementary reading. I prepared several lectures, in outline form, covering much of the time period. What follows is the first of four posts based on those outlines.  Two additional posts, derived from lectures prepared for other venues, will carry the story of political developments in Georgia through 1806.  A list of suggested readings will be appended to Part V.]

* * * * *

Georgia was the last of the original thirteen colonies founded. While, in some ways, motives for the establishment of Georgia and techniques used to settle it resembled those for the first colony, Virginia, over a century before, there were also significant differences. The most obvious, indeed striking, difference was the role played by humanitarianism in the founding of Georgia; unfortunately, this idealism soon proved to be misplaced, and the young colony nearly expired before it could be firmly planted. Though a change of government enabled the British to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, the first two decades of Georgia’s existence seemed to guarantee that, when the American Revolution came, Georgia would be the most reluctantly rebellious of colonies.

General James Oglethorpe (Wikipedia)

General James Oglethorpe (Wikipedia)

Britain’s motives for founding Georgia were both strategic and humanitarian. First of all, Britain and Spain both claimed the lands lying between the Savannah River below South Carolina and the Altamaha River north of Spanish Florida. In 1730, the Board of Trade in London suggested that the area be settled by “the poor persons of London,” which fit in well with the philanthropic views of the influential General James Oglethorpe and the Irish nobleman Viscount Percival, who later became the first Earl of Egmont.

Earl of Egmont (Wikipedia)

Earl of Egmont (Wikipedia)

Both men had been active in Parliament, trying to improve deplorable conditions in English jails. One byproduct of their crusade was a law setting free an estimated 10,000 imprisoned debtors. Oglethorpe and Percival shifted the emphasis of their efforts about 1730 and began to advocate settling the area south of the Savannah River with destitute but hard-working Englishmen. Their plan had at least two obvious advantages: it would remove from England a number of persons whose maintenance burdened the British government and private charities; and every Englishman sent to Georgia made it more difficult for Spain to encroach on territory claimed by Britain.

The Crown approved a charter for the colony of Georgia in 1732, vesting control in a group of Trustees, for a period of twenty-one years. The Trustees were to govern Georgia from London, an arrangement similar to that for Virginia at the time of its founding in 1607, but with two major differences: the Trustees were not to profit from the colony; and Parliament contributed eighty percent of the funds expended by the Trustees (former “companies” that had established colonies had been required to finance the projects themselves). The Trustees also publicly appealed for money, emphasizing the charitable nature of their undertaking. Collection plates passed in British churches eventually netted 18,000 pounds for the new venture, the Bank of England contributed money, and individuals also furnished financial aid, as well as numerous uplifting religious books and tracts.

A number of factors dictated the rules established by the Trustees. Mercantilism, the economic theory underlying the major European empires, held that a colony should produce crops unavailable in the Mother Country and that hence must be imported. Moreover, so far as the British government was concerned, Georgia settlers were supposed to contain the northern expansion of the Spaniards from Florida. Then, too, simply removing the “deserving poor” from Britain would serve no real purpose if, once in Georgia, they reverted to “vicious” habits like laziness, drunkenness, and vice. Finally, Britain was unwilling to allow skilled workers to leave for Georgia, which meant that, except for farmers forced off their lands by the enclosure movement, emigrants to Georgia would be ill-equipped to cope with the hardships of colonization.

The rules established by the Trustees were an unmitigated disaster, so far as most colonists were concerned. The factors cited above, especially the noble ideals of the Trustees, who had never been to Georgia and, with the exception of Oglethorpe himself, would never go there, partly explain this. Then there were the colonists themselves, who were strongly influenced by their nearest neighbors, in South Carolina.

Each male head of household who went to Georgia at the Trustees’ expense received fifty acres of land; any colonist who paid his own way was entitled to receive an additional fifty acres for each member of his “family,” up to a maximum allotment of five hundred acres. Settlers were to be citizen-soldiers; landholdings were kept small so as to be more easily defensible. The land also was not owned by colonists: it could be inherited, but only by a male heir; in the absence of a male heir, the land reverted to the Trustees. Because the Trustees were convinced that Georgia’s most important contribution to the British Empire would be the production of silk, each settler was required to plant mulberry trees on his land. (While some mulberry trees did grow in Georgia, they were the wrong sort of mulberry trees.) The Trustees also encouraged the production of grapes for wine, an impractical idea that was abandoned more readily than the notion of silk production.

One reason landholdings were limited was to prevent the development of large plantations, which would be difficult to defend and might also encourage land speculation. As a further guarantee that Georgians would become yeoman farmers rather than country squires, slavery was prohibited in the colony. The Trustees also banned the importation, manufacture, and consumption of hard liquor, another way to forestall the development of bad habits. This ban did not apply to beer or to wine, however, production of the latter of which was of course to be encouraged. Finally, as befit the “charitable” nature of the undertaking, new Georgians were to have almost no voice in directing their affairs. Everything was to be done for them, not by them, from the store controlled by the Trustees and their agents to the lack of a representative assembly.

In retrospect, the response of Georgians to the Trustees’ system was predictable. Some colonists simply departed for South Carolina, where they could acquire as much land as they could afford, exploit slave labor, and consume as much hard liquor as their systems could hold. Settlers who remained in Georgia launched a determined campaign against the Trustees, while simultaneously attempting to evade the ban on the use of slaves and the prohibition on hard liquor.

Since the Trustees were prohibited by the charter from profiting from their control of the colony, what kept them going was their humanitarianism. As resistance to their plan grew among their ungrateful charges, many of the Trustees lost interest. The others modified the system: eventually, the maximum allotment of land was increased to two thousand acres; the ban on the use of African slaves was lifted; prohibition of hard liquor was abandoned; and a representative assembly was created that could present petitions to the Trustees, though it could not make laws. Finally, the Trustees became so discouraged that they surrendered their charter to the Crown in 1752, one year before it was to expire, paving the way for the transition of Georgia from a proprietary to a royal colony.

Since Georgia’s public expenses during the first twenty years of its existence had been covered either by public contributions or governmental appropriations, there had been no need to pay taxes, and hence no need for a representative assembly. Therefore, the Trustees had not laid a foundation for self-government. Georgians were generally happy to see an end to the Trusteeship, and they welcomed the advent of royal government after 1752, seeing the new system as a way to develop a flourishing economy, a chance denied them by Oglethorpe and the Trustees.

* * * * *

Sir James Wright (Wikipedia)

Sir James Wright (Wikipedia)

Under the new system, Georgia was presided over by a series of royal governors: the querulous, arrogant John Reynolds (1754-1756); the competent Henry Ellis (1757-1760), who left for health reasons; and Georgia’s last royal governor, James Wright (1760-1782), among the ablest of Britain’s colonial governors. The upper house of Georgia’s colonial legislature was the Council, a small body whose members were drawn from the economic and social elite, while the lower house was the Assembly, a popularly-elected body.

As a royal colony, especially under Governor Wright, Georgia enjoyed unprecedented material prosperity, population growth, and territorial expansion. Unlike many other royal governors, Wright took a sincere personal interest in the advancement of his colony. In 1751, when the Trustees petitioned Parliament to surrender their charter, they estimated the colony’s population as 1,700 whites and 400 slaves. By 1760, the population had increased to 6,000 whites and 3,000 slaves; and, by 1773, 18,000 whites and 15,000 slaves. By 1771, Wright owned 523 slaves on eleven plantations, totaling more than 24,000 acres.

During the Trusteeship, only the military objective of containing Spanish expansion north of the St. Mary’s River succeeded. After 1752, Georgia finally became an economic asset to the British Empire. Silk and wine production were all but abandoned, but the colonists turned to planting rice, indigo, corn, peas, tobacco, wheat, and rye; making pitch, tar, turpentine, shingles, and barrel staves; sawing lumber; and securing deer and beaver skins through trade with neighboring Indians. Foreign trade also became an important element of Georgia’s economy. The principal exports were rice, indigo, and skins to Europe, and lumber, horses, and provisions to the West Indies. Between 1755 and 1773, shipping grew impressively, from 52 ships whose cargoes were valued at 15,744 pounds to 225 ships with cargoes valued at more than 121,000 pounds.

We still think of America’s frontier experience as important in the growth of “American democracy,” but Georgia’s royal governor, Sir James Wright, tied outgoing areas of his colony firmly to the royal government because of his skill in negotiating land cessions from Indian tribes on the colony’s borders. In 1764, Spain ceded Florida to Britain, and Georgia’s southern boundary finally was fixed at the St. Mary’s River, a decision that doubled her territory at a single stroke. The Mississippi River was established as the colony’s western boundary, and the way opened for a new influx of settlers and an even more marked increase in prosperity.

In 1763, the end of the Seven Years War and the date most historians accept as crucial in understanding the coming of the American Revolution, Georgia was prospering as never before, under the conscientious and popular royal governor Wright. Once the recipient of British charity, Georgia had at last found a niche in Britain’s mercantilist scheme as a royal colony with a representative assembly that, unlike similar bodies in other colonies, had no real “power of the purse” because royal officials’ salaries were paid directly from London.

Writing at the end of the American Revolution, Anthony Stokes, Chief Justice of Georgia under the royal government, who had been forced to leave Georgia, summarized the colony’s situation between the end of the Seven Years War and the outbreak of the Revolution:

Georgia continued under the King’s Government to be one of the most free and happy countries in the world—justice was regularly and impartially dispensed—oppression was unknown—the taxes levied on the subjects were trifling—and every man that had industry became opulent—the people there were more particularly indebted to the Crown than those of any other Colony—immense sums were expended by Government in settling and protecting that country—troops of rangers were kept up by the Crown for several years—Civil Government was annually provided for by vote of the House of Commons in Great Britain, and most of the inhabitants owed every acre of land they had to the King’s free gift; in short, there was scarce a man in the Province that did not lie under particular obligation to the Crown.

Even taking into account Stokes’ pro-British bias, it seems clear that few Georgians in 1763 had grievances against the Crown. Thus, it is not surprising that in the years after 1763 the revolutionary spirit developed more slowly in Georgia than in many of her sister colonies. In fact, one might wonder why Georgia joined in the Revolution at all.

[End of Part I]


For those interested in reading more about Georgia History, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

About georgelamplugh

I retired in 2010 after nearly four decades of teaching History at the "prep school" level with a PhD. My new "job" was to finish the book manuscript I'd been working on, in summers only, since 1996. As things turned out, not only did I complete that book, but I also put together a collection of my essays--published and unpublished--on Georgia history. Both volumes were published in the summer of 2015. I continue to work on other writing projects, including a collection of essays on the Blues and, of course, my blog.
This entry was posted in American History, American Revolution, Colonial Georgia, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Research, Retirement, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized, WP Long Form and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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