Born on December 22, 1696, into a wealthy and prominent family, James Edward Oglethorpe became a noted eighteenth-century politician, soldier, colonizer, and social reformer. As a teenager, he was lured by the prospect of military service and the potential for glory and advancement that it offered. He joined the army of the Holy Roman Empire in its fight against the Turks and, as an aide-de-camp to Prince Eugene of Savoy, participated in the successful siege of Belgrade in 1717.
After proving himself on the battlefield, Oglethorpe returned to England and embarked on his political career. In 1722, he was selected to the English House of Commons from the borough of Haslemere. He would hold this seat continuously for the next three decades. In Parliament, the young Oglethorpe cast his social and political nets widely. He championed the cause of impressed sailors and led a celebrated investigation into debtor prisons. Oglethorpe also invested money in the Royal African Company, but within a few years of this financial move he reversed himself and became an ardent opponent of slavery. In 1730, he and other leading gentlemen proposed the establishment of a new British colony in America that would provide a haven for the nation’s poor and simultaneously serve as a strategic buffer against French and Spanish territorial expansion along the Atlantic Coast. The new settlement established by charter in 1732 and named Georgia in honor of the king therefore represented a convergence of Oglethorpe’s military and philanthropic impulses.
James Oglethorpe founded the Georgia colony as a haven for debtors and Protestant dissenters. He is commemorated with this bronze statue by Daniel Chester French in Savannah, the site of his first settlement in 1733. (Library of Congress, LC-D416-695) Oglethorpe in 1732 announced that he would accompany the first shipload of Georgia settlers over the Atlantic. By following through on this pledge, Oglethorpe became the only member of the board of trustees to ever visit Georgia. Although he was granted very limited official authority, he nevertheless became the de facto governor of the fledgling colony, directing nearly every aspect of Georgia’s military defenses and civil administration. He personally chose the location for the first town, Savannah, and is generally considered to be the colony’s founder.
Because the initial wave of settlers had little experience in operating a government, they were at first grateful for Oglethorpe’s strong leadership. They commonly referred to him as “Father,” a term that reflected not only their affection for him but also their understanding of his strict sense of discipline. Constables and judges frequently deferred to Oglethorpe’s immense stature and prestige. Within a few years, however, a segment of the colony’s population grew unhappy under Oglethorpe’s stern rule. Many residents blamed him for the colony’s initial prohibition on slave ownership, a policy that retarded Georgia’s economic development. Concerns over Oglethorpe’s role in America were also raised by several trustees in London, who feared that their suddenly famous and powerful colleague might pursue an agenda contrary to the interests of the trust as a whole. Leading trustees fretted about the endless stream of expenditures arriving from the new colony, which threatened to bankrupt them. Numerous large promissory notes arrived over with Oglethorpe’s signature but contained no explanation for the expense.
Slowly but steadily, Oglethorpe’s assumed authority was shifted to regularly appointed officials until, in 1738, the trust instructed him to confine himself to his duties as general of the forces of South Carolina and Georgia. In any case, these duties absorbed all of his attention after the outbreak of the War of Jenkins’ Ear in 1739. General Oglethorpe mounted a failed campaign against the Spanish outpost of St. Augustine in 1740, but he redeemed himself by soundly defeating a counterattack by a numerically superior force two years later. After a second unsuccessful attempt to capture St. Augustine, Oglethorpe returned to England permanently in 1743. In his later career, Oglethorpe could not maintain the heights to which his involvement in Georgia had propelled him. He faced a court martial for his unit’s lackluster performance in the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Although he was acquitted, the stain on his reputation may have contributed to the loss of his parliamentary seat in 1754. Shortly after the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War in 1756, the British government denied his request for a battlefield command. Unwilling to sit out the fighting, Oglethorpe adopted a pseudonym and campaigned with the Prussian army. Until his dying day, Oglethorpe expressed support for the rights of American colonists, even in the face of growing rebellion. In 1785, at the age of 88, the elderly statesman paid his respects to John Adams, the United States’s first ambassador to Great Britain. On June 30 of that year, James Oglethorpe died, bringing to a close his half-century relationship with America. Andrew C. Lannen See also: Georgia; Georgia (Chronology); Savannah; Document: Oglethorpe’s Vision for the Founding of Georgia (1733). Bibliography Inscoe, John C., ed. James Edward Oglethorpe: New Perspectives on His Life and Legacy. Savannah: Georgia Historical Society, 1997. Spalding, Phinizy, and Harvey H. Jackson, eds. Oglethorpe in Perspective: Georgia’s Founder After Two Hundred Years. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989.