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Investigating American Slavery: The Case of Georgia

Part II of a series

{Sept. 13, 2021–The following is a draft chapter from my upcoming book, Why American Slavery Persisted.}

By Nancy Spannaus

It may be hard for even Georgians to believe, but the colony of Georgia was the only North American colony to prohibit slavery at its founding. The story of its creation and eventual devolution into one of the most rabidly pro-slavery colonies by the time of the Constitutional Convention, should shed some light on the long-lasting conflict over this issue in our history.

Investigating American Slavery: The Case of Georgia

A partial photo of the Oglethorpe statue in Augusta, Georgia

Georgia’s founder was James Edward Oglethorpe (1696-1785), a soldier and member of the British Parliament who made his mark by advocating for the poor in England. He headed a parliamentary caucus devoted to reversing the hideous practices of the imprisonment of debtors and succeeded in getting at least 10,000 prisoners freed.[1] His idea of the Georgia colony was to bring many of those debtors to North America, where they could develop the land and lead a productive life.

While well aware that the territory he would be developing would be surrounded by slave-holding South Carolina and (Spanish) slave-holding Florida, Oglethorpe was determined to prohibit the practice in his colony. “If we allow slaves, we act against the very Principles by which we associated together, which was to relieve the distressed. Slavery is against the gospel, as well as fundamental law of England,” he said in response to those who opposed this restriction.

The Beginnings

Oglethorpe began the crusade that led to Georgia’s founding in 1729, when he joined together with several other parliamentarians, including Lord John Percival, to expose the horrendous conditions in the debtors’ prisons. Conditions of unemployment and desperate poverty were leading to mass imprisonment, which, of course, did nothing to help people pay their debts, and increased the desperation and demoralization of the population. The prospect of such a fate had led one of Oglethorpe’s close friends, Robert Cassell, to commit suicide—and this was by no means an isolated occurrence.

The campaign for the Georgia colony was launched in 1730 but moved slowly.[2] In 1732 Oglethorpe issued an anonymous pamphlet entitled An Appeal for the Colony of Georgia, which was the opening shot in his drive to get King George II to approve the project. Oglethorpe argued that the new colony would serve the purposes of the Crown by providing a buffer zone between the Carolina colonies and Spanish-held Florida, as well as become a source of wealth for the homeland. He emphasized how the project would lead those who had fallen into a dissolute culture of poverty in England, to find useful work and become respectable, productive citizens. It would be an economic as well as social benefit to England.

Oglethorpe succeeded in getting a charter to run the charity, under the condition that after 21 years, the proprietorship would revert to the Crown.

Investigating American Slavery: The Case of Georgia

Fleet Street prison in London, where many debtors languished.

Oglethorpe recruited a Board of Trustees who would oversee his project, which would raise money to transport and support the colonists. These 20 Trustees agreed that they would not own land themselves (in contrast to the Carolinian colonies), but rather administer the colony with land grants to the settlers. The size of land grants was limited to less than 500 acres, and the recipients were not allowed to sell their land.[3] Through these measures, the Trustees hoped to avoid the dominance of the colony by huge plantation owners, and encourage enterprise among the immigrants. Their motto was “Not for self, but for others.”

From the beginning, slavery was banned, to the consternation of the nearby South Carolina oligarchy. Indeed, Georgia’s neighbors were constantly encroaching on Georgia’s land and bringing in slave labor, over the protest of Oglethorpe and the Trustees. To solidify their policy, the Trustees sought and got Parliament to pass legislation in 1735 which outlawed both rum and slavery.

The Slavery Issue

Why did Oglethorpe and his fellow Trustees ban slavery?  Certainly, such a ban was not a popular appeal to the British oligarchy, which, through the Royal African Company, was dominating the world slave trade for “the glory of the Empire.”

Oglethorpe’s upfront reasoning was a practical, economic one: the existence of slave labor not only devalued the labor of free men, but also sapped their ambition and willingness to work. Thus slavery was a detriment to a nation’s prosperity, as well as to its morals.

This reasoning is apparently the reason why many writers about Georgia assert that Oglethorpe wasn’t really against slavery in principle. But there is considerable evidence to the contrary.

While there is no indication that Oglethorpe owned slaves, he was at one time a governor of the Royal African Company. That is, until, in 1730, he came across the case of an enslaved African in Maryland, who had written a letter pleading his case for freedom. After this letter came into Oglethorpe’s hands, Oglethorpe took up the enslaved man’s cause and paid for his release.[4] In December of 1732, he severed all connections with the RAC.

The nature of Oglethorpe’s associates in Parliament also underscores his principled anti-slavery commitment. The chief among them, according to previously cited thesis by Winfield Scott Craig, were Lord John Percival and James Vernon, who were members of the Associates of Thomas Bray. Bray, who died in 1730, was a prominent abolitionist and Christian missionary who established this group of associates in 1724. The Associates were dedicated to educating the enslaved, especially in North America, as well as setting up libraries. The Trustees of the Associates formed the core of Oglethorpe’s own Board of Trustees for the founding of Georgia. Indeed, Bray gave Oglethorpe permission to use funds from his charity for funding the colony. Clearly he saw Oglethorpe as a co-thinker.

Noted missionary and abolitionist Thomas Bray

During the constant fights Oglethorpe was forced to wage against those who wanted to reverse the slavery ban, Oglethorpe characterized pro-slavery colonists as men consumed by “idleness” and “luxury.” He additionally argued that legalizing slavery in Georgia would “occasion the misery of thousands in Africa … and bring into perpetual slavery the poor people who now live free there.”

I would argue, as well, that Oglethorpe’s commitment to the dignity of free labor – like that of Abraham Lincoln in the later period – was intrinsically an anti-slavery moral commitment. It was the degradation of man, all human beings, which he opposed as being contrary to the Gospel, as well as to the successful running of society. Unless you are misguided enough to believe that improving the welfare of one race is detrimental to improving it for others, Oglethorpe’s commitment was a pathway to upgrading the conditions of life for all.

The Fight

From the beginning, the South Carolinian oligarchy, backed by the slave interests in London, was determined to wreck Oglethorpe’s project, especially by introducing slaves into the colony through renting them out to the settlers. Whenever this happened, Oglethorpe had to intervene to reverse the situation.  That he and his allies were well-aware of the South Carolinians’ intent is shown in the following excerpt from a letter sent by colonist William Bateman to Oglethorpe in 1734:[5]

There could be no description of any place (without the malice of hell itself) be made so dismal as the people of that town [Charles Town] endeavor to make of Georgia. Though in short a person may soon see through their artifice, and see that it is fear only of the great progress that has already been made in Georgia in so short a space of time, will greatly damage their trade and force them to be more industrious… for of all the places I have ever yet been at, I never see the inhabitants so indolent, so proud nor so malicious as themselves….

I arrived here…. When, instead of finding what I heard at Charles Town, I found more ground cleared, more houses built and in a more regular manner than it was possible for me to conceive or believe, more especially when I consider the short space of time … and that the majority of the people were not used before to any hard labour. They tell me that all America could never boast the like before.

Among the South Carolinians’ weapons were those among the colonists whom they could entice with the dreams of vast wealth if only slavery and the land-ownership restrictions could be lifted. Petitions were drafted by colonists with these demands and were reinforced by the activity of sympathizers among the Trustees. But repeated efforts to overturn the bans were defeated, with the aid of the two most anti-slavery groupings among the colonists.

Investigating American Slavery: The Case of Georgia

A depiction of the Salzburgers, key Oglethorpe allies against slavery

One of the most vocal were the Salzburger Lutherans, who had been granted refuge in Georgia from persecution by the Austrian Empire. The Salzburgers not only spoke up for keeping the ban on slavery, but served as a useful model for Oglethorpe to refute the pro-slavery argument that only with slave labor by people with dark skin could successful farming be carried out in the Southern climate. Their New Ebenezer colony was exemplary in its rice production.

Oglethorpe’s other major anti-slave constituency was the Highland Scots, who settled the land near Darien. In a petition to the Trustees urging against introduction of slavery, these settlers used arguments about defending the colony from the Spanish and the success of their own industriousness, but also included the following explicit anti-slavery statement:

It is shocking to human Nature, that any Race of Mankind and their Posterity should be sentanc’d to perpetual Slavery; nor in Justice can we think otherwise of it, that they are thrown amongst us to be our Scourge one Day or other for our Sins: And as Freedom must be as dear to them as it is to us, what a Scene of Horror must it bring about! And the longer it is unexecuted, the bloody Scene must be the greater…

Oglethorpe himself also answered the calls for introducing slavery.  Here is an excerpt from a letter to the Trustee in January 1739:

I have already written on the issue of Negroes and shall only add that if we allow slaves, we act against the very principle by which we associated together, which was to relieve the distressed. Whereas, now we should occasion the misery of thousands in Africa, by setting men using arts to buy and bring into perpetual slavery the poor people who now live there free. Instead of strengthening we should weaken the frontiers of America…. As soon as your resolution is known [to reject the petition] the idle will leave the province and the industrious will fall to work, many of whom wait till they see the event of this application.

On the other side were the “malcontents,” led by Lowland Scots and others who were enticed by the idea of thriving by the labor of slaves.[6]

Defeat

Oglethorpe and the other anti-slavery trustees were successful in beating back the onslaught in 1739, but over the next few years, military threats by the Spanish and growing power of the pro-slavery faction in Parliament weakened the founder’s position. In 1742 Lord Percival, one of Oglethorpe’s biggest supporters in London, resigned from Parliament. And Oglethorpe himself was compelled to take to the field to defend against Spanish aggression.

In 1743, Oglethorpe was forced to return to England to defend himself in a court-martial and never returned. The slave power, operating through South Carolina, intruded more and more into the colony, and by 1750, Parliament was convinced to overturn its slavery ban of 1735.

In 1752, as laid out in the original act, Georgia became a crown colony. And while its visionary founder continued to actively oppose slavery’s growth from his home in England, without strong anti-slavery leadership on the scene, Georgia became transformed into a de facto extension of South Carolina, a slavocracy.

[1] Craig, Winfield Scott, Slavery and Anti-Slavery in the Founding of Georgia and New South Wales, doctoral thesis submitted to Florida State University, 2010. This thesis provided much invaluable information for this chapter.

[2] For a detailed discussion of approval of the Georgia project, see Trustee Georgia, 1732-1751, The New Georgia Encyclopedia.

[3] See Establishing the Georgia Colony, 1732-1750, by the Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/united-states-history-primary-source-timeline/colonial-settlement-1600-1763/georgia-colony-1732-1750/

[4] See this op-ed by Michael Thurmond, then Georgia Secretary of Labor and author of Freedom: Georgia’s Anti-Slavery Heritage, 1732-1865, published in savannahnow.com on Feb. 15, 2008.   https://www.savannahnow.com/article/20080215/OPINION/302159906

[5] Much of this section is taken from an article by Fred Haight, “The Battle Over Slavery in the American South,” published in the March 21, 2008 issue of Executive Intelligence Review. Haight quotes extensively from Oglethorpe’s Colonial Letters.

[6] See georgiahistory.com https://georgiahistory.com/education-outreach/online-exhibits/online-exhibits/encounter-and-exchange/a-new-encounter-black-slaves-in-georgia/pre-revolutionary-slavery/