By Joseph Harris Chappell, 1905
James Edward Oglethorpe (1696-1785) – British general, Parliament member, philanthropist, and founder of the Georgia Colony, James Oglethorpe was born at Westminster, England, on June 1st, 1689. While he was yet a babe in the cradle it might have been expected that he would become a great man, for he came of a family of great people. Six hundred years before he was born, one of his ancestors, Sheriff Oglethorpe, was a high officer in the English army and was killed in the famous Battle of Hastings while bravely fighting for his country against the invader, William the Conqueror. This brave soldier had many distinguished descendants, the greatest of whom was James Oglethorpe.
James’s father, Sir Theophilus Oglethorpe, was also a noted officer in the English army. He fought with great valor in many battles and rose to the high rank of Major-General. When he was 40 years old, he retired from the army and settled down in an elegant home in the little country town of Godalming, about 30 miles from London.
He lived in great affluence with his family, and his children had the best educational advantages that could be obtained in Europe in that day. James’s mother was a Scotch-Irish lady of fine family and of good education. She was counted one of the cleverest and shrewdest English women of her day. She was one of the Ladies of the Court to “Good Queen Anne” and was a leader in society and a power in politics. She was a woman of strong will and, no doubt, had great influence in forming the character of her distinguished son.
James grew to be a tall, lithe, handsome youth, quiet mannered, good natured, and high spirited. Oglethorpe was educated at a military school, and before he was 20 years-old he joined the English army. He served with the rank of ensign under the great Duke of Marlborough. After the war was over, he withdrew from the army and attended college for a year or two, but he was a born soldier and did not like the “weak, piping times of peace.” As England had no wars to fight at that time, he joined the Austrian army, which was then engaged in a war with the Turks. The leader of the Austrian army was Prince Eugene of Savoy, the most brilliant soldier of his day. He was a small man but a great general, “a bright little soul with a flash in him as of heaven’s own lightning,” as Carlyle, the famous English writer, said of him. Prince Eugene took a very decided liking to young Oglethorpe and made him his aide-de camp, with the rank of Captain. By the side of this “bright little soul with a flash in him as of heaven’s own lightning,” Oglethorpe thoroughly learned the soldier’s trade and fought with dashing valor in many desperate battles. These were his romantic days, and he always loved to talk about them. When he was an old, old man, he would charm brilliant company with his vivid descriptions of the battles in which he had fought by the side of Prince Eugene.
When the Turkish war was over, Oglethorpe returned to England and settled down to ways of peace. His father and elder brothers died, and he inherited the family estates. He was now a very rich man, but, he lived a simple and sober life. He was elected to Parliament and served as a member for many years. While he was in Parliament, an event occurred that turned his attention toward America and caused him to become the founder of Georgia.
At that time, there was a law in England that a person in debt could be imprisoned by his creditors and kept there until his debts were somehow paid. Many poor, unfortunate people, innocent of any crime, languished in these debtors’ prisons for years. This law affected a good friend of Oglethorpe’s, a scholar and artist named Robert Castell. Castell had written a fine book on architecture, which he illustrated with splendid pictures drawn by his own hand. He was so much taken up with writing the book that he neglected his business affairs, and when the book was published instead of making money for him it brought him heavily in debt. As a result, he was condemned to be cast into the debtors’ prison.
In the prison to which he was assigned, smallpox was raging, and he had never had the disease. He begged the prison keeper, a heartless wretch by the name of Bambridge, to let him lie in the common jail until the prison should be freed of the smallpox or until his friends could arrange to pay his debts for him, which he was sure would be done in the course of a few months. Bambridge agreed to do so if Castell would pay him down in cash a certain sum of money as a bribe, but Castell didn’t have the money, so he was thrown into the smallpox-infested prison, where he soon contracted the disease; and after a few days’ suffering he died an awful death, leaving his wife and small children poverty stricken and helpless.
When Oglethorpe heard of this outrage his blood boiled with indignation. He, at once, introduced a bill in Parliament to have a committee appointed to examine the prisons of England and bring about a reform in their management. The bill was passed, Oglethorpe was made Chairman of the Committee, and, with the other members, he spent several months visiting the prisons. He found in them, many practices of shocking cruelty, all of which were immediately abolished.
If Oglethorpe had done nothing more than bring about this reform, he would deserve the lasting gratitude of humanity, but, he did not stop at this. While visiting the prisons his sympathies were deeply aroused for the poor debtors whom he found languishing behind iron bars, though innocent of any crime. He determined to try to do something to help them out of their sad condition. By his earnest appeals, he got Parliament to pass a law by which they might be set free, provided they would agree to go to America and establish a new colony for England on a broad strip of unsettled country already claimed by her, south of the Savannah River. It lay next to Florida, which then belonged to Spain. The Spaniards were, at that time, one of the most powerful and warlike nations in the world, and were hostile to the English, although not openly at war with them.
Fortunately for Oglethorpe’s enterprise, King George II of England was anxious to plant colonies in his unoccupied possessions south of the Savannah River as a protection for South Carolina against the bold Spaniards of Florida. He gladly granted to Oglethorpe “for the use of debtors and other poor persons” all the country between the Savannah and the Altamaha Rivers, and as far westward as they might choose to go. This strip of country was named Georgia in honor of King George. A Board of Trustees, consisting of 36 members, among whom were some of the King’s most distinguished men, were appointed to be in charge of planting, establishing, and governing the new colony. They were to serve without pay or compensation of any sort. Lord Perceval was president of the Board, and Oglethorpe was one of the members. The Trustees set about raising money to pay the cost of establishing the colony, and for the poor people who were to go, but were not able to pay any part of their own expenses. Parliament made quite a liberal appropriation for the purpose, and a larger amount was raised by public donations. Altogether, the Trustees soon had in hand $150,000, which was sufficient to establish a small colony.