Pat here, just back from a three week trip by plane, boat, and car (don’t know how we missed train. . .) and a little too overwhelmed to write a coherent blog. The original intent of our travel was research in Charleston and Savannah, but weather upended most of those plans. Both cities are charming, and their early days would be great for contrasting, but that would take more time and space than I have. So I thought I’d dive into Savannah’s history first—until I remembered General James Oglethorpe, the city’s founder. The man was absolutely fascinating and a century before his time, at the very least. If only all our rich and famous could be as broad-minded. . .
So today you get a bit of English and American history combined. Oglethorpe was born in Yorkshire in 1696 to a wealthy family and did all those things a favored son should do—attend Eton and Oxford and join the military—except he decided to finish school in a French military academy and join the Hapsburgs in fighting the Turks. Adventurous little snot from the start. . .
But he returned to England with military honors and moved on up the ladder by joining the House of Commons in 1722 at the ripe old age of 26, as one does. He may have partied a bit for a few years, or polished his medals or made connections, but whatever he did landed him on the Gaols Committee that investigated debtors’ prisons. That was where his heroism, brilliance, and advanced thinking really began to shine.
He didn’t see the value of leaving hardworking men and women languishing in prison to pay debts they couldn’t pay even when they were working—big duh there. But instead of bringing a bill to the Commons saying “oh these poor people should be given jobs instead of prison,” he brought a bill saying Britain needed to establish a 13th colony to protect South Carolina from the Spanish in Florida. Rah rah, go Britain go, let’s
beat back those—whatever bad epithet they used for Spanish Catholics in the 1700s. And voila, they granted him a charter for all of Georgia. (I have no images of Florida Spaniards so I give you an image of a seafarer's inn built in Savannah in 1753 and reported to be a home for pirates)
In June, 1732, Oglethorpe and his frigate Anne landed in the area that is now known as Savannah, accompanied by 114 colonists. With the aid of local Indian traders, he immediately made friends with Tomochicihi, the towering chief of the local Indian tribe. With that negotiation settled, the colonists were free to develop the city without warfare. Gee, who woulda thunk taking land without warfare was a possibility?
Oglethorpe arrived with a plan so elaborate that he had to have been working on it for years. His charter allowed freedom of religion—and forbade rum, lawyers, and slavery. I like his thinking (although indentured servants weren't a huge step from slavery but they did have a time limit). Freedom of religion opened the colony to everyone, including Jews, and contrary to all popular beliefs of the time, the diversity allowed the city to flourish.
And the one part of his grand scheme that lingers until today is the plan he laid out for the city. He built a grid with four shady public squares to serve as meeting places and centers of business with wide streets surrounded by building lots. Eventually, the city expanded to 24 squares, 22 of which are still in existence today. The lots were eventually taken over by the monstrously large houses of cotton merchants and shipping magnates. In the early days of the city, the lack of slavery allowed shipping and trade instead of agriculture to dominate the economy. That didn’t last, of course, but Oglethorpe couldn’t live forever. If only we could have cloned him. . .
I’m grateful for this trip to remind me that there are people out there who can think and do selflessly grand things. I suppose, in one way, the education, wealth, and privilege of Britain’s landed aristocrats allowed them to be noble, but how many actually were? And then one must wonder if Oglethorpe would have been so successful with today’s multi-faceted economic and political problems?
This was a quick and impromptu summary of Oglethorpe’s career in the Americas. Does anyone know more about him?