Trustees for establishing the colony of Georgia in America [Georgia trustees; Georgia Society] (act. 17321752)
were a group of members of parliament, clergymen, and other public-spirited gentlemen who were instrumental in the establishment of the youngest of the thirteen American colonies.
The trustees and their cause
The idea for the colony was conceived by James Edward Oglethorpe
, a member of parliament who took a precocious interest in the social problems of the day. In 1729 he initiated and chaired a major parliamentary inquiry into the condition of several London gaols which drew particular attention to the plight of metropolitan tradesmen who were incarcerated for debt, often through no fault of their own but due to economic vicissitudes beyond their control. The inquiry's damning reports quickly prompted the passage of legislation releasing some 6000 insolvent debtors from England's prisons, but as Oglethorpe recognized, simply releasing them, while of help to some, would only lead to the further destitution of others. By the early months of 1730 he was already thinking in terms of a scheme to settle 100 impoverished debtors on the North American mainland where they might begin afresh in a Christian, moral and industrious way of life (Rand, 277).
Oglethorpe was able to interest the most active of his fellow investigators with his scheme and grouped them into an existing but dormant philanthropic trust, the Associates of Dr Thomas Bray, which provided them with a valid base from which to proceed towards the realization of their colonizing project. The revival of the gaol committee during the parliamentary session of 1730 to undertake further investigation helped to consolidate the friendship and joint sense of dedication among the dozen or so activists, and was of vital importance in encouraging Oglethorpe to press forward with his scheme. One of the investigators, John Perceval, Viscount Perceval (later first earl of Egmont)
, commented that in the course of my life I never knew a set of gentlemen apply themselves so compassionately and zealously to the service of the public; their frequent meeting gave us an opportunity to discern who among us had most the public good at heart, or had leisure to attend such services as required pains and application (BL, Add. MS 47000, fol. 53, Acc[oun]t of Georgia). Perceval was one of the original four Bray associates and became a leading proponent of the Georgia project. His diaries, which were published by the Historical Manuscripts Commission during 192023, document the genesis of the colony in much detail and have been extensively used as one of the principal sources for its early history.
Twenty-nine gentlemen were enfeoffed on 15 January 1730 as associates of the revived Bray charity, twenty-one of whom would form the contingent of founder trustees of the Georgia colony. Over the next two or so years it was this smaller group who, under Oglethorpe's lead, did most to plan and promote the colony. About half were non-parliamentary gentlemen, acquainted with, or known to, Oglethorpe, and specially selected by him: George Carpenter (c
.16951749), an army colonel and former MP whose father was the distinguished general George, first Baron Carpenter; James Vernon (16771756), a clerk of the privy council, whose brother, the celebrated naval officer and future admiral, Edward Vernon, shared Oglethorpe's humanitarian concerns; William Belitha, another of Bray's original trustees; Adam Anderson
, a clerk accountant at South Sea House and a published authority on commercial issues; and Thomas Coram
, whose interest in several colonization ventures blended with his better-known philanthropic work. There were also several prominent Anglican clergymen: Stephen Hales
, the eminent scientist and an ardent campaigner against gin; John Burton
, an Oxford scholar and an old friend of Oglethorpe; Richard Bundy
, a chaplain to George II; Arthur Bedford
, a strong proponent of moral reform; and Samuel Smith, yet another of the original Bray associates.
The leading promoters of the colony, however, were its cohort of eleven members of parliament. Besides Oglethorpe and Perceval, there were George Heathcote (17001768), a rich merchant and nephew of the influential City financier Sir Gilbert Heathcote, who proved himself a vital advocate of the new colony, Robert More
[see under More, Richard
], Rogers Holland (c
.17011761), Thomas Tower (1698?1778), Robert Hucks (16991745), William Sloper (1658?1743), Francis Eyles (c
.17041750), John Laroche (c
.17001752), and Edward Digby (c
.16931746), the son of the philanthropist Irish peer William, fifth Baron Digby of Geashill, who had been Bray's early patron, and the only one of these MPs who had not served with Oglethorpe on the gaol inquiries. Like Oglethorpe himself, they were mostly young gentlemen of an idealistic and dedicated cast of mind, still in the early stages of their parliamentary careers, and shunning any suggestion of being motivated by personal gain or profit in return for their endeavours. Their adopted motto was Non sibi, sed aliis
(Not for self but for others).
The Georgia project was an ambitious, philanthropic venture, underpinned by optimistic notions that a society might be perfected through the virtue and industry of its people if properly guided. With his fellow associates, Oglethorpe shared a paternalist vision that was strongly redolent of an imagined English past, a yeoman society with hundreds and tithings, regulated by constables, and ruled not by overlords, but by an overseer lest the power of a governor excite destructive jealousies. Expectations that the project could be launched with the aid of substantial funding from several important charitable legacies soon foundered, but wishing to avoid seeking grants from parliament the Georgia associates turned to raising money from subscriptions and donations. The need to appeal to a wide public compelled them to change the emphasis of their aim from an improving charitable colony for impoverished debtors, to the creation of a colony that stood to benefit the nation more explicitly in terms of economic advantage. Little could be achieved, however, until a charter of incorporation was obtained, a process which engrossed much of the associates' attention over the next two years. A petition, drawn up in July 1730, praying for the grant of a tract of land in the south-west of Carolina, between the Savannah and Altamaha rivers, which had recently reverted from its former proprietors to the crown, was presented to the privy council on 17 September. The proposal was scrutinized at length by the Board of Trade and Plantations before whom delegations of the intended trustees appeared several times in response to the board's various objections. Oglethorpe, being a tory opponent of the ministry, remained cautiously aloof from these negotiations. Even so, irksome delays gave rise to suspicions that behind the scenes the king's minister Sir Robert Walpole was deliberately blocking progress on account of the occasional opposition shown towards ministerial measures in the House of Commons by some of the other designated trustees. Even after the charter had been finally approved by the privy council on 27 January 1732, another three months elapsed before the ministers sought the king's signature for it. On 9 June the charter finally passed the great seal, formally inaugurating the Trustees for establishing the colony of Georgia in America.
Administering the trust
Within a few weeks the trustees established their offices near Old Palace Yard, in a lane that goes out of the street that leads from Palace Yard to Milbank ferry (Egmont Diary
, 1.282), conveniently close to the Palace of Westminster. A body of fifteen named trustees (which included the eleven MPs) constituted a common council which dealt with major issues concerning the colony, but when the required quorum of eight trustees could not be convened, a smaller trustee meeting handled business of a more routine nature. There were a further six trustees who were not common councillors, these being the clergymen, with the exception of Hales, together with Anderson and Coram. Viscount Perceval took office as president of the trustees, and Edward Digby as chairman of the common council. The Georgia board met weekly or fortnightly throughout the year, and as was already their practice often adjourned to dine and carry on their discussions informally at a nearby tavern. The trust's anniversary day was celebrated each year, usually in the third week of March, when the trustees gathered in the vestry of St Bride's Church in Fleet Street to elect new trustees, and afterwards heard a sermon devoted to their colonizing mission preached by a minister specially appointed by them for the occasion. Oglethorpe, impatient to begin building the colony, accompanied the first 100 or so settlers on their voyage, embarking at Gravesend in November 1732.
In 1733 the constituted number of common councillors was expanded from fifteen to twenty-four, and the non-common council trustees increased to fourteen. This allowed for a sizeable commercial, and a further parliamentary, element to be recruited into the trust's personnel to help attract funds and broader support among London's mercantile élite on the basis that the colony would be a new provider of raw materials for England's expanding entrepôt trade. These new men included William Heathcote MP (16931751), another nephew of Sir Gilbert and an assistant on the court of the Russia Company; Thomas Frederick (17071740), of a wealthy East India Company family and an MP from 1734; Robert Kendal, an oil importer and London alderman; John Page (1696?1779), an MP and director of the East India Company; Erasmus Philipps (16991743), an MP, trade analyst, and author; Christopher Tower (1694?1771), an MP and a director of the Bank of England from 1734; and William Hanbury, a Baltic merchant. The other MPs were James Hamilton, Viscount Limerick (c
.16911758), who had acted as one of the handful of commissioners for collecting subscriptions, John Brownlow, Viscount Tyrconnel (16901754), and John White (16991769). There were also two members of the upper house, Anthony Ashley Cooper, fourth earl of Shaftesbury (17111771), and James Stanley, tenth earl of Derby (16641736), though only the former participated actively, while the latter agreed to fund a botanist for the colony. During the course of the trust's twenty-year history, seventy-two men were to serve as trustees, forty-four of whom sat in the Commons, and five in the House of Lords.
The Georgia project received enthusiastic, though only limited financial backing from London's commercial sector, and applications for parliamentary money therefore became imperative. The trustees' failure to obtain a much needed £10,000 from the House of Commons in May 1732 prompted them to sharpen their publicity, and during the session of 1733, when every MP was given a copy of a pamphlet, Reasons for Establishing the Colony of Georgia
, written by the trust's secretary Benjamin Martyn
, the £10,000 was granted. Thereafter, until its demise in 1752, the Georgia trust was accorded substantial financial assistance from parliament, but though over the years this amounted to an unprecedented parliamentary outlay for an independent colonial venture, it was never sufficient. The trust's extensive representation in the House of Commons was a major asset in securing this funding. Sir Robert Walpole nevertheless had grounds to complain that he could not always be certain of the trustees' support in parliament, even though all but a few were his nominal supporters. Walpole disliked the trustees' apparent tendency to act together on certain issues in the Commons as a flying squadron against the ministry. In 1739, however, when the highly contentious Anglo-Spanish convention of Pardo aroused apprehension among the trustees that Georgia would be surrendered to Spain, Walpole ensured the support of the majority of them (13, with 5 opposing) in the closely fought Commons vote on the issue by facilitating a huge parliamentary grant of £20,000.
The harmonious relations between the trustees which had brought the colony into existence began to break down in the later 1730s. Oglethorpe's discouraging reports from Georgia provoked disagreements over the implementation of their paternalist plans and how its struggling economy could be improved. The founding trustees had selected colonists on the basis of their moral character rather than their practical ability to contribute to the colony's well-being. Little thought had been devoted to the question of how the wildly visionary projections of economic growth contained in their fund-raising publicity might be realized. The colonists criticized what they saw as the tight, blinkered governing hand of their rulers in London which intruded into every aspect of their lives, and which in particular denied them the economic advantages to be had from the slave labour permitted everywhere else in British North America. One trustee, John White, a dissenter and no friend to the Church of England, inspired a small faction among his fellows, increasingly averse to the trust's unbending Anglican purpose. In 1736 he, Robert More, and Robert Hucks resigned from the common council but continued to foment disagreement on the board through John Laroche, George Heathcote, and Lord Shaftesbury. The annoyance between trustees over the convention in 1739 caused further acrimony and resignations. The episode brought considerable humiliation upon them, and during Walpole's remaining years in power they were regarded primarily as one of his props in the Commons; as his power waned, so, too, did their own position steadily weaken. Increasingly, leadership of the trust shifted to men outside parliament, most notably the government bureaucrat James Vernon, one of its dedicated founder members.
At the general election of 1741 no fewer than ten trustees lost their Commons seats, including many of its leading lights: Roger Holland, Thomas Tower, Robert Tracy, Lord Tyrconnel, and Sir William Heathcote. Their places were filled by new MPs, but with the social and economic experiment in Georgia now rapidly collapsing, the old sense of optimism and enterprise was no longer to be found in the council room. Oglethorpe's failing authority in Georgia severely damaged his credibility with his fellow trustees in London. In July 1743 he returned to England for the last time, quarrelled with the board and ceased to attend its meetings. Egmont, one of the trust's most stalwart servants, had also resigned from the common council in March that year, demoralized and in ill health. During the 1740s the trust continued to manage the colony, albeit with barely enough parliamentary funding for its basic defence needs. After 1743 only 113 persons were sent to the colony. By then its population was much in decline, with lawlessness, drink, and starvation common problems among the remaining inhabitants. The trustees quietly wound up their affairs in 1752, and on the surrender of their charter Georgia became a colony under the direct rule of the British government.
Ideals and practicalities
The creators of Georgia were obsessed with building a version of society free of the corruption and social ills they saw around them in Walpolian Britain. Their limited, inflexible American zion, engineered from afar in London, bore many of the characteristics of the workhouse regimes that had become the accepted means of dealing with England's urban poor. None of the trustees, with the exception of Oglethorpe, ever saw Georgia for himself, and so had little conception of the alien environment with which the trust was concerned, let alone of the task of establishing a new society there; always uppermost in their minds were the colony's churches, the maintainence of ministers, or the availability of bibles. Once the initial flush of enthusiasm had been overtaken by continual setback, they slipped into gradual and crippling disillusion, although their consciences remained clear; the chosen objects of their charity were not unfortunate, but lazy.
A. A. Hanham