Childhood & Early Life
James Oglethorpe was born on 22 December 1696 in Godalming, Surrey, England, to Sir Theophilus Oglethorpe and his wife Eleanor Oglethorpe. His father was a soldier and Member of Parliament.
He joined Corpus Christi College, Oxford in 1714 but did not study there for long as he joined the army of Prince Eugene of Savoy the same year.
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He received a recommendation from John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough which led to his being selected the aide-de-camp to the prince. Young James then travelled to Austria and served with distinction in the Austro-Turkish War of 1716–18.
He returned home to England following the war. Keeping up with family traditions, he ran for the parliament and was elected Member of Parliament for Haslemere in 1722.
He had always been interested in humanitarian endeavors, and as a Member of Parliament he totally dedicated himself to bringing about positive changes in the society for the welfare of the underprivileged.
In the late 1720s, one of his friends, Robert Castell, was jailed in London’s Fleet Prison because of his debts. There Castell was forced to share a cell with a prisoner who had smallpox. As a result Castell too contracted the disease and died.
Deeply shocked by his friend’s death, Oglethorpe launched a national campaign to reform England's prisons. He was made the chairman of a parliamentary committee to investigate the jails and over the course of the investigation he became aware of the horrible conditions these prisoners were kept in and the tortures that were meted out to them. Oglethorpe began to question the ethics behind imprisoning and torturing people just because of indebtedness.
This investigation led to the implementation of a series of steps to reform London's prisons. Oglethorpe’s efforts regarding prison reforms gained him national attention and he became known as one of Britain’s leading humanitarians.
However, the prison reforms and subsequent release of several of the prisoners created a new problem. The debtors, though free now, had no means of financially supporting themselves as there was a lack of viable opportunities of productive employment in the countryside.
In order to address this issue, Oglethorpe and several of his colleagues from the prison committee began to explore the possibility of creating a new colony in America where London’s former debtors could pursue meaningful occupations as farmers, artisans, and merchants. Thus, the Trustees for the Establishment of the Colony of Georgia in America was formed to take forward this idea.
The British government approved their plan in 1732, and Oglethorpe led an expedition of colonists to the New World with the first ship setting sail in late 1732. He, along with the other trustees had envisioned a system of “agrarian equality”—an economy based on family farming where large landholdings by an individual were not allowed. Land ownership was limited to 50 acres and no one was permitted to acquire additional land through purchase or inheritance.
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The first colonists, led by Oglethorpe arrived at South Caroline in late 1732 and settled near the present site of Savannah, Georgia. There he became friends with Chief Tomochichi, who was the chief of the Yamacraw, and soon started working on establishing the colony he had envisioned.
Even though Oglethorpe’s original plan was to resettle debtors from London, ultimately just a few debtors ended up in Georgia. The colonists included many poor English people and religious refugees from Switzerland, France and Germany.
He returned several times to England to lobby the Parliament for funds to establish forts at Georgia. On one such visit in 1737, he requested King George II to appoint him as a colonel in the army and give him a regiment of British soldiers to take back to Georgia. The king accepted his request.
Georgia lay between the English Carolinas and Spanish Florida. In July 1742, the Spanish equipped with thousands of troops invaded Georgia. Oglethorpe rallied his forces for battle and successfully defeated the Spanish forces at the Battle of Bloody Marsh, forcing them to withdraw. This victory elevated him to the status of a national hero in England and King George II promoted him to brigadier general in His Majesty's Army. Oglethorpe returned to London in 1743.
He was called to serve in the Jacobite Rising of 1745 when the Jacobite troops from Scotland marched into the North of England. He joined the Duke of Cumberland in his attempt to suppress the rebellion but the events did not unfold as anticipated and Oglethorpe was court-martialed and charged with misconduct. Even though he was acquitted, this incident marked the effective end of his active military career.
Personal Life & Legacy
He met and fell in love with Elizabeth Wright, a wealthy heiress, in the early 1740s and married her in September 1744. They had a happy and active life entertaining friends and socializing with other well-known members of the London society. The couple did not have any children.
James Oglethorpe lived a long life and died on June 30, 1785, following a brief illness. He was 88 years old.
Oglethorpe County and Oglethorpe University in Atlanta are named in his honor.