As you probably learned from grade school history classes, the colonization of the “New World” wasn’t an easy task, and the European leaders could only hope to achieve success by sending their best people. After all, this land offered unparalleled bounty and new resources that most people back home could hardly even fathom. In the form of new fruits and vegetables and domesticated animals that had long since been tamed, the continent was up for grabs. James Oglethorpe was the founder and eventual leader of the colony in present-day Georgia, born on December 22, 1696 in England. When elected to lead, he had no idea how difficult this new trial would be.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of Oglethorpe’s style of leadership was the shift toward social reform. When planning the new Georgia colony, he looked far beyond the wealthy elite back in Britain–no, he wanted to bring the poor. He was especially interested in resettling any of those poor who then resided in a debtor’s prison, an institution for people unable to lift themselves out of debt. While the British may have typically rewarded poverty with prison, Oglethorpe thought a better reward was a chance at a whole new life.
Unfortunately, this goal was difficult to pursue. Not only did social realities conflict with his own dreams to make a better world for those stuck underneath the heel of the rich, but logistics got in the way as well. Restrictions had previously been placed on the size of each parcel of land and the rules regarding inheritance were perhaps overly strict.
Even so, many of the poor were able to establish themselves under Oglethorpe’s leadership. In addition, the new colony received an influx of religious refugees from other European countries like France, Germany, and Switzerland.
There were other obstacles to governing the Georgia colony. The spectre of war with Spain loomed over the New World with increasing darkness, and the British government pushed the leadership across the Atlantic to prepare itself militarily. This resulted in a positive feedback loop of sorts–economic prosperity was nonexistent and military obligations got in the way of already limited commerce, which itself resulted in the stunted progress of Oglethorpe’s goals for social progress. The cycle continued.
War eventually did break out, and Oglethorpe was forced to make ultimately unsuccessful sieges of St. Augustine between the years of 1740 and 1743 to push out the Spanish. James Oglethorpe returned to England after the last failure, where he maintained his place in the British Army. From then on, he continued to seek promotion in the military, and in 1785 he took on the role of the first U.S. ambassador to Britain. He died later that same year at the age of 88 in Cranham, England.