Georgia: Utopia and Prison
Founded on firm—though diverse—religious principles, Plymouth, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Rhode Island, Maryland, and Pennsylvania were all expressions of hope, variations on a theme of desire for a better life. The origin of Georgia was even more frankly utopian.
In 1732, James Edward Oglethorpe, whose character combined military discipline (he was a general) with a passion for philanthropy, organized a group of 19 wealthy and progressive individuals into a corporation that secured a royal charter to colonize Georgia as the southernmost of Britain’s North American colonies. Oglethorpe’s bold plan was to create a colony as a haven for various Protestant dissenters, but, even more importantly, for the vast and ever-growing class of insolvent debtors who languished in British prisons and also for persons convicted of certain criminal offenses. Oglethorpe reasoned that the colony would give the debtors a fresh start and would reform and rehabilitate the criminals.
Selflessly, Oglethorpe and the other philanthropists agreed to act as trustees of the colony without taking profits for a period of 21 years. To promote a utopian way of life, Oglethorpe prohibited the sale of rum and outlawed slavery in the colony. He also set regulations limiting the size of individual land holdings in an effort to create equality. The first colonists who arrived with Oglethorpe in 1733 were placed on 55-acre farms, which they were forbidden to sell or transfer. But this arrangement, key to the project, was quickly abandoned. To begin with, few of the original 100 colonists were debtors or sufferers of religious persecution or even criminals ripe for rehabilitation. They were speculators looking for opportunity. They soon found ways of circumventing the 55-acre limit to land holding, and once large plantations were established, slavery followed. Georgia was now no different from England’s other southern colonies.