Trustee Georgia, 1732-1752
Edward J. Cashin, Augusta State University
The first twenty years of Georgia history are referred to as Trustee Georgia because during that time a Board of Trustees governed the colony. England's King George signed a charter establishing the colony and creating its governing board on April 21, 1732. His action culminated a lengthy process.
James Edward Oglethorpe, famous for conducting a parliamentary investigation into the conditions of London prisons, exercised a leading role in the movement to found the new colony. James Oglethorpe, a leader in the British movement to found a new colony in America, set sail for the new world on November 17, 1732, accompanied by Georgia's first settlers.
He confided to his friend John Lord Viscount Percival (known as the first earl of Egmont after that title was conferred on him in 1733) that he intended to help released debtors begin a new life in America.
In fact, Oglethorpe had received a grant of £5,000 to carry out his plan. In 1729 Dr. Thomas Bray chose trustees to administer his estate. In addition to Oglethorpe, the trustees, called the Associates of Dr. Bray, included several future members of the Georgia Trust, notably Percival, James Vernon, and Thomas Coram. Coram is better known as the founder of the Foundling Hospital in London. Oglethorpe and his friends decided to add the Bray legacy to the funds in hand for the purpose of establishing a new colony between the Savannah and Altamaha rivers, in territory claimed by both the province of South Carolina and the Spanish colony of Florida. Left: Addih Haddisch, a Mandan Chief, Karl Bodmer, 1841 A.D., Beinecke Library, Yale University.
On September 17, 1730, the associates presented a petition for a charter to the Privy Council, Parliament's executive body, headed by the chancellor of the exchequer, Robert Walpole. The petition was routinely passed on to the notoriously inefficient Board of Trade, which dawdled for a year without acting. Walpole, the prime minister, was less than eager to challenge the Spanish, who had a prior claim to the region requested by the petitioners. Walpole needed the support of the influential members of Parliament who supported the charter, however, and he managed to bring the charter before the Privy Council. After going through several revisions, the notion of helping debtors gave way to a more pragmatic plan to send over "the deserving poor" who would protect South Carolina while producing such goods as wine and silk for England.
The colonists were entitled to all the rights of Englishmen, yet there was no provision for the essential right of local government. Religious liberty was guaranteed, except for Roman Catholicism and Judaism. A group of Jews landed in Georgia without explicit permission in 1733 but were allowed to remain.
The charter created a corporate body called a Trust and provided for an unspecified number of Trustees who would govern the colony from England. Seventy-one men served as Trustees during the life of the Trust. Trustees were forbidden by the charter from holding office orland in Georgia, nor were they paid. Presumably, their motives for serving were humanitarian, and their motto was Non sibi sed aliis ("Not for self, but for others").
The charter provided that the body of Trustees elect fifteen members to serve as an executive committee called the Common Council, and specified a quorum of eight to transact business. As time went on, the council frequently lacked a quorum; those present One face of the 1733 seal of the Georgia Trustees features two figures resting upon urns. They represent the Savannah and Altamaha rivers, which formed the northwestern and southeastern boundaries of the province. Left: An Emblem of America London: Published 1st, February, 1801 A.D., by Haines & son, British Museum.
Twelve Trustees attended the first meeting on July 20, 1732, at the Georgia office in the Old Palace Yard, conveniently close to Westminster. Committees were named to solicit contributions and interview applicants to the new colony. On November 17, 1732, seven Trustees bade farewell to Oglethorpe and the first settlers as they left from Gravesend aboard the Anne. The Trustees succeeded in obtaining £10,000 from the government in 1733 and lesser amounts in subsequent years. Georgia was the only American colony that depended on Parliament's annual subsidies. The most active members of the Trust, in terms of their attendance at council, corporation, or committee meetings, were, in order of frequency, James Vernon, the earl of Egmont, Henry L'Apostre, Samuel Smith, Thomas Tower, John Laroche, Robert Hucks, Stephen Hales, James Oglethorpe, and Anthony Ashley Cooper, fourth earl of Shaftesbury.
The number of meetings attended ranged from Vernon's 712 to Shaftesbury's 266. Sixty-one Trustees attended fewer meetings. James Vernon, one of the original Associates of Dr. Bray and an architect of the charter, maintained an interest in Georgia throughout the life of the Trust. He arranged the Salzburger settlement and negotiated with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts for missionaries. He differed from Egmont and Oglethorpe in his willingness to respond to the colonists' complaints.
When Oglethorpe became preoccupied with the Spanish war, Vernon proposed the plan of dividing the colony into two provinces, Savannah and Frederica, each with a president and magistrates. The Trustees named William Stephens president in Savannah, and he served until 1751, when he was replaced by Henry Parker in the final year of the Trust's tenure. Oglethorpe neglected to name a president for Frederica, and the magistrates there were instructed to report to Stephens. The Trustees did not want to appoint a single governor because the king in council had to approve the appointment of governors, and the Trustees preferred to keep control in their hands.
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After retirement in 1742, Vernon became the indispensable man.
He missed only 4 of 114 meetings during the last nine years of the Trust and supervised the removal of restrictions on land tenure, rum, and slavery.
Egmont, the first president of the Common Council and the dominant figure among the Trustees until his retirement, acted as Georgia's champion in Parliament.
He strongly opposed Walpole's attempts to conciliate Spain at the expense of Georgia.
He had to walk a careful line, however, because the Trustees depended upon Walpole for their annual subsidies.
Other Trustees contributed according to their abilities.
Henry L'Apostre advised on finances, Samuel Smith on religion, and Thomas Tower on legal matters, particularly on instructions to Georgia officials.
Stephen Hales's closeness to the royal family and his standing as a scientist lent prestige to the body of Trustees.
Shaftesbury, a political opponent of Walpole, joined the Common Council in 1733 and, except for a brief resignation, remained faithful to the end.
He led the negotiations to convert Georgia to a royal colony.
For the entire twenty years the Trustees employed only two staff members, Benjamin Martyn as secretary and Harman Verelst as accountant.