Ideals and Economics: The Debate Over Slavery in Colonial Georgia

Laura Grove

The colonies forming British North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were each founded with their own set of specific aims. Some were established primarily for entrepreneurial endeavors, others for religious freedom and a chance at a new life. However, as colonists created more permanent settlements, all shared a similar goal of establishing an economically stable society. No settlement could persist if its people could not find a profitable industry from which to thrive. In Georgia this priority came into sharp contrast with the aims and ideals that prompted its founding. Georgia originally prohibited slavery to foster a society that could provide opportunity for the destitute in England and act as a buffer against the Spanish in Florida. But with time these ideals could not stand up to the economic need for slavery. Completely disregarding issues of morality, the debate over slavery in Georgia instead hinged on whether Georgia would succeed in attaining the unique goals of its original charter or change to keep up economically with the other British North American colonies.

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A map of colonial Georgia (1770s)

The founders of Georgia aimed to benefit poor white men by offering them protection from the Spanish and fresh economic opportunities, goals they believed necessitated the exclusion of African slavery. In the years before Georgia’s establishment England’s population of impoverished and imprisoned persons reached alarming levels. In part to combat this one of the primary founders of Georgia, James Oglethorpe, envisioned Georgia as a colony that could provide the plethora of impoverished Englishmen with an opportunity to work hard and succeed in the new world (Greene 138). Strategically, Georgia was intended to provide a safe barrier for the rest of British North America from the Native Americans and the Spanish in Florida (Greene 138). Since both countries settled North America, tensions over land and trade plagued them (Morgan 27). Part of achieving both these goals involved the explicit prohibition of African slaves to maximize opportunity for settlers and minimize opportunity for Spanish influence. However, economic competition from colonies that did accept the use of African slaves prevented such a society from achieving much success. Though settlers set out for Georgia expecting to find a land of overwhelming opportunity and promise, they instead found a life of intense labor and subsistence living (Greene 143). Many grew to believe that introducing African slaves would help relieve the burdens of colonists by boosting the Georgian economy.

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The landing of Oglethorpe in Georgia

Opponents to slavery cited the potential adverse effects for white colonists as a justification for the continued prohibition of slavery, demonstrating how the problem of slavery became intertwined with Oglethorpe’s original ambitions for Georgia. Many believed if African slaves were introduced inequality would quickly spread throughout the white population in Georgia (Greene 144). For example, one Georgian, a Mr. Williams, petitioned to have slavery made legal in Georgia at great benefit to himself. Many of Mr. Williams’ supporters were indebted to him and in so desperate a state that they willingly agreed to trade their land for debt forgiveness and slaves from whose labor they believed they could live (Oglethorpe 388). Thus Oglethorpe expressed concern saying, “ If this petition is countenanced, the province is ruined” (Oglethorpe 396). He believed Mr. Williams would buy up all the people’s land and replace them with African slaves should he get his way (Oglethorpe 389). Consequently, African slaves would displace those white men who had come to Georgia seeking to recreate themselves. Indeed, white immigration would decrease as opportunities lagged, resulting in a large African population which some feared might come to dominate the region (Greene 144). In short, there would be less opportunity for white men to succeed. They feared an influx of Africans would discourage immigration of white settlers and thus create an imbalance of wealth and opportunity (Greene 144.) Reverend John Martin Bolzius laid out this fear even more plainly in a letter to Reverend George Whitefield when he said the introduction of slavery in Georgia would make“…this Retirement and Refuge for poor persecuted or Necessitous Protestants, a Harbour of Black Slaves, and deprive [white settlers] of the benefits to be Settled here” (Bolzius 114). In short opponents believed slavery would jeopardize white men’s second chance at a successful life. African slaves would disrupt the existing power balance in Georgia, benefiting some greatly while eliminating opportunities for most.

James Oglethorpe
James Edward Oglethorpe, Founder of Georgia

 

Oglethorpe and likeminded others also placed great importance on the safety of British North America, which they believed African slaves threatened. Firstly, they worried that slave rebellions “might Occasion the utter Ruin and loss of such colonys” (Minutes of the Georgia Privy Council 113). Rebellions took place in Carolina, and Oglethorpe hoped to avoid violence in Georgia (Oglethorpe 612). Such rebellions, he believed, might have resulted from Spanish influence (Oglethorpe 612). Hence Georgia would ban slavery and act as a buffer to protect the rest of British North America from aggression from the Spanish in Florida. Because of this proximity Oglethorpe believed, “ if Negros could be allowed, this colony must be immediately destroyed, for it would be impossible to prevent them deserting to the Spaniards, our neighbors who give freedom, land and protection to all run away Negros” (Oglethorpe 388). Consequently, the Spanish presence, some argued, might motivate African slaves to act out against their masters and assist the Spanish in their efforts to, “…[raise] a general disturbance through all North America” by inciting rebellions (Oglethorpe 612). Adversaries of slavery cited the exclusion of slavery as one of the primary reasons Georgia had yet to fall to the Spanish, for Georgia’s free, white population had no reason to turn their backs on the English (Oglethorpe 612). Hence the debate over slavery in Georgia reflected a larger debate concerning the safety and stability of the colony and British North America as a whole.

Proponents of slavery in Georgia argued that the failing economy necessitated slavery. The Georgian economy suffered in the beginning, for it had to compete with slave owning states on the open market. Unfortunately, the climate in Georgia turned out not to be as conducive to growing the exotic crops the English had hoped for (Greene 143). The citizens of Savannah lamented the fact that their only viable export was timber and that they could “manufacture it for a foreign market but at double the expense of other colonies”, primarily because other colonies used slave labor (Remonstrance of the Inhabitants of Savannah 113). Accordingly, Georgia suffered economically. The land and economy in Georgia forced settlers into subsistence living, a far cry from the riches and opportunities they had been promised. Slavery presented a potential solution, for many slaves could work, and thus produce, much more than a single free man (Remonstrance of Inhabitants of Savannah 113). Moreover slavery, many surmised, would boost the economy by offering the people labor and thus the ability to produce more goods at lower prices. The economic plight Georgia faced consequently gave rise to the desire for slavery.

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Georgia, shown as a buffer state between Spanish Florida and the British Carolinas (c. 1788)

Oglethorpe envisioned Georgia as a land of sure opportunity and safety for those in need of a second chance in England. It represented an occasion to start over and build a prosperous life off the land. Slavery had no place in this community for hardworking white men as it might limit individual’s opportunity to work. However, when Georgia proved less fruitful than expected and economic realities set in, settlers competed in trade with slave holding colonies. Consequently they fell behind because they lacked the manpower and free labor of their competitors. Additionally there was the worry that slaves might rebel and Georgia’s status as a buffer state between British North America and Spanish Florida would be jeopardized. Ultimately, these concerns stemmed from racist beliefs that Africans were savages and inferior to white men. Thus they could ruin the ideal society that Oglethorpe envisioned for Georgia by driving the white population away. In the end, the debate over slavery in Georgia was really about whether to preserve Georgia society, as it was designed, or reshape it to be more economically viable.

 

Works Cited

Bolzius, John Martin, Rev. The Reverend John Martin Bolzius to the Reverend George Whitefield. Major Problems in the History of the American South: Documents and Essays. By Sally G. McMillen, Elizabeth H. Turner, Paul D. Escott, and David R. Goldfield. Vol. 1. Boston: Wadsworth, n.d. 114-15. Print.

Greene, Jack P. “Georgia’s Attempt to Become a Viable Colony.” Major Problems in the History of the American South: Documents and Essays. By Sally G. McMillen, Elizabeth H. Turner, Paul D. Escott, and David R. Goldfield. Vol. 1. Boston: Wadsworth, n.d. 138-50. Print.

McMillen, Sally G., Elizabeth H. Turner, Paul D. Escott, and David R. Goldfield. Minutes of the Georgia Privy Council, 1735. Major Problems in the History of the American South: Documents and Essays. Vol. 1. Boston: Wadsworth, n.d. 112-13. Print.

McMillen, Sally G., Elizabeth H. Turner, Paul D. Escott, and David R. Goldfield. Remonstrance of the Inhabitants, 1738. Major Problems in the History of the American South: Documents and Essays. Vol. 1. Boston: Wadsworth, n.d. 113-14. Print.

Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: Norton, 1975. Print.

Oglethorpe, James. “James Oglethorpe To The Trustees.”; Letter to Georgia Trustees. 16 Jan. 1739. MS. Saint Simon’s, n.p. (387-89)

Oglethorpe, James.”James Oglethorpe To The Trustees.”; Letter to Georgia Trustees. 17 Jan. 1739. MS. Saint Simon’s, n.p. (389-90)

Oglethorpe, James.”James Oglethorpe To The Trustees.”; Letter to Georgia Trustees. 28 May 1742. MS. Frederica, n.p. (612-13)

Ideals and Economics: The Debate Over Slavery in Colonial Georgia
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