Tuesday, December 8, 2020

The Legacy of James Oglethorpe

So I was doing my daily acrostic puzzle and one of the clues was “Founder of Georgia.” And in the line of miracles I’ve been experiencing lately, some name appeared from the deep recesses of my mind: “Oglethorpe.” And the letters fit.

Where did that come from? Really. I have no conscious recollection whatsoever of having studied anything about the founder of Georgia and I knew absolutely nothing about the person behind that name. Nada. Zilch. Zero. Why would it be buried somewhere in my mind and how did it escape at the needed moment? I will never know. 

But the advantage of our modern age, where a trip to the catacombs of the library was unlikely and I’ve never had a set of encyclopedias, the simplicity of a click to Wikipedia gave me no excuse not to look him up. So I did and here’s what I found: 

James Edward Oglethorpe, founder of the colony of Georgia, was born on December 22, 1696, in Yorkshire, England. After graduating from Eton and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, Oglethorpe began a military career in 1717, fighting against the Turks under Prince Eugene of Savoy.

From 1722 to 1743, Oglethorpe served in the British House of Commons, gaining a reputation as the champion of the oppressed. He pressed for the elimination of English prison abuses and, in 1732, defended the North American colonies’ right to trade freely with Britain and the other colonies.

The prison reforms Oglethorpe had championed soon inspired him to propose a charity colony in America. On June 9, 1732, the crown granted a charter to the Trustees for Establishing the Colony of Georgia. Oglethorpe himself led the first group of 114 colonists on the frigate Anne, landing at the site of today’s Savannah on February 1, 1733. The original charter banned slavery and granted religious freedom, leading to the foundation of a Jewish community in Savannah. Throughout his life, Oglethorpe remained an outspoken opponent of slavery in the colonies.

Well, wasn’t that a surprise! My kind of guy! And an auspicious beginning to the state that can honorably claim itself as the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Ray Charles, Gladys Knight, Otis Redding, Fletcher Henderson, Alice Walker, Ossie Davis, Lawrence Fishburne, and Jessye Norman from one side of the tracks and Conrad Aiken, Erskine Caldwell, Ty Cobb, Oliver Hardy, Harry James, Johnny Mercer from the other. Yet Georgia also still has Stone Mountain intact, with Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis. the terrorist defenders of slavery, carved into the rock Mt. Rushmore style (and, I’m sorry to report, begun by Gutzon Borglum, the same carver of Mt. Rushmore). Some call it “the largest monument to White Supremacy in the country.” And it is.

But now there’s Stacey Abrams and the upcoming Senate race that will decide a lot about the next four years. Maybe it was an auspicious sign that the Crostic puzzle led me to Georgia’s more kindly beginnings and that the state can return to its more promising humanitarian foundation. On behalf of James Edward Oglethrope, I certainly hope so. 

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