The Short Life of Free Georgia: Class and Slavery in the Colonial South

The Short Life of Free Georgia: Class and Slavery in the Colonial South

The Short Life of Free Georgia: Class and Slavery in the Colonial South

The Short Life of Free Georgia: Class and Slavery in the Colonial South


For twenty years in the eighteenth century, Georgia--the last British colony in what became the United States--enjoyed a brief period of free labor, where workers were not enslaved and were paid. The Trustees for the Establishment of the Colony of Georgia created a "Georgia experiment" of philanthropic enterprise and moral reform for poor white workers, though rebellious settlers were more interested in shaking off the British social system of deference to the upper class. Only a few elites in the colony actually desired the slave system, but those men, backed by expansionist South Carolina planters, used the laborers' demands for high wages as examples of societal unrest. Through a campaign of disinformation in London, they argued for slavery, eventually convincing the Trustees to abandon their experiment.In The Short Life of Free Georgia, Noeleen McIlvenna chronicles the years between 1732 and 1752 and challenges the conventional view that Georgia's colonial purpose was based on unworkable assumptions and utopian ideals. Rather, Georgia largely succeeded in its goals--until self-interested parties convinced England that Georgia had failed, leading to the colony's transformation into a replica of slaveholding South Carolina.


A story fruitful of Instruction to all the unfortunate Creatures who are
oblig’d to seek their Re-establishment abroad; whether by the Misery of
Transportation, or other Disaster; letting them know, that Diligence and
Application have their due Encouragement, even in the remotest Parts of
the World, and that no Case can be so low, so despicable, or so empty of
Prospect, but that an unwearied Industry will go a great way to deliver us
from it, will in time raise the meanest Creature to appear again in the
World, and give him a new Cast for his Life.

—Defoe, Moll Flanders

Daniel Defoe lived in London in the first decades of the eighteenth century when the city boomed. As the population doubled between 1650 and 1750, it seemed to the educated that crime and vagrancy had reached epidemic levels. Defoe came to believe that transportation to the American colonies was the answer. This position stemmed not from a cruel instinct, but a paternalistic worldview. a poor man, brought to crime by economic desperation, could start afresh with “a new Cast for his Life.” Moll Flanders promised prosperity to those who would sail west. With scant reference to the difficulties of life in a thoroughly new world—Defoe made no mention of unwelcoming Indians or wholly foreign climatic conditions—Moll will turn tragedy to triumph. By analogy, perhaps the impoverished and the criminal might all find redemption in America.

To fully understand the origins of Georgia, we must somehow let go of what we know and travel back in time to a swampy forest. Before airconditioning and mosquito sprays, before the Civil War, even before cotton and rice plantations, German Pietists, Highland warriors, Lowland gentry, and English servants set up a new society. They spent twenty years fighting not for mere survival, although some days that alone seemed like a victory. They argued over the future nature of Georgia. Some sought to build a land of equal opportunity on a level playing field. Those with grit and perseverance would prosper in such a spot, no matter their background. Others wanted to re-create what they left behind in Europe, with a triangular social structure guaranteeing privileges only to the very . . .

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