It’s Georgia Day. So let’s remember what a righteous dude the colony’s original founder was.

James Edward Oglethorpe,  Alfred Edmund Dyer, portrait

Longhaired hippie: Portrait of James Edward Oglethorpe by Alfred Edmund Dyer

James Edward Oglethorpe was a minor nobleman and military hero who became one of Great Britain’s leading humanitarians after winning a seat in Parliament. Like few others in his aristocratic class, he recognized that rural families were being forced from the land and deposited into urban slums. And that many of those people ended up in debtors’ prison because of the conditions they’d been forced into, not because of their own actions.

Even more exceptionally, Oglethorpe did something about it. In the early 1730s, he conceived of Georgia as a buffer between the wealthy planters’ colony of South Carolina and the Spanish colony of Florida. It was to be settled by the “deserving poor.”

In a wonderful column this week, Georgia Humanities Council President Jamil Zainaldin notes that “Oglethorpe’s dream” has often taken on an unfortunate shorthand as a “Debtor’s Colony.”

What stands out in Oglethorpe’s vision for Georgia is the place of civil society, the very reason for the colony’s creation. At the core of this vision is an ethos of service, relative equality, commitment to community, and economic development. There was room neither for slavery (it was banned by the Trustees and Oglethorpe) nor religious bigotry (persecuted minorities were welcomed). Oglethorpe also practiced an enlightened and respectful policy toward those already living on the land — Chief Tomochichi and his people.

Within two decades, greed overtook the young colony. To Oglethorpe’s eternal sadness, planters successful appealed to Parliament to reverse the ban on slavery. That change undermined the livelihoods of poor whites, in addition to visiting a particularly horrific version of bondage that haunts Georgia’s culture to this very day.

Wouldn’t it be nice if — instead of basing our self-image on the corrupt lies of the slavery era — we Georgians glorified “Oglethorpe’s Dream” as our defining cultural tradition?

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