Sir Theophilus and Lady Eleanor Wall Oglethorpe gave birth to their ninth child and fifth son on December 22, 1696, in London. The next day James Edward Oglethorpe was christened at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London, named in honor of his brother who had died soon after birth.
As a young man, Oglethorpe enrolled at Eton and eventually matriculated into Corpus Christi College, Oxford. His time there was short, for he soon joined the military, seeing active service in Flanders under the Duke of Marlborough. Later he volunteered as aide-de-camp to Prince Eugene of Savoy during the siege of Belgrade, Turkey. Although Oglethorpe would never actually graduate from Corpus Christi, he was awarded a special MA in 1731 by his alma mater.
In 1722, Oglethorpe was elected to the House of Commons seat previously held by both his father and brother. He would serve for an astonishing thirty-two years before being defeated in 1754 and running unsuccessfully again in 1768. During his tenure, Oglethorpe served on a wide variety of committees dedicated to a number of issues. Two issues he quickly became interested in were the disproportional punishment of debtors and reevaluation of the archaic prison system.
Magnifying his interest in these issues, his personal friend Robert Castell, imprisoned due to debt, died of smallpox while serving his sentence. Oglethorpe blamed the lack of concern of the prison system for its inmates and the rapidity of being jailed for simple charges of debt for the death of his friend. His staunch opposition to the incarceration of debtors and inadequacies of the prison system led Oglethorpe to form the Georgia Society.
Formed in 1730, the Georgia Society was intended to create a refuge for those debtors recently released from prison through the Prison Reform Act of 1729. The following year, Oglethorpe expanded the plan for resettlement to include not only debtors but to any economically destitute family. His plan culminated in 1732 when King George II issued a royal charter to a corporation of twenty-one men for the establishment of the royal colony of Georgia.
Chartered to encompass all lands between the mouths of the Savannah and Altamaha Rivers and from their sources westward to the South Seas (Pacific Ocean), the Colony of Georgia was to remain private for twenty-one years before reverting back to a royal colony. Further, no trustees could financially gain from the enterprise nor hold any land. The trustees welcomed this stipulation, creating “Non sibi, sed aliis” (Not for themselves, but others) as the motto for their colony. Therefore, Oglethorpe never received any monetary compensation from his founding of Georgia.
Finally, the charter prohibited ownership of more than 500 acres per individual. This was in polar contrast to the Carolinas, where few owned most and most owned little or nothing at all. Interestingly, Oglethorpe outlawed both slavery and liquor in Georgia. This would later cause animosity toward him by his colonists who felt they were not thriving as well as the Carolinas to the north.
Oglethorpe and the first group of settlers left England on November 17, 1732, arriving at Charles Town (Charleston), on January 13, 1733. From his base in Charles Town, Oglethorpe and a small group continued on aboard the ship Ann, arriving at Savannah on February 1, 1733 (February 12, 1733, according to the new calendar). He negotiated with the Creek Native Americans for land, establishing a series of defensive military forts.
In 1734, Oglethorpe and a group of others returned to England along with Yamacraw Native American Chief Tomochichi, who was warmly received at the royal court. Oglethorpe returned to Georgia with 300 new immigrants, including Methodist Church founder John Wesley and his brother Charles.
As military leader of Georgia, Oglethorpe was required to deal with the Spanish, controllers of the lands south of his colony. In 1740 and later in 1743, Oglethorpe led two unsuccessful battles in attempts to capture the Spanish fort of St. Augustine. But on June 9, 1742, Oglethorpe achieved success against the Spanish at the Battle of Bloody Marsh on St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia. For this victory, Oglethorpe was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General.
In 1743, Oglethorpe left Georgia for the final time. The colonists were unhappy at his administration and military leadership, stemming from his prohibition of slavery and liquor and his unsuccessful attempts against the Spanish. Also, he faced nineteen charges before a court-martial brought by Lieutenant Colonel William Cook. Oglethorpe was completely vindicated, and Cook was dismissed from further military service for making unfounded charges.
On September 15, 1744, Oglethorpe married Lady Elizabeth Wright, only daughter of Sir Nathan Wright. She was a baroness and heiress of Cranham hall in Cranham, Essex, about sixteen miles from London, where Oglethorpe would live for the remainder of his life.
Oglethorpe was promoted to Major General the next year, but a Jacobite insurrection almost ruined his reputation. He was again brought up on charges before a court-martial and again completely exonerated. He was promoted to Lieutenant General in 1747 and General in 1765. Oglethorpe now acted as the senior general of the entire British Army.
Oglethorpe always moved around in circles of the very famous. Toward the end of his life, Oglethorpe knew and socialized with Samuel Johnson and Boswell. When John Adams arrived in England as the first American ambassador to its former mother country, he was personally received by Oglethorpe. On June 30, 1785, Oglethorpe died of a violent fever. Known to be in good health his entire life, it was said that his fever was so severe that it would have killed him at any age. His place of burial remained unproven until 1923 when Oglethorpe University President Thornwell Jacobs located it inside All Saint’s Church, Cranham.
There were plans to exhume the bodies of Oglethorpe and his wife and re-inter them on the campus of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. This plan had the permission of the governments of Great Britain and the United States as well as the Church of England, but the public outcry from both England and Savannah proved too much for Dr. Jacobs to overcome. He respected the popular opinion of the people, and conceded his loss. But thanks to him, the final resting place of Lord and Lady Oglethorpe was located and continues to be honored and preserved.