One of the greatest products of the Enlightenment, James Edward Oglethorpe was a study in contrasts, embodying all the vitality, contradiction, and ambiguity of that turbulent age.
A stern moralist yet an avowed liberal, an aristocrat with a populist streak, an abolitionist and an anti-Catholic, a man of war who sought peace — the founder of Georgia would put his own inimitable stamp on the new nation to follow, a legacy personified to this day in the city he designed—Savannah .
After making a name for himself fighting the Turks, the young London native and Oxford graduate would return home only to serve a two-year prison sentence for killing a man in a brawl. The experience was a formative one for Oglethorpe, scion of a large and upwardly mobile family now forced to see how England’s underbelly really lived.
Upon his release, the 25-year-old Oglethorpe ran for the “family” House of Commons seat once occupied by his fathers and two brothers, and won. He made a name for himself as a campaigner for human rights and an opponent of slavery.
Another jail-related epiphany came when Oglethorpe saw a friend die of smallpox in debtors’ prison. More than ever, Oglethorpe was determined to right what he saw as a colossal wrong in the draconian English justice system.His crusade took the form of establishing a sanctuary for debtors in North America.
To that end, he and his friend Lord Perceval established the Trustees, a 21-member group who lobbied King George for permission to establish such a colony. The grant from the king — who was more interested in containing the Spanish than in any humanitarian concerns — would include all land between the Altamaha and Savannah Rivers and from the headwaters of these rivers to the “south seas.”
Ironically, there were no debtors among Savannah ’s original colonists. Nonetheless, the new settlement was indeed a reflection of its founder’s core values, banning rum as a bad influence (though beer and wine were allowed), prohibiting slavery, and eschewing lawyers on the theory that a gentleman should always be able to defend himself.
Nearing 40 and distracted by war with the Spanish, Oglethorpe’s agenda gradually eroded in the face of opposition from settlers, who craved not only the more hedonistic lifestyle of their neighbors to the north in Charleston  but the economic advantage that city enjoyed in the use of slave labor.
In nearly the same hour as his greatest military victory, crushing the Spanish at the Battle of Bloody Marsh on St. Simons Island, Oglethorpe also suffered an ignominious defeat: being replaced as head of the 13th colony which he had founded.
He went back to England, never to see the New World again. But his heart was always with the colonists. After successfully fending off a political attack and a court-martial, Oglethorpe married and commenced a healthy retirement. He supported independence for the American colonies, making a point to enthusiastically receive the new ambassador from the United States, one John Adams.
At age 88, the old general died on June 30, 1785. Fittingly for this life-long philanthropist and humanitarian, his childhood home in Godalming, Surrey, is now a nursing home.