Augusta’s Oglethorpe statue reflects on Augusta, his life and the meaning of liberty
by Eric Johnson
(Originally published June 30, 2011)
The day I returned to Augusta, Feb. 6, 2003, was a cold, miserable, perfectly English kind of day. Reenactors in Colonial garb paraded by, an actor, Jim Garvey, pretended to be me and all around the newly cleared Augusta Common, dignitaries did what dignitaries have always done — tried to look interested and respectful and unfazed by the weather.
Having been a dignitary myself, I realize with only the slightest irony how perfectly suited I am for that role now.
Which isn’t to imply that any of us were insincere in our appreciation of the events of the day. After all, I had spent most of my life — especially the period they were honoring me for — giving myself to the greater good of my fellow Englishmen, while each member of Augusta Tomorrow paid nearly $4,000 over and above their monthly dues — a total of $100,000 — to put me here, their gift to the city. So we — all of us, including some members of the Friends of Oglethorpe and the Right Honourable Virginia Bottomley, Member of Parliament for South West Surrey — had reason to be respectful of the day.
The inscription on the base calls me James Edward Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia and the founder of Augusta, both of which I suppose I am, but the circumstances of my return being what they were, I’ve had ample time to consider the implications of my past.
Time for contemplation, of course, is now a reality for me, not a luxury.
That’s not a complaint. I am thrilled that the people of Augusta chose to honor me in such a way. I’m especially pleased that sculptors Jeffery and Anna Koh Varilla chose to depict me as I was at the beginning rather than as the exalted general I later would become. And it pleases me that they put me here in the middle of the Common, a part of the city’s design that had always proved elusive.
Though I have always received credit for downtown Augusta’s efficient grid design, the honest truth is that what it has become is quite different than what I dreamed it would be.
In the original concept, Augusta was to be exactly like Savannah — 40 town lots with a square. They were supposed to put public buildings on either end of the square, but that never happened, so as people moved further west, the streets naturally followed the growth. That square, that common ground, never materialized. At least not where and when it was supposed to be.
Of course, the original town was laid out between what is now Fourth Street and Sixth Street, so where I am was, strictly speaking, along the Indian path that would later become the extended Broad Street everyone knows. What’s now Fifth Street was called Center Street for obvious reasons.
Being in this new Common the way I am puts me in contact with the people who have come to inhabit the land I worked so tirelessly to establish, and as I watch them walk by, I’m often reminded of the circumstances that brought about my first trip to the New World.
As a Trustee of Georgia and a member of Parliament, I helped pave the way for the colony’s creation as a place where the deserving poor could get a fresh start. The parameters may have narrowed once we actually started, excluding the debtors we originally sought to help, but the cause was still charitable and just. Not for self, but for others
was the trustees’ motto, and I think we’ve lived up to our calling.
The only one of the 71 trustees to actually set foot in Georgia, I was at sea nearly two months on the 200-ton galley Anne
before we reached Charleston, and it was a few days into February before each of the first families was given its iron pot, frying pan, three wooden bowls and Bible.
A day later, we distributed the arms — a musket, bayonet, cartridge box and belt — to every able-bodied person.
Such meager provisions must seem almost barbaric now, given all the excess I see displayed so casually around me, though occasionally someone does pass by, or sits in one of the benches around me, who looks like he could use a frying pan. Or a Bible.
For the most part, though, the Augusta that inherited the Georgia we worked so hard to build seems to embody the quote made by Samuel Johnson some time after my return: “He who does not mind his belly will barely mind anything else.”
At times, it seems as if such bellies threaten to overrun us all.
I will admit that it’s more than a little awkward for me to watch the Fourth of July festivities that go on around me, the red, white and blue. And the bravado. After all, I did what I did — I am revered, such that I am — because of my service to the Crown you overthrew.
Independence Day, in the end, is your adoration of the people who sought to run off with the liberty I first provided.
Yet how can I now condemn that revolutionary impulse, ringed as I am by the four freedoms at each corner of the Common park? Is that spirit really so far from the equitable fresh start I dreamed of creating here?
But while I may not be able to reject it, can I wholeheartedly embrace what it has become? Day in and day out I witness life’s disposability and the way so many take for granted not just the width of their freedoms but the breadth of their ease and I wonder if the foundation I helped lay, a foundation that has been built upon with the sacrifices of the brave and the diligent and committed, is something worth defending, or merely a commodity to be consumed?
Is freedom from serious want simply a landfall, a destination no longer requiring hardship or sacrifice beyond the inconvenience of bridled dreams, or is it something still worthy of a struggle?
Maybe such considerations are beyond me now, since all I have left to me are the memories of friends lost to time.
Friends like Tomochichi, the Yamacraw chief with whom I struck a lifelong friendship, and John and Mary Musgrove, my Indian interpreters, with whom I endured and achieved so much. All of them have been gone to me since I turned my face finally and forever to the East.
As I sit here, planted in this piece of turf meant to memorialize me and the plan I hoped to implement, this is all that’s left. This, and my recollection of the heat.
The only thing I recognize here, the only tangible thing that is real to me in this mechanized world, is the heat.
Though the only time I was actually physically here was in September — and I was feverish from my travels through Indian Country and preoccupied with the prospect of war to the south — this Georgia heat I do remember. It reminds me of those days of action, those years when what I did mattered on a scale beyond the philosophical ideas I would debate in my later years with Johnson and Boswell back in England. Entertaining as that was, our discussions did not matter in the same way my actions mattered here.
The heat reminds me of the things I knew I was leaving behind when I sailed back home to England, only 10 years after that first voyage and a year after defeating the Spanish at the Battle of Bloody Marsh at St. Simons.
After that victory, I was made a brigadier general and became a national hero, though in actuality — and it’s no secret — I arrived to the battle at the end of hostilities.
The warring, however, took its toll, both on me and the colony. While I was absorbed in the defense of the colony, political intrigue among the ranks forced me to return to England to defend myself while at the same time recouping some of my personal fortune, advanced to the cause but not repaid.
I was 36 when I arrived and 46 when I left Georgia for good, and while I survived 43 more years, I never lived the way I did those brief, intense few years I was here.
In that very real way, it’s good to be home.
Dr. Lee Ann Caldwell, director of the Center for the Study of Georgia History at Augusta State University, and Augusta Tomorrow’s Executive Director Camille Price provided the facts behind this historical fiction.You Might Also Like: