A little more peculiar in Georgia

Reader Harriet Peterson noticed something unusual about The Legal Genealogist‘s choice of early Georgia laws to highlight in the blog on Wednesday.

“I found it interesting that none of the laws you listed had anything to do with slavery,” she said, in a comment to that post. So she did her own research and found “an interesting twist” in a Wikipedia article that said a law had been passed for Georgia in 1735 that “disallowed the enslavement of Africans because (the colony’s) founders were basing its development on European labor. The model failed, and enslavement of Africans was legalized by royal decree in 1751.”1

Yup. And I couldn’t help digging into those Georgia laws a little in anticipation of tomorrow’s Homecoming at the Augusta Genealogical Society.

It turns out that it’s a little more complex than that, of course.

The reality is that when Georgia was founded in 1732, two factors were in play. One was the notion of its founders, called Trustees, that the colony should be self-sufficient and produce products like silk that didn’t require a big labor pool.

Slave in rice fields

The second was that its southern neighbor was Spanish Florida. That’s not a side issue. It was really at the heart of the problem. The Spanish were actively trying to incite difficulties for the English colonists to their north, and one of the tactics was to offer land and freedom to those enslaved who made it to Spanish-held territory. Having to deal with runaways and enslaved people with a real motive to flee to a specific location posed a real threat to the new colony.

So the issue wasn’t one of philosophical opposition to slavery:

General James Oglethorpe, the earl of Egmont, and the other Trustees were not opposed to the enslavement of Africans as a matter of principle. … The influential Trustees easily persuaded the House of Commons that their intentions for Georgia, and the colony’s very survival in the face of the Spanish threat, depended upon the exclusion of enslaved Africans. In 1735, two years after the first settlers arrived, the House of Commons passed legislation prohibiting slavery in Georgia.


… The situation changed dramatically in 1742 when Oglethorpe defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Bloody Marsh and returned to England. … The Trustees asked the House of Commons to replace the Act of 1735 with one that would permit slavery in Georgia as of January 1, 1751. The legislation they recommended was adopted. … 2

And so it was that many of the early Georgia laws did deal with slavery. By 7 March 1755, for example, Georgia had adopted an Act for the better ordering and governing negroes and other slaves.3

And so it went:

• Act No. 35, 1758, “An Act to encourage white tradesmen to settle in the several towns within the province of Georgia, by preventing the employing negroes and other slaves being handicraft tradesmen in the said towns.”4

• Act No. 104, 1763, “An Act for regulating a work-house for the custody and punishment of negroes.”5

• Act No. 125, 1765, “An Act for the better ordering and governing negroes and other slaves in this province, and to prevent the inveigling or carrying away slaves from their masters or employers.”6

• Act No. 137, 1765, “An Act for the establishing and regulating patrols, and from preventing any person from purchasing provisions or any other commodities from, or selling such to any slave unless such slave shall produce a ticket from his or her owner, manager or employer.”7

By 1767, the slave trade was so well established in Georgia that an act was passed to have “some buildings erected in a convenient and safe place, where such slaves can be landed, (and so) erecting a lazaretto” — a place where they could be quarantined for disease — on Tybee Island.8

From 1751 forward to Emancipation, there never was another serious threat to slavery as a legal and economic force in Georgia.

And the net effect of that change in the law: “Between 1750 and 1775 Georgia’s enslaved population grew in size from less than 500 to approximately 18,000 people.”9

True, the peculiar institution in Georgia history may have been a little more peculiar than in most places. But its fate as part of Georgia’s history was sealed.


Image: A.R. Waud, “Rice Culture on the Ogeechee, Near Savannah, Georgia,” Harper’s Weekly (1867); digital image, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs.

  1. Harriet Peterson, comment posted 2 Aug 2018 to Judy G. Russell, “What’s important to the law,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 1 Aug 2018 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 1 Aug 2018), referencing Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Georgia Experiment,” rev. 22 June 2018.
  2. Betty Wood, “Slavery in Colonial Georgia,” New Georgia Encyclopedia (https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/ : accessed 2 Aug 2018).
  3. Robert and George Watkins, A Digest of the Laws of the State of Georgia… (Philadelphia : R. Aitken, 1800), 61; digital images, Historic Georgia Digests and Codes, Digital Commons, University of Georgia School of Law (http://digitalcommons.law.uga.edu/ga_code/ : accessed 31 July 2018).
  4. Ibid., at 52.
  5. Ibid., at 88.
  6. Ibid., at 113.
  7. Ibid., at 119.
  8. Ibid., Act No. 159, at 137.
  9. Wood, “Slavery in Colonial Georgia.”
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