Sam Burnham, Curator
When James Oglethorpe sat down and laid out his plan for Georgia he designed a colony that would be tailor made for a particular sort of person. No, Georgia was not a penal colony, per se. The colonists were not criminals. Georgia was a second chance, a clean slate for debtors. The people who came to settle here were economically disadvantaged. They were easy prey for big banks and businesses.
James Oglethorpe saw his colony as an opportunity to create a place where economically vulnerable people could find refuge, avoid exploitation, and establish their own independence. With this goal in mind he laid out some ground rules. Three things were explicitly forbidden: 1) large landholdings 2) slavery and 3) lawyers.
By limiting large landholdings Oglethorpe hoped to encourage widespread landownership. The idea was that people who owned and worked their own land were more self-sufficient and less vulnerable to exploitation. Independent people are also less likely to need charity or other outside support.
Fast forward to the present...
Today entire communities are dependent on outside aid. We’ve come to know the term “food desert” to describe a location with little, if any, access to fresh food. Food deserts are far too common in Georgia. Ironically these deserts occur mostly in two places: 1) in modern developed cities and 2) in rural areas...on arable land. The reason these food deserts appear is because communities are failing. That’s not to say the people aren’t doing the right things. In fact, these communities are losing their anchoring institutions to larger cities or more affluent communities.
A healthy community needs certain components. They don’t necessarily need a 500 bed hospital but they do need a doctor. They might not need a huge auto dealership but they do need a mechanic. Then there’s a pharmacy, a grocery store, a hardware store, a bank, a gas station. There needs to be repairmen: for homes, appliances, farm or lawn equipment. There should be a school. Ideally there will be a park, a library, a fire station (the vast majority of fire departments in America are volunteer.)
We take these entities for granted in healthy communities. If you need food you go to the grocery store. If you’re sick you go to the doctor. If your stove breaks you call a repairman. Failing communities don’t have these options. This in the case if you’re in DeSoto, Georgia or in Atlanta’s West End. And while pundits on both sides of the aisle like to pit one of these communities against the other, they have far more in common than anyone seems to be willing to admit. They’re both crumbling down around themselves and no one in big government or big business could care the slightest bit less than they already do.
If this pandemic, this quarantine, this abject failure of globalism, big government, and big business doesn’t jar us from our trance, nothing is going to. This is our chance to look back to Yamacraw Bluff in 1734 and realize that James Oglethorpe’s model for Georgia was right. That his plan has the answer for DeSoto and West End. We need to find ways to lead these communities into independence, into self-sufficiency, into health.
In 1859 Georgia congressman Augustus Wright laid out a bombproof argument on the benefits of widespread property ownership. Thomas Jefferson preached his gospel of a nation of yeoman farmers. Today Wendell Berry’s wisdom is drowned out by the din of our mechanized disaster of a society, a din that has been suddenly stilled by the byproducts of our reliance on cheap Chinese goods, often made by Uyghur (or other minority) slaves. The largest owners of farmland in the Mississippi Delta are hedge funds. Farmers are effectively renting their land from stockbrokers.
Looking at Oglethorpe's plan compared to the current model, we can see his plan to prevent exploitation of people and providing a system of self-sufficiency contrasted against a system where exploitation is the rule. Neither major party has a plan to change this. One preaches the virtue of big business while the other pushes big government...two heads of the same ugly monster.
This is our chance. We may only get one. If we come out of lock down and go right back to what we were doing and how we were doing it, we deserve whatever whirlwind we reap. But if we crawl out of our caves ready to build a better world, a better way of life, we can build something that no government program, no big business spreadsheet, no United Nations initiative ever could. We can build it with small businesses, small farms, small communities (even within huge cities) and we can have opportunities for a lot of people. We can do it with local food, local banks, local energy, local business.
We can set standards for the people we do business with. We can expect them to care about our communities. We can demand ethical practices. To do this the highest standards we set have to be for us. We can’t settle for less. Our founding fathers fought for independence with guns. It’s time to fight for independence again. But this time the fight has to be waged with our wallets, with our consciences, and with our expectations.
I’m begging you. Come out of this ready to grow like a tree, not like a fire.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire