Monday, 19 August 2013

Frank Lambert on James Habersham

Another book that I am nearly finished reading is James Habersham: Loyalty, Politics, and Commerce in Colonial Georgia by Purdue University historian, Frank Lambert.

I am a big fan of Lambert's work. I love his other books, including The Founding Fathers and The Place of Religion in America, Inventing the "Great Awakening," and 'Pedlar in Divinity': George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737-1770. At some point in the future, I want to read his Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World.

One of the reasons why I appreciate Lambert's scholarship is that he is an excellent writer, who uses clear prose while avoiding academic jargon. He also strikes me as an interesting person. I noticed on his cv that before becoming a professor of history he worked for a number of businesses, including Humana and IBM, and was a former NFL football player for the Pittsburgh Steelers (1965-66). 

In James Habersham: Loyalty, Politics, and Commerce in Colonial Georgia, Lambert tells the story of a man who emigrated from London to manage a Georgia orphanage, later becoming a wealthy merchant and planter, and serving in a number of key political roles for the colony, including governor. Lambert suggests that the reason why Habersham has been virtually ignored by scholars, despite his historical importance, is that he was a Loyalist during the American Revolution.

From a religious perspective, Habersham intrigues me because he was converted under George Whitefield's ministry and was entrusted as the superintendent of Whitefield's orphanage in Georgia, "Bethesda." Even though Habersham did his best to keep Bethesda solvent, he ultimately failed, resigning his post in 1743 as the orphanage sank deeper and deeper into debt. During Whitefield's heyday as an evangelist in the early 1740s, he raked in thousands of pounds in donations which could be used to keep the orphanage running. But after the fires of the Great Awakening cooled, Whitefield could not continue to pay for Bethesda's expenses, and Habersham's plan to use indentured servants and orphans as a profitable labor force proved to be insufficient. In the years following his time as a schoolmaster, Habersham established a successful business as a merchant, and became one of the wealthiest colonists in Georgia.

Habersham is also interesting in that he was instrumental in reorganizing Georgia as a slave colony. Even though James Ogelthorpe and the other trustees instituted a ban on slavery in Georgia when it was founded, intending that it be a free colony, Habersham made the case that the success of the colony depended on a slave economy similar to the Carolinas.

At less than 200 pages Lambert's James Habersham offers a concise biography of one of colonial America's neglected figures while helpfully adding to our understanding of the colonial mercantile system, plantation life in Georgia, George Whitefield's Bethesda orphanage, and the role of Loyalists during the American Revolution.

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