John Reynolds, a captain in the British royal navy, served as Georgia’s first royal governor from late 1754 to early 1757.
Little is known about Reynolds’s early life except that his birth occurred in England circa 1713 and that at fifteen years of age he volunteered for service in the British navy. His career advanced slowly but steadily. He obtained command of his first vessel, the fireship Scipio, in 1745, and the next year he served as captain of the Arundel, a forty-gun vessel. His naval career took Reynolds to a variety of English ports and included convoy duty to British America, as well as service at Jamaica and at Charleston, South Carolina.
Reynolds returned to England in 1751 in search of a new command. As did most appointed officials of the British empire in the eighteenth century, Reynolds obtained his various commands through patronage. His sponsor, Philip Yorke, first earl of Hardwicke and lord chancellor of England, encouraged Lord George Halifax, president of the Board of Trade, to appoint Reynolds as the new governor of royal Georgia in 1754.
Reynolds arrived at Savannah on October 29, 1754. Local residents met him with celebrations of bells and bonfires to express their hopes that he heralded a new era for the colony, in contrast to the Trustees’ administration, which had ended in June 1752. Georgians desired a more dependable government, territorial expansion, border protection, and a profitable economy. Reynolds, however, saw primarily a poor colony in which the high cost of living would drain, rather than supplement, his salary of £600 a year.
Following instructions from the Board of Trade, Reynolds established a structure of royal government, including courts, a council, and the Commons House of Assembly. Reynolds then directed the council to move into a new building when the original structure collapsed during his first meeting with that body. He acted decisively when the assembly faced a challenge from Augusta legislator Edmund Gray (or Grey), an immigrant from Virginia. Gray excited fears among the people about the extent of royal authority and tried to maneuver elections and assembly support to control a significant voting bloc within the Georgia legislature. Reynolds refused to be intimidated, and his forceful leadership encouraged the assembly to expel the Gray faction in January 1755.
Reynolds’s military efforts, however, proved less than successful. His arrival in Georgia coincided with the first rumblings of the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). His overall defense plans relied so heavily upon the British government to supply increasing numbers of troops, artillery, and forts that his London superiors refused to comply. Moreover, in November 1755 Reynolds abruptly returned to Savannah after waiting ten days for Creek chiefs to arrive at Augusta. He had called the meeting to renew friendly relations but left the negotiations and a contingency of disappointed Creek Indians in the hands of an associate, William Little.
Georgians might have forgiven Reynolds this indiscretion if the governor had demonstrated tact and diplomacy in the rest of his administrative efforts. But Reynolds acted as if he held a naval command instead of a civil office. He expected instant responses to his directives and resisted any challenge to his authority. In addition, Reynolds publicly proclaimed his intentions to leave Georgia whenever a more profitable appointment came his way.
Reynolds’s style of command quickly angered the council. He refused to share his official instructions, which outlined the new royal government in Georgia, and communicated tidbits of that document only when he deemed necessary. Reynolds failed to realize that council members sought to understand their role in the new royal government and to ensure that the governor did not overstep his constitutional powers. In the absence of such information, council members took their authority to advise and give consent to the governor literally. They questioned and debated his every move.
The council targeted the bulk of its displeasure against Little, a former naval surgeon and shipmate of Reynolds who served as the governor’s secretary. The governor bestowed six additional offices upon Little, including clerk of the Commons House of Assembly and commissioner of Indian affairs. By September 1755 the council complained that Little interfered in governmental affairs, showed disrespect to the council, and exhibited dishonesty in office. Reynolds insisted that he possessed the power to interpret the rights and duties of provincial officials. To demonstrate his authority, he removed councilman Clement Martin from office and eliminated only two of Little’s titles. Throughout his term in office Reynolds continued to quarrel with notable councilors, including James Habersham and Noble W. Jones.
While Reynolds did guide the house to enact several bills that helped to administer the colony, by early 1756 members of the House of Assembly joined the growing dissatisfaction with the governor. Reynolds dissolved the legislature in February 1756, when it appeared that members might challenge his authority. To counter opposition, Reynolds relied heavily upon Little to use his office as clerk of the house, and then as its elected Speaker, to create a pro-Reynolds faction during the fall of 1756. Little’s efforts ironically included men who had supported Edmund Gray the year before. As opposition grew against his administration, Reynolds took steps to control Georgia’s General Court as well.
By that time a letter from Jonathan Bryan, one of the province’s largest landholders, and a scathing memorial concerning Reynolds and Little—hand-carried by the provost marshall, Alexander Kellet—had made their way to the Board of Trade. That body voted to recall Reynolds and ordered the governor back to England to give testimony about his actions. The board sent a lieutenant governor, Henry Ellis, as a replacement.
Reynolds relinquished the government to Ellis on February 16, 1757, and delayed his return to England for several weeks to collect information for his defense. Once Reynolds left Georgia, he endured a brief capture by the French. When the board finally heard Reynolds’s case in the spring of 1758, he received no punishment, except orders to resign as governor. He resumed his naval career, serving as captain of the Firm in 1759. Later, he obtained a promotion to vice admiral in 1778 but suffered a stroke, which paralyzed one side of his body. In spite of that affliction, Reynolds achieved the rank of full admiral in 1787, shortly before his death in London on February 3, 1788.
Reynolds’s administration created great distress for Georgians, initiated a loss of revenue, and gave the colony a negative image for potential immigrants. Yet provincial leaders gained important lessons about methods of cooperation with the royal executive and their own ability to challenge an administration with which they disagreed. They used such knowledge to create a stronger reciprocal relationship with subsequent royal officials, which generally lasted until the Revolutionary War (1775-83).