William Stephens migrated from England to Savannah in 1737 to serve as secretary of Trustee Georgia. He became actively involved in the administrative and socioeconomic life of the colony, and served in the office of president from 1741 to 1751.
Stephens was born on January 28, 1671, to Elizabeth and Sir William Stephens, lieutenant governor of the Isle of Wight in Hampshire, England. He came from a family that experienced a quick rise from yeoman to gentry status during the English interregnum of the mid-1600s. Stephens received an extensive education, which included a master’s degree from King’s College, Cambridge, and entrance to the Middle Temple, for the study of law, in 1691. In 1696 he married Mary Newdigate, and they had seven sons and two daughters.
Stephens served in Parliament from 1702 to 1727, and his political activities created financial difficulties. His effort to find employment took him to British America in 1736 to conduct a land survey in South Carolina. He briefly traveled to Georgia, and there met the colony’s leader, James Edward Oglethorpe, whom he had known in Parliament. Stephens returned to England and submitted a report of his travels to the Trustees. The members expressed delight with Stephens’s lucid style, detailed descriptions, and cool-headed temperament. The Trustees hired Stephens, then in his mid-sixties, as their secretary. They considered his appointment a perfect solution to Oglethorpe’s lack of regular updates about the state of the colony, the attitude of the colonists, and the progress of appointed officials.
Stephens arrived in Georgia on November 1, 1737, and found the new colony a hotbed of personal rivalries and factions. Colonists criticized the Trustees’ policy on tail-male land tenure (a system prohibiting daughters from inheriting land, thus ensuring that all freeholders would be soldiers who could defend the colony), the prohibition of rum and enslaved people, and appointed officials. Stephens possessed no authority to make executive decisions, but he acted as an impartial observer and used his legal knowledge to provide sound advice. Stephens laid out his observations about the colony in a series of reports that contained a wry and caustic description of the people and character of early Georgia. For the most part Stephens supported the Trustees’ policies, but he perceived future difficulties concerning land tenure. He urged the Trustees to accept full female inheritance, but Oglethorpe, who had returned to England, convinced his associates to maintain the tail-male policy. Stephens received a sharp rebuke for his efforts and temporarily experienced a decline in the confidence of the Trustees and disgruntled colonists.
Stephens hoped that Oglethorpe’s return in September 1738 would ease tensions in the colony. But Oglethorpe could not allocate enough time to handle the daily concerns of the people in addition to negotiations with the Creeks, defense concerns, and a war with Spain by 1739. He left most decisions to Stephens. At first the secretary could not act without Oglethorpe’s approval and fumed about wasted time and unanswered questions. The situation eased slightly when Oglethorpe permitted Stephens to undertake a few administrative responsibilities.
Then in 1740 the Trustees placed Stephens and Thomas Jones, the new Savannah storekeeper, in charge of finances to control Oglethorpe’s spending frenzy and poor recordkeeping habits. The following year the Trustees divided Georgia into counties named Savannah and Frederica. Stephens served as president of the former, while Oglethorpe directed the latter. Stephens usually deferred to Oglethorpe’s opinion, but as he grew more secure with his new duties, he rejected judgments that he thought contradicted the Trustees’ instructions. The two men had never considered themselves close friends, and Oglethorpe grew increasingly antagonistic over Stephens’s ties with the Trustees. He withheld vital papers and information from Stephens, including updates about the war with the Spanish.
Another problem that consistently plagued Stephens during his early years in Georgia was a group known as the Malcontents, who consistently opposed the Trustees’ policies. Stephens was a conservative man at heart and considered most of the Malcontent leaders lazy, unproductive, and far too radical. Yet he conceded that a few of their arguments had merit. Tensions grew between the Malcontents and the Trustees from 1738 to 1743, and Stephens knew that his precarious financial position would not allow him to antagonize his employers. When Stephens presented the Trustees with an overly favorable report in a 1740 work called A State of the Province of Georgia, the Malcontents angrily claimed that Stephens presented his own views and tried to force colonists to approve the document.
Stephens’s support of the Trustees’ policies reduced his effectiveness among the Malcontents and unintentionally intensified the nascent factionalism in Georgia. Even Stephens’s son, Thomas, joined the Malcontents after he experienced disillusionment with the colony and quarreled with Oglethorpe. Thomas Stephens returned to England and published two pamphlets about harsh conditions in Georgia. Stephens became so angry with his wayward child that he transferred his Georgia lands to another son, Newdigate.
Between 1742 and 1743 both the Georgia colony and Stephens faced numerous changes, as the Trustees began to reverse their policies concerning rum and tail-male land tenure. Oglethorpe left the colony on July 23, 1743, never to return. The Trustees appointed Stephens, at age seventy-one, as president of the entire colony in addition to his position as secretary. He administered most of the colony’s affairs and issued land grants with the help of a board of assistants and, toward the end of his career, a vice president. Stephens served as secretary until March 1750 and as president until the spring of 1751. While he gained his share of complaints from various colonists, and never achieved the popularity of Oglethorpe, he led Georgia well in the absence of a governor or much involvement from the Trustees.
Throughout his sojourn in Georgia, Stephens sought to develop his Savannah estate, named Beaulieu or Bewlie, into one of the leading coastal river plantations. His agricultural experiments included grapes for wine and cotton cultivation. He died in August 1753 and was buried at his plantation, but the family sold the estate in 1772. It later served as the landing site for French troops under Count Charles Henri d’Estaing during the Siege of Savannah in October 1779.