By Peg Eastman

Last month, Charlestonians awoke on an otherwise typical Monday morning only to see that the base of our statue of Gen. William Moultrie had been hatefully defaced at the hands of a spray-can wielding barbarian. Banal bromides against the “one percent” sullied three of the four sides of the pedestal of the monument to the Revolutionary War hero, erected in 2007 thanks to hard work and funding from a wide range of local heritage groups.

As much as this vulgar act shocks our consciences — and causes us to question the adequacy of local law enforcement patrols — the monuments of Charleston are no strangers to brutal treatment. Perhaps none is more notorious, nor imbued with more symbolism, than the statue of William Pitt disfigured in the same war Moultrie helped win.

In 1763 England’s Prime Minister, George Grenville, set about balancing the king’s budget to offset the massive national debt incurred by the Seven Years War (known in America as the French and Indian War). This was done by a series of taxes that affected both the people in Britain and the American colonies. In 1764 Parliament passed the American Duties Act, which affected New England distillers and the Currency Act, which prohibited the colonies from printing paper money and subsequently bankrupted many colonial importers.

It was the Stamp Act of 1765, however, that caused a crescendo of colonial opposition. The act was intended to defray the costs of stationing troops in North America during the war. It required that all legal documents, newspapers and playing cards have a stamp affixed on them or that they be printed on stamped paper. Colonials viewed the act as a violation of the right of Englishmen to be taxed only with their consent. The rallying cry became “taxation without representation.”

In October 1765 the colonials convened the Stamp Act Congress in New York. South Carolina’s Christopher Gadsden was a key player. While he was clamoring for legislative redress in New York, his constituency of local tradesmen continued agitating in Charles Town. They met under a live oak tree on the Charleston Neck in Isaac Mazyck’s Hampstead pasture. Today this spot is on Alexander Street, just north of Calhoun Street.

By the end of 1765 all colonial assemblies except Georgia and North Carolina had sent formal protests to England. Organized groups calling themselves the “Sons of Liberty” began to coalesce throughout the colonies and riotous demonstrations along the eastern seaboard intimidated stamp tax distributors into resigning their commissions.

Charles Town’s duly appointed Royal Inspector of Stamp Duties was George Saxby. He had emigrated from London in 1731 when the Crown appointed him Searcher of the Customs. He expanded his financial base through highly successful shipping and mercantile partnerships and operating a rice plantation near Georgetown. He also speculated in land, acquiring over 6,000 acres of royal grants in Craven and Granville counties. Saxby advanced socially through his wife, Elizabeth Seabrook, who had inherited a 200-acre plantation on John’s Island and a brick house on Tradd Street.

Saxby’s fortunes began to decline in 1765 when he visited England and received the appointment of Royal Inspector of Stamp Duties. Prior to his return an angry mob ransacked his house, searching for the detested stamps. He was also burned in effigy. When he returned to Charles Town, Saxby suspended his duties as Inspector, but the strong public acrimony began to affect his mental and physical health. He developed signs of apoplexy and never fully recovered.

The Stamp Act was repealed March 18, 1766. When the news reached Charles Town, 26 Sons of Liberty celebrated by meeting in Mazyck’s pasture for a collation. After Christopher Gadsden addressed the group, the men joined hands around the oak tree and called themselves “defenders and supporters of American Liberty.” Thereafter, the gathering place was known as the “Liberty Tree.”

Enthusiasm for the Stamp Act’s repeal was not confined to local tradesmen. William Pitt the Elder, first Earl of Chatham, British Secretary of State and later prime minister, was largely responsible for the act’s repeal. The Commons House of Assembly commemorated the momentous occasion by appropriating £7,000 for a marble statue to be carved by the celebrated English builder and sculptor Joseph Wilton.

Wilton depicted Pitt dressed in a toga with one arm holding the Magna Carta and the other extended upward. His masterpiece was escorted by an assistant and arrived on the Carolina-Packet at Charles Elliott’s wharf on May 31, 1770. The town went wild with enthusiasm. Vessels in port were festooned and bells rang out and stopped ringing only because Isaac Mazyck was lying desperately ill near St. Michael’s Church. Citizens “of the highest rank” hauled the statue up Broad Street to the Arsenal, then located across from the church. It remained there until master builders John and Peter Horlbeck erected a pedestal at the corner of Broad and Meeting Streets.

As described in the South Carolina Gazette on July 5, 1770, the Honorable Peter Manigault officiated at the statue’s installation. Afterwards, the assembled drank to Lord Chatham’s health and the artillery saluted Pitt. The gentlemen of Charles Town then retired to a tavern for speeches and 45 ceremonial toasts, saluting everybody from the king and royal governor to such diverse miscellany as “all honest, resolute and disinterested patriots,” “the virtuous minority of both Houses of Parliament,” and “Judas’s fate to the enemies of America.”

Enthusiasm for Wilton’s marble masterpiece soon waned. In 1780, during the siege of Charleston, British cannon fire struck off the extended right arm. By 1794 the disfigured statue had become a nuisance because of its location and City Council contracted for its removal. The head was broken off in the process and the statue’s pieces were stowed in some public buildings. Judge John Faucheraud Grimké purchased the marble pedestal stones and placed the inscription slab in his garden (321 East Bay St.). By 1808, the statue’s pieces lay nearly covered by earth inside the enclosure of the Charleston Orphan House on Calhoun Street.

The Orphanage Commissioners received permission from City Council to erect the statue on their property. According to official reports, it remained there for nearly three quarters of a century, “surrounded by groups of happy children, impressively reminding them of the Great Charter of our Liberties, the symbol of which had been shattered when the arm that held it was carried away by the British cannon ball.”

Upon a request by the South Carolina Historical Society, in 1881 the city moved Pitt’s statue to the public area behind City Hall, then being redesigned as “Washington Park.” The new pedestal was red and buff brick on a base of Fairfield County granite. There were two marble inscription panels: the original, which Grimké had given to the Orphan House and one commemorating the relocation.

A hundred years later, in a preservation effort, the statue was moved to the lobby of The Charleston Museum. In 2002 it was relocated once again — this time to the loggia of the restored Charleston County Judicial Center located near the original site at the intersection of Broad and Meeting streets.

After the statue was removed, the brick pedestal stood empty in Washington Park for over a decade. In 1992, a committee headed by Gen. William Westmoreland raised funds and commissioned a bronze statue of George Washington by Charleston artist John Michel. Washington’s monument was dedicated in 1999.

Mercury newspapers can be found at the following locations:

Burbage's

Buxton Books

Caviar & Bananas

The Meeting Street Inn (Rack)

Clair's Service Station, Folly Rd. (Rack)

Harris Teeter, Houston-Northcutt Blvd. (Rack)

Mt. Pleasant Library, Mathis Ferry Rd. (Rack)

Pitt St. Pharmacy

The Square Onion, I'On (Rack)