England educates liberty’s children
By David Paul Reuwer and Douglas W. Bostick
America prides itself as being the most productive of liberty’s vineyards, from today’s crisis to the creation narrative of our birth as an independent country. However, 18th-century England itself was such a bastion of liberty that well-to-do colonial parents in America sent their boys to England to learn of liberty in London. And what was meant by liberty? Principally it centerpieced either security of English rights or participatory governance, or some of both.
Between 1759 and 1785, 114 American colonists studied in England and were admitted to the London Bar. Of these liberty-loving lawyers, 44 were South Carolinian children, making up 39 percent of the total. Virginia had the next highest with 17 men. Some of their names are legendary in South Carolina: William Drayton, Christopher Gadsden, J. F. Grimke, Thomas Heyward, Jr., John Laurens, Thomas Lynch, Jr., William Martin, Gabriel Manigault, Andrew Marvell, C. C. Pinckney, Thomas Pinckney, Hugh Rutledge and John Rutledge. How did these youth study over there, only to come to understand that a free government was superior to even the wisest monarchy?
“Although liberty was not the only goal for Americans in the 1770s and 1780s — they believed also in independence, order, equality, the pursuit of happiness — none had the evocative power and sweep of liberty,” wrote James MacGregor Burns. “If liberty had an uncertain future in America, it had emerged from a glorious past in England.”
These revolutionaries were educated in England’s temples of law but had been brought up on S.C. soil, where liberty had to be grounded in some real elements of a practical and prosperous life. They saw themselves as handling problems in new ways that their parents could not. In a word, they were pragmatists in a new experiment about liberty: “Liberty with order, liberty with safety and security, liberty of conscience, liberty of property, liberty with a measure of equality … they defined this term in many different ways, they had varying expectations of it, they differed over its relationship to other values, and later these differences would help spawn a series of tragedies,” synthesized Burns in 1981. Similarly, we debate today in 2022 at the beginning of the 250th American Revolution anniversary.
William Drayton wrote a series of pamphlets opposing colonial unity and actions, and the royal governor appointed him chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court at age 32. He soon reversed and wrote the American Claim of Rights supporting a Continental Congress. He signed the Articles of Confederation as a delegate there.
Christopher Gadsden was known as the Sam Adams of the South, and both are considered by the founders to be the fathers of the American Revolution. He was the founder of the Charleston Sons of Liberty and vice president of the republic of S.C., and helped create the Continental Navy in Congress, giving it the famed yellow rattlesnake flag bearing the words “Don’t Tread On Me.” Gadsden is the fellow you invited to your party because he attracted so many people to come; then he was the first person you asked to leave since he would not stop talking about independence in the face of everyone.
John F. Grimke served as an associate justice in S.C.’s courts for 36 years after serving as a Continental colonel and deputy adjutant general under Gen. Nathanael Greene, including fighting at Eutaw Springs. His two daughters, Sarah and Angelina, moved to Philadelphia to influence America as virulent abolitionists. Grimke himself was a strong woman’s rights advocate, believing that his daughter, Sarah, would have made a great attorney had women been called to the bar then.
Thomas Heyward, Jr., at age 29 debated and signed the Declaration of Independence in the affirmative for S.C. Heyward served as a circuit court judge for 20 years. In 1778, he presided over a trial in which several persons were tried for treason; they were convicted and executed within view of the British lines. At the 1779 Battle of Port Royal Island, he commanded Patriot artillery. Captured at the fall of Charleston in 1780, he was imprisoned in Fort St. Mark in St. Augustine, Florida. He wrote a popular song praising the 13 United States as prelude to his states’ rights balancing within federalism.
Rambunctious and rich 27-year-old John Laurens gave his life for our state and country in August 1782 at the Battle of Tar Bluff. Best friend of Alexander Hamilton, he served on Gen. George Washington’s staff, where his French fluency came in handy. He even dueled Gen. Charles Lee, wounding him, for slandering Washington’s good name. Laurens tried to get Congress to recruit African American troops from slavery in exchange for their liberty. “We Americans,” Laurens wrote, “at least in the Southern Colonies, cannot contend with a good Grace, for Liberty, until we shall have enfranchised our Slaves.” Had he lived past the war, with all his qualities and attributes, John Laurens would undoubtedly have become a household name in American history.
Thomas Lynch, Jr., stepped in to assist his ill father during the Declaration’s debate and signed for S.C. at age 26. Tom, Sr., died in Annapolis on his return to his home at Hopsewee Plantation, leaving the only blank signature placeholder on our country’s birth certificate. After two years of illness while living on the South Santee River, Tom, Jr., and his wife sailed for better climate and care to the West Indies. He was the youngest signer to die when the ship was lost at sea in 1779.
Almost 1,200 people from 461 families left Ulster, Ireland, to accompany the Rev. William Martin, a Presbyterian Covenanter minister, in 1772 after he singularly and persuasively preached the word for his entire congregation to emigrate to S.C. They all settled in, near and about the Rocky Creek backcountry with its catholic Presbyterian church located on the road to Rocky Mount. Martin sermonized the patriot cause as God’s liberty cause, fighting against the British once again, the despicable, monarchial empire that drove their ancestors out of Scotland and later forced them from Ireland. The reverend then wielded a gun in defense of liberty on the S.C. battlefields.
Gabriel Manigault, architect, designed the Charleston City Hall after studying in London and in Geneva, Switzerland, during the Revolutionary War. His mother was Elizabeth Wragg and his father, Peter, was the wealthiest man in North America in the 1770s.
Andrew Marvell outmaneuvered the public store of arms for liberty’s cause before the royal governor could. He worked the committee in March 1776 to form a new government separate from King George, only the second colony to do so (New Hampshire being the first). In Congress, he was “a man of cynical temper but of upright intentions toward his country … He spoke frequently and always with asperity and personalities.” John Adams said of him: “He had little information and less argument; in rudeness and sarcasm his forte lay, and he played off his artillery without reserve.” As S.C.’s oldest signer at 33, he signed not his pen name but his true name to the Declaration — Arthur Middleton.
“If I had a vein that did not beat with the love of my country, I myself would open it. If I had a drop of blood that could flow dishonorably, I myself would let it out,” declared Charles Cotesworth “C. C.” Pinckney. He unsuccessfully motioned this resolution in the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention: “The legislature of the United States shall pass no law on the subject of religion nor touching or abridging the liberty of the press.” President George Washington in 1789 offered C.C. either the War Department or State Department to lead. Pinckney turned down Washington on both. During the French XYZ request for a bribe in exchange for releasing American ships, Pinckney imbued, “No; no; not a sixpence.” Pinckney was twice the Federalist Party nominee for president in 1804 (Jefferson 162-14 electors) and 1808 (Madison 122-47). His St. Michael’s Church tombstone reads, “One of the founders of the American Republic. In war he was a companion in arms and friend of Washington. In peace he enjoyed his unchanging confidence.”
Both daughters of heroine Rebecca Motte, Elizabeth and subsequently Frances, married Thomas Pinckney. He fought as a major in the Revolution and served as a major general in the War of 1812. As Washington’s ambassador to Great Britain, he helped John Jay conclude the Jay Treaty. Before his brother, the Federalist party nominated Thomas as a candidate in 1796 for president because the person who received the second most number of votes would serve as vice president. He lost with 59 electoral votes to Jefferson’s 68, who lost to John Adams’s 71 votes. He helped manage the Congressional impeachment proceedings against a fellow Revolutionary War veteran, William Blount, in 1798. Pinckney was governor of S.C. from 1787 – 1789.
Hugh Rutledge, age 26, was appointed as judge/chancellor of the Court of Equity in which he fastidiously served from 1771 to 1811. He also served as the speaker of the S.C. Commons House of Assembly (1777), then later as speaker of the S.C. House of Representatives (1782-85). Rutledge had been banished from Charleston in 1780 by the British, together with his brothers, Edward and John.
S.C. became its own republic on March 28, 1776, if but temporarily, even before the U.S. was born, and named John Rutledge as its president. In 1778, the S.C. Assembly proposed a new constitution, which Rutledge vetoed on the grounds that too much of a direct democracy was more dangerous than anarchy. He resigned. Elected in 1779 as governor, he served throughout the remaining Revolutionary War until the Jacksonborough Assembly in 1782. President Washington nominated Rutledge to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1789 and served until he resigned in March 1791, to become chief justice of S.C. Upon John Jay’s resignation, Rutledge was appointed the second chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court by Washington in the summer of 1795.
“The eyes of Europe, nay of the World, are on America!” proclaimed John Rutledge at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Before that, from 1770 through 1783, thanks to our evolving Patriots, the eyes of the world were then be focused on revolutionary S.C.
We could do as well to learn or relearn of their educated fundamentals and let their powers break upon us, but for us now in our times. Imagine vigorous, substantive-based discourse again. American poet and novelist Randall Jarrell once wrote, “Soon we shall know everything the 18th century didn’t know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us.”
David Paul Reuwer is the associate director of the South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust; Douglas W. Bostick serves as its CEO. This article is the first in a series they will coauthor related to the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution.