Fiery "lover of country": a man of explosive temperament, South Carolina's Christopher Gadsden willingly endured solitary confinement rather than forsake the cause of American independence

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Date: Apr. 18, 2005
From: The New American(Vol. 21, Issue 8)
Publisher: American Opinion Publishing, Inc.
Document Type: Biography
Length: 3,707 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1320L

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About this Person
Born: February 16, 1724 in Charleston, South Carolina, United States
Died: August 28, 1805 in Charleston, South Carolina, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: General
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The South Carolina legislature elected 58-year-old Christopher Gadsden governor on January 18, 1782, but South Carolina's leading patriot rose to the podium to decline the honor:

   My sentiments of the American
   cause, from the Stamp
   Act downwards, have never
   changed. I am still of the
   opinion that it is the cause of
   liberty and human nature....
   The present times require the
   vigor and activity of the prime
   of life; but I feel the increasing
   infirmities of old age to such
   a degree, that I am conscious
   I cannot serve you to advantage.
   I therefore beg, for your
   sakes, and for the sake of the
   public, that you would indulge
   me with the liberty of declining
   the arduous task.

Having been released after suffering 10 months of solitary confinement in a British dungeon just months earlier, Gadsden was suffering bouts of dizziness and memory lapses and was unsure of his future health.

Gadsden had been in a British prison as a result of his unwavering support for American independence from Great Britain. Taken as a prisoner of war after the surrender of Charleston in 1780, Gadsden was initially released, but he was rearrested on a trumped-up charge. Taken by prison ship to the old Spanish fort Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida, Gadsden was offered a limited parole, allowing him the freedom to walk about the grounds of the prison if he would only swear allegiance to the British crown.

Many other American prisoners took the oath in order to be able to walk about the grounds of the prison castle, and few thought less of them for doing so. But Christopher Gadsden refused, choosing instead to sit out the rest of the war in solitary confinement in the castle's dungeon rather than to swear a false allegiance to the king. This was the character of the man who had been South Carolina's greatest force for independence. And it is one reason why the legislature chose to convey the honor of governorship upon Gadsden.

"Philo Patrios"

Christopher Gadsden succeeded throughout his life despite suffering more than his share of misfortune and difficulties. Born on February 16, 1724, Gadsden had lost his mother and all three older siblings before attaining the age of four. His father, Thomas Gadsden, remarried in 1728, but Christopher's stepmother died within two years. His father married for a third time in 1732, but young Christopher was shipped off to boarding school in England that same year. When he returned to the New World eight years later, 16-year-old Christopher immediately moved to Philadelphia to serve as a businessman's apprentice. The following summer, he needed to return to South Carolina to bury both his father and his second stepmother. Later in life, Christopher himself survived the death of two wives and his son Christopher, Jr.

In 1745, with the idea of beginning an import and export business, he sailed for England but was impressed for three years into service of the Royal Navy during King George's War (the War of Austrian Succession in Europe). By the time he was released from service, Gadsden had gained a high estimation of the importance of a navy, a view he would later take to the Continental Congress. He had also gained a wife, the wealthy Jane Godfrey, during a 1746 port stop in Charleston (and in 1747, a daughter, Elizabeth).

Back in Charleston, Gadsden finally launched his trade business. He used his inheritance from his father" to purchase three ships to transport indigo seeds, flour, tobacco, butter, and sugar, as well as violins, mahogany, and lead. When the French and Indian War began in the colonies in 1754, Gadsden extended his business dealings to military supplies.

The increasingly wealthy Gadsden recruited and equipped his own militia artillery company to fight the Indian forces on the South Carolina frontier during the war. His militia company was the most smartly dressed and most regularly drilled company in the southern states, but it never saw significant action. However. his militia activity did lead him to his first public political expressions. He interjected himself into a dispute between the commanders of the colonial militiamen and the British regulars in 1761. Gadsden sided with the militia commander, who had criticized the British commander for not waging a sufficiently aggressive campaign against the Cherokee Indians. What began as a personal dispute between rival commanders grew into a letter-writing campaign in the South Carolina Gazette over who was primarily responsible for governance of the colony: the British-appointed governor and his council or the popularly elected House of Commons. Gadsden, who wrote letters under the pen name of Philo Patrios, "lover of country," took the Whig position that the popularly elected body was dominant.

Sphere of Influence

When newly arrived British Governor Thomas Boone declared South Carolina's election law invalid and called for special elections for the House of Commons in 1762, his intent was to obtain a membership more favorable to the Crown. But Gadsden used the occasion to win a seat to the House of Commons.

When Gadsden argued a point verbally or with his pen, it was principally his sincerity, zeal, and sound moral character, and not his eloquence, that changed minds. Gadsden possessed neither the literary genius of Jefferson, nor the verbal eloquence of Patrick Henry. Nonetheless, Gadsden quickly distinguished himself as a leader of the Whig faction in the Commons.

Christopher Gadsden was to South Carolina what Samuel Adams, John Adams, and John Hancock combined were for Massachusetts. Like Samuel Adams in Massachusetts, Gadsden's most important role was that of organizing the independence movement in South Carolina. In fact, Adams and Gadsden maintained a friendly correspondence throughout the period leading up to independence. When the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1764, Gadsden took action, forming South Carolina's Sons of Liberty out of the Friendship Society, a charitable organization, and members of his old militia company.

In addition to organizing popular opposition to the Stamp Act, Gadsden also took leadership of the issue in the legislature. He campaigned heavily to respond to Massachusetts" June 8, 1765 call for a continent-wide congress later in the year. Gadsden later boasted: "No man strove more first to bring about a Congress in 1765, and then to support it ever afterwards than myself." He wasn't exaggerating. South Carolina led the deep South in responding to Massachusetts, and Gadsden was selected--along with Thomas Lynch and John Rutledge--to attend the Stamp Act Congress on behalf of South Carolina.

During the Stamp Act Congress, Gadsden quickly emerged as one of the leaders of the congress. He stressed that the colonies should base their arguments on their natural rights from God rather than the rights given to them by their colonial charters. "A confirmation of our essential and common rights as Englishmen," Gadsden argued, "may be pleaded from charters safely enough; but any further dependence upon them may be fatal. We should stand upon the broad common ground of those natural rights that we all feel and know as men, and as descendants of Englishmen. I wish the charters may not ensnare us at last by drawing different colonies to act differently in this great cause. Whenever that is the case, all will be over with the whole."

Back in South Carolina, Gadsden's Sons of Liberty made life nearly impossible for the Royal Governor. A boycott of British goods had received near unanimous support, and those unfortunate few who bucked the patriotic boycott ran the risk of being socially ostracized, tarred and feathered, or having their shops vandalized. Even after Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, Gadsden harangued the Sons of Liberty to maintain the boycott. At a speech under the "Liberty Tree," a live oak on Isaac Mazyek's pasture in Hampstead (near Charleston), George Flagg noted that Gadsden railed at length against the "fallacious hope that Great Britain would relinquish her designs or pretensions." The speech "was received with silent and profound attention; and, with linked hands, the whole party pledged themselves to resist."

Escalating Resistance

When the British imposed the Townshend Act, which reinstated British taxes on lead, paint, paper, glass, and tea, the Sons of Liberty responded in October 1768 by drawing up a slate of candidates for the House of Commons at a barbeque. Gadsden was named "president" of the slate, and the next month the newly elected legislature met to consider resolutions from Massachusetts and Virginia against the Townshend taxes. The British governor, Charles Montagu, urged the legislature to ignore the "seditious" resolutions from Massachusetts and Virginia. The new House of Commons, meeting with 26 of its 55 delegates, appointed a committee led by Gadsden to write a reply to the governor. The reply read in part, "no paper or letter appearing to have the smallest tendency to sedition ... has ever been laid before us." The delegates then unanimously expressed solidarity with Massachusetts and Virginia during a closed door meeting by drafting a resolution in agreement with Massachusetts and Virginia.

When the furious Governor Montagu heard about the resolution, he dissolved the assembly, called for new elections, and brought British troops into Charleston. But all of the "unanimous 26" were re-elected, and the new assembly refused the governor's request to pay for quartering the British troops and passed a resolution condemning the governor's actions as contrary to the old election law.

While the governor and the legislature stalemated, the Sons of Liberty created the most rigorously enforced boycott of British goods anywhere in the colonies and kept the boycott in place even after the Townshend Act (except for the tax on tea) was repealed. When South Carolina's patriots finally called off their non-importation agreement in December 1770, they were the last colony to do so. Gadsden personally became an example for his fellow citizens of South Carolina to follow when he forsook the traditional English-spun black woolen garb used at funerals. Gadsden, an active vestryman in his Anglican Church, wore "homespun" clothing to the funeral of his second wife Mary in January 1769.

Despite the end of the boycott, Gadsden and the Commons continued to wage a war of position against Governor Montagu without violence or directly challenging his executive authority. In 1772, Montagu threatened to convene the Commons in Port Royal instead of Charleston because the legislature had refused to authorize funds for a governor's mansion. By October, Gadsden was chairing a committee charged with drawing up a petition to the king complaining of Montagu's behavior and requesting his removal from office. Montagu, tipped off that the Commons was drawing up the resolutions, summoned the legislators to his office in an attempt to prevent the body from adopting them. But despite the governor's summons, the legislature stayed in closed session until it adopted Gadsden's resolutions. Again, the governor was furious at the defiant legislators. He berated them for delaying his order to appear before him and for "wantonly showing how little they regard the laws of parliament."

But it was too late for Montagu. Gadsden's resolutions led London to conclude--correctly--that Montagu was unable to govern South Carolina. When Montagu was recalled to England in 1773, South Carolina wouldn't receive a new royal governor for more than two years--after the clashes at Lexington and Concord and too late to stop the juggernaut for independence.

Call to Arms

When a Continental Congress was called in 1774 in reaction to the "Intolerable Acts" imposed by Parliament in the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party, South Carolina again sent Gadsden as one of its representatives. And again, Gadsden was in the forefront, promoting action and continental unity. "Boston and New England can't hold out--the country will be deluged in blood, if we don't act with spirit," he told delegates. John Adams described Gadsden at the first Continental Congress as "rough, honest, impulsive and energetic," but fellow South Carolinian delegate Edward Rutledge believed Gadsden had become "more violent, more wrong-headed" than usual.

Gadsden was impulsive. He rose to the podium with an alarmist cry to arms when the Congress was swept with a false rumor that the British had bombarded the city of Boston. Later, when the rumor was deflated, Gadsden backtracked, proclaiming, "I am for being ready, but I am not for the sword." Gadsden always kept the goal of liberty foremost in his mind, however. John Adams wrote that Gadsden told the Congress, "Our seaport towns are composed of brick and wood. If they are destroyed we have clay and lumber enough to rebuild them. But if the liberties of our country are destroyed where shall we find the materials to replace them?"

Back in South Carolina, the Sons of Liberty's "General Committee" announced elections for a "provincial congress" on December 19, 1774 to replace the House of Commons, which was in a stalemate with Lt. Governor William Bull. Forty of the 48 representatives from the House of Commons were elected to the Provincial Congress, which soon set up a "secret committee" of five members to gather arms for preparing the colony for the upcoming clash of arms. Without knowing of the events in Lexington and Concord. Massachusetts, one day earlier, the "secret committee" emptied two Charleston-area armories on the morning of April 20, 1775. The patriots netted 800 firearms. 200 cutlasses, and 1,600 pounds of gunpowder from the seizure.

The Provincial Congress also sent Gadsden back to Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress, where he quickly became a leading advocate for colonial strength, including a strong American Navy.

Gadsden also signed the July 8, 1775 "Olive Branch Petition" that begged the king to eliminate the tyrannical acts of the British parliament, but Gadsden had likely already come to the conclusion that the petition would be ignored and that either war or submission to tyranny were the inevitable choices. By September 1775, John Adams was writing to friends that Gadsden was the most committed to the American cause of any delegate.

Congress assigned Gadsden to a three-man committee on naval affairs, and the South Carolina patriot personally designed a flag for the U.S. Navy, a coiled rattlesnake on a gold field with the words "Don't Tread on Me" emblazoned on it. Gadsden's flag first flew on December 20, 1775 over the flagship Alfred, skippered by Commodore Esek Hopkins, the new commander-in-chief of the U.S. Navy.

As 1775 drew to a close in South Carolina, patriots forced Governor Campbell, who had arrived in June from Nova Scotia, to abandon the colony. "They have dipt their hands in blood," Campbell wrote. "God almighty knows where it will end." The British navy set up a blockade of Charleston harbor, the major commercial point in the American South and the state's largest population center. Governor Campbell advised the king to crush the independence movement in Charleston as the key to eliminating all resistance to the Crown south of Virginia: "Charleston is the fountain-head from whence all violence flows; stop that, and the rebellion in this part of the continent will soon be at an end."

With the outbreak of war and the imminent threat of invasion of his home state, Gadsden left Philadelphia in January 1776 in order to take a commission as a colonel in the South Carolina militia. Not everyone was enthusiastic about assigning the hot-headed and reputedly impulsive Gadsden, who had never led troops in battle, to defend the key American southern city. "My colleague Gadsden is gone home, to command our troops, God save them," moderate Thomas Lynch lamented.


Gadsden arrived back in Charleston like a returning hero, bringing his new flag, which President William Henry Drayton posted to the left of the president's chair of the South Carolina Provincial Congress. Viewing his departure as urgent, Gadsden had left Congress before he could sign the Declaration of Independence with his colleagues, who would pledge their "lives, fortunes, and sacred honor" for independence. But Gadsden would put his life, considerable fortune, and honor on the line for independence nonetheless. Gadsden boldly announced to the South Carolina assembly that independence was the only option. Drayton wrote that Gadsden's speech was "like an explosion of thunder."

Moderates were horrified at the suggestion of independence and still looked for reconciliation with the British Crown. Even after a new state constitution was adopted in March 1776, the new president, John Rutledge, announced that "no man would embrace a just and equitable accommodation with Great Britain more gladly" than himself. Moderates contrived to stunt Gadsden's agitation by offering him a judgeship under the new constitution, but Gadsden refused the office and continued to bring South Carolina toward independence.

Defense of Charleston and a Duel

Gadsden and Colonel William Moultrie were each given command of separate units charged with defending Charleston. A British fleet entered Charleston Harbor on June 18, 1776, but was turned back after a smart defense by Colonel Moultrie's forces on Sullivan's Island forced a number of British ships to ground themselves on a sand-bar. As in the French and Indian War, Colonel Gadsden's men, forced to observe the conflict from across the harbor, were irrelevant to the battle. The British ships unleashed a cannonade of 7,000 shots, most of which bounced harmlessly off the walls of Moultrie's fort, and less than two weeks later the British fleet sailed out of the harbor, after a high tide lifted them off the sandbar.

The defensive victory saved Charleston from violence for three more years, but a dispute between Gadsden, a state militia commander, and Continental officer Major-General Robert Howe over command of forces resulted in violence of an entirely different kind. In correspondence that became increasingly abusive and personal against Howe, Gadsden continually complained about Howe's claim of command over Gadsden's units, and in August 1778 Howe demanded "satisfaction" in the form of a duel.

Not one to back down from a challenge of honor, Gadsden accepted, and the two engaged in a duel with pistols at eight paces on August 30. The duel itself was almost comic. Both urged the other to fire first. Eventually, Gadsden pointed out that Howe had been the one to "start this business." Howe fired, harmlessly grazing Gadsden's ear, though he perhaps missed deliberately. Gadsden deliberately fired wide of the mark, and then urged Howe to reload for a second round. Howe would hear nothing of it; his honor had been vindicated. Gadsden then apologized for his abusive language, but not for challenging Howe's claim to command. The two were enemies no longer.

Surrender of Charleston and Prison

Political moderates continued to try to keep the fiery Gadsden out of the limelight, and toward this end he was nominated as vice president of South Carolina by the Assembly in 1778. In this role, the rivalry between the passionate Gadsden and the moderate President John Rutledge came to a head in May 1779, as Charleston faced a growing siege. British General Augustine Prevost had marched up from Savannah with 2,400 men and begun an entrenchment around the city. Rutledge sent a courier under a flag of truce to learn the British terms of surrender. Prevost replied that anyone who swore loyalty to the king would be spared, but all others would become prisoners of war. Rutledge, who still remained open to reconciliation with Britain even at this late date in the war, called together the eight members of his Privy Council--which included Gadsden--to consider a counteroffer.

When Gadsden arrived at Rutledge's house, he was furious to find the white flag of truce flying over it. When he heard Rutledge's suggested terms--that South Carolina and Charleston would pledge themselves to neutrality throughout the rest of the war--he became even more furious and exploded in rage. He shouted that he would never accept a repudiation of the Declaration of Independence, or neutrality. His son-in-law Thomas Ferguson and another member of the council backed him up, but Gadsden was outvoted five to three. Rutledge ordered that the negotiations remain secret, but Gadsden ignored the order and went out into the city to stir up opposition to the counteroffer. "Gadsden himself returned to inform the [South Carolina president] that some men in town were demanding that all who favored neutrality should be handed over to the British," according to Gadsden's biographers E. Stanly Godbold, Jr. and Robert H. Woody. But the counteroffer was made nonetheless.

Prevost rejected the offer, and the patriots fought on. Prevost withdrew his army, but it was soon replaced by a larger force. By 1780. a huge British land force of 10,000 men surrounded Charleston under British General Henry Clinton, while a British blockade in the harbor doomed any hopes of American aid from the sea. Even with considerable reinforcements from Continental General Benjamin Lincoln, the defenders were outnumbered more than two to one.

Again, Charleston considered surrender. and Gadsden was outraged. While Lincoln negotiated with the redcoats, Gadsden grabbed whatever men he could and charged to the fort on Sullivan's Island, where he tried to cannonade the British ships sailing into the harbor. The British ships were all out of range, but one ship grounded itself on a sandbar. Gadsden moved the cannon closer and blasted the beached ship. He also arranged for a ship to escape the British blockade and travel to Havana for help from the French-allied Spanish. But his efforts were too late, and Gadsden and Lincoln eventually signed the surrender of nearly 5,000 American troops. All the Americans--including Gadsden--became "prisoners of war on parole" who were released, but prohibited from taking actions against British rule. Several weeks later, however, Gadsden was arrested on a groundless charge that he had assisted in a revolt against the British military governor. He was moved to a prison ship and then transported to the prison Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine.

Gadsden returned to public service after his release from prison on July 17, 1781, even though the bouts of dizziness that began with his imprisonment continued throughout the rest of his life. After turning down the governorship and after a brief retirement, he assisted in South Carolina's ratification of the U.S. Constitution, helped frame the 1788 South Carolina Constitution, and became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1792.

Historian George Bancroft correctly wrote that Gadsden was a "man of deep and clear convictions; thoroughly sincere; of an unbending will and a sturdy, impetuous integrity, which drove those about him, like a mountain torrent dashing on an overshot wheel, though sometimes clogging with back-water from its own violence. He possessed not only that courage which defies danger, but that persistence which neither peril nor imprisonment nor the threat of death can shake. Full of religious faith, and at the same time inquisitive and tolerant, methodical, yet lavish of his fortune for public ends, he had in his nature nothing vacillating or low, and knew not how to hesitate or feign."

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A132052263