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1776 and SC’s young radicals

Posted: July 10, 2013 4:01 p.m.
Updated: July 12, 2013 5:00 a.m.

A decent respect for our history and heritage demands that over the Fourth of July holidays we do more than just eat bar-b-que, watch fireworks or go fishing.

For many years, I have made it a practice every Fourth of July to read the Declaration of Independence and spend some time in study of the men and events that surround this momentous and defining event in the life of our country. This year, I was struck by both the age and wealth of the signers from South Carolina. So, who were they?

Thomas Heyward Jr. was a planter and lawyer from what is now Jasper County and the eldest son of one of the wealthiest planters in the colony. Like many of his class, and all of the other South Carolina signers, he studied law in England and took his place in South Carolina politics. He was 30 years old when he signed the Declaration of Independence. He was later wounded in battle, his home was plundered and all his slaves carried off by the British. He was captured during the defense of Charleston and imprisoned in St. Augustine. While in jail on the 4th of July in 1781, he amused himself by writing satirical and patriotic verses set to the tune of God Save the Queen. After the war, he was deeply involved in the state’s politics and died at the age of 62 in 1809. He was buried in the family cemetery at Old House Plantation -- the last surviving South Carolina signer.

Thomas Lynch was an aristocratic planter born at Hopsewee Plantation on the North Santee River in present day Georgetown County. His father, Thomas Lynch, was one of the most fervent revolutionaries and most respected men in the colony. Lynch Jr. studied law at Cambridge in England and returned home to join the Continental Army. When his father, a delegate to the Continental Congress, became ill, Lynch Jr. was elected to go to Philadelphia and serve with his father -- the only father and son team that served concurrently. Though his father was too ill to sign, young Lynch signed the Declaration. He was 27 years old; the second youngest signer next to fellow South Carolinian Edward Rutledge. Both father and son Lynch were in poor health when they left Philadelphia. Father Lynch died on the way home and son Lynch and his wife died shortly thereafter as they sailed for France where he hoped to regain his health.

Rutledge was the fifth son of an Irish immigrant and physician and was born in Charleston in 1749. After studying law in England, he returned to Charleston and won some important legal victories on behalf of press freedom and gained modest wealth. In the early days of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, he served in the shadows of his elders, including his older brother John, but later became the leader of the state’s delegation. When the vote on independence came up on July 1, he opposed it and South Carolina as a state initially balloted “negative.” When it became obvious that all the other states were going to support independence, Rutledge and the rest of the state’s delegation changed their vote on July 2 to make the tally unanimous. At 26, he was the youngest signer. He returned to Charleston and along with Heyward and Middleton, was captured in the British siege of Charleston in May 1780 and imprisoned in St. Augustine until June 1781. After the war, though in poor health, he remained involved in politics and was ultimately elected governor, but died in 1800 at the age of 50, a year before his term was to end.

Arthur Middleton was born on his family plantation near Charleston in 1742; his father was one of the wealthiest and most influential men in the colony. Arthur was not only one of the richest in South Carolina, he was also one of the most radical. Even while he was a sitting member of the Royal Provincial Assembly, he organized and funded armed raids to seize weapons and organize armed resistance to the King. He advocated the tarring and feathering of British Loyalists and the confiscation of their property. He was 34 when he signed the Declaration, having been sent to Philadelphia to replace his more conservative father. Captured and imprisoned with two of his fellow South Carolina signers, he was imprisoned in St. Augustine. After the war, he returned to a Middleton Plantation that had been razed by the British. He remained active in politics until his death at the age of 44.

So, what can we say of this band of Revolutionary brothers who were to “pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor?”

All were wealthy -- and thus had the most at risk in the Revolution. All had studied in England; the average age at signing was only 29 years old; three of the four were imprisoned; two of the four had their homes pillaged or burned by the British; three of the four sacrificed their personal health and died young. All died wealthy men.

This holiday time, while we are resting in our hammocks, stomachs full of bar-b-que, we should take a few minutes to think about these men and what they did. We need to tell our children about them, what they risked and the high personal price they paid -- and hope our children will be interested, perhaps even inspired.

Where are today’s South Carolina Revolutionaries -- the ones who at 29 years of age are willing to risk it all to change the world?

Today, they are certainly not all men. Nor are they all white or wealthy. But they are here, and we must find and encourage and support them in their efforts to change the world.

Never have we needed such young men and women more.

(Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. His column is provided by the S.C. News Exchange.)

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