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THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE: FOUR SOUTH CAROLINA SIGNERS

June 26, 2016

As we anticipate the July 4 celebration of our nation’s independence, permit me to give you a two-part quiz.

  1. Can you quote from memory one sentence from the Declaration of Independence?
  2. Can you name the four South Carolinians who signed the Declaration of Independence?

Students in a sociology class designed a research project. They printed out the words of the Declaration of Independence and placed copies of the document on clipboards. Without identifying the document as the Declaration, the students invited people at a shopping mall to read and sign it as a petition. Most people refused to sign their name. They protested that the wording was inflammatory. Some said the students were just trying to stir up trouble.

Many Americans recognize some of the words contained in the famous document laying the foundation of our nation; sadly many others do not. Perhaps the most familiar sentence is found in the first lines of the second paragraph of the Declaration. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence were committing an act of treason against King George III. Though the names Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Hancock, and Thomas Jefferson are familiar, few residents of the Palmetto State can name the four South Carolinians who placed their signatures on this document.

Following is a brief biography of each one. More complete information can be found in The South Carolina Encyclopedia, edited by Dr. Walter Edgar (University of South Carolina Press; September 18, 2006).

Edward Rutledge was the youngest child of a physician who had emigrated from Ireland. Rutledge was born in 1749 near Charleston. As a young man, he studied law in England, as did all four of the South Carolina signers. In 1774 Rutledge was named one of five delegates to the First Continental Congress. He was the leader of his congressional delegation when the Declaration was adopted. At the age of twenty-six, Rutledge was the youngest of all the signers.

Following the war, Rutledge served in the state legislature. His wealth increased through his law practice and investments in plantations. The people of South Carolina chose Rutledge as Governor in 1796. When he died in 1800 at the age of fifty, he was buried at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Charleston.

Thomas Heyward, Jr., was born in 1746 in St. Helena’s Parish, near Savannah. In 1771 he returned to South Carolina after studying abroad in London and began practicing law. He was elected to the colonial legislature, which was feuding with the Royal Governor over the issue of taxation.

In the summer of 1774 Heyward attended a provincial convention that chose delegates to the Continental Congress. He signed the Articles of Confederation, as well as the Declaration. He then became a circuit court judge and represented Charleston in the state legislature.

In 1779 Heyward was wounded during a British attack near his home, White Hall, on Port Royal Island. The British plundered the home the following year, taking numerous objects of value.

After the war, Heyward resumed his position of circuit court judge, concurrently serving two terms in the state legislature. The last to survive among the South Carolina signers, he died in 1809 at the age of sixty-two and was interred in the family cemetery at Old House Plantation.

Thomas Lynch, Jr., was an aristocratic planter like two of the three other South Carolina signers, Thomas Heyward and Arthur Middleton.

Lynch was born in 1749 at Hopsewee Plantation, located on the North Santee River in present Georgetown County. During the years 1774-76, while his father, Thomas Lynch, Sr., served in the Continental Congress, Thomas Lynch, Jr. served on the home front, attending the first and second provincial congresses as well as the first state legislature. He became a captain in the First South Carolina Regiment of Continentals. On a recruiting trip to North Carolina, young Lynch contracted fever, rendering him a partial invalid.

Early in 1776 at Philadelphia, the elder Lynch suffered a stroke that incapacitated him and prevented further public service. His concerned colleagues in South Carolina elected his son to the Continental Congress. Although ill himself, the younger Lynch made the trip to Philadelphia, staying long enough to vote for and sign the Declaration of Independence. His father was unable to take part in the ceremony.

By the end of the year, the failing health of both men compelled them to begin the trip home. In route, a second stroke took the life of the senior Lynch. His son, who was broken in spirit and physically unable to continue in politics, retired to his plantation.

In 1779 he and his wife, heading for southern France in an attempt to regain his health, perished at sea. He was thirty years old.

Arthur Middleton was born in 1742 at the family estate on the Ashley River near Charleston. He graduated from Cambridge University and studied law in London. In 1776, while engaged in helping draft a state constitution, Middleton was elected to follow his father in the Continental Congress. In the same year he and William Henry Drayton designed the Great Seal of South Carolina.

After the war Middleton returned to serve briefly in Congress, then retired to Middleton Place. He restored his home, which had been ravaged by the British during the Revolution, and resumed his life as a planter. He died in 1787 at the age of 44. He is buried at Middleton Place.

These four men knew the risks they were taking when they signed the Declaration. Each had more to lose from revolution than he had to gain by it. The penalty for treason was death by hanging. Thomas Lynch, Jr.’s heart and health were broken in the cause for freedom. He died at a younger age than any other signer of the Declaration.

In the siege of Charleston in 1780, the British captured the three remaining South Carolina signers:  Edward Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, and Thomas Heyward, Jr. As prisoners of war, they were incarcerated in St. Augustine, Florida, but released in a prisoner exchange at the end of the war. During this time of turmoil in America’s history, the British devastated each man’s home.

These signers of the Declaration of Independence certainly made no idle boast when they promised, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

On the fourth of July enjoy your family. Celebrate the freedoms that we as Americans cherish. Display the Stars and Stripes proudly. But might I also suggest that you take a little time to read the Declaration of Independence? Offer a prayer of gratitude for those courageous patriots who signed the document and all who have defended our liberty. And pray the words of the song, “God Bless America.”

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