Founding Fathers Friday: Arthur Middleton
by Derrick G. Jeter
Arthur Middleton was the old man of the South Carolina delegation to the Continental Congress. Thomas Lynch Sr. technically was the oldest, but due to a stroke he was incapacitated and took no part in the debates concerning American independence. That left 34 year old Middleton with the distinction of being the old man.
Not only was Middleton the oldest, he was also the riches among the South Carolina delegation. Middleton was born and raised at Middleton Place, his father’s vast estate on the Ashley River, near Charleston. When he was twelve he was sent to England for his education. Eventually graduating from the University of Cambridge, Middleton stayed in England for a time and traveled throughout Europe—even learning how to paint while in Rome.
Returning home to South Carolina in 1768, Middleton married a well-connected young lady by the name of Mary Izard. He took his bride on a European holiday and didn’t come back to America until 1773.
He had barely set foot on South Carolina soil a second time when he was swept up in revolutionary politics. Middleton’s father, Henry was elected to the First Continental Congress and served as it’s first president. But Middleton didn’t let the grass grow under his feet in catching up with his father’s patriotism. Middleton was a rebels rebel. It was rumored that he favored tarring and feathering anyone associated with the British Crown. In 1775, he was serving on the South Carolina committee of safety. When Lord William Campbell was appointed the royal governor of the colony he ignored the Provincial Assembly and took active measures to check revolutionary momentum. Middleton, though his wife was related to Mrs. Campbell, immediately called for Campbell’s arrest. It was move too bold for the timid majority of the Assembly, but due to the general unrest in Charleston Campbell thought it best to leave.
Campbell fled Charleston in September of 1775 and sailed to England. He was back in American waters in 1776, aboard the HMS Bristol as it attacked Ft. Moultrie. During the battle, the Bristol was hit with canon fire, a wooden splinter sheered off her planks and struck Campbell in the side. Though it didn’t kill him instantly he never fully recovered from this wound and died two years later.
During that same year of 1776, Middleton was hard at work on a new Constitution for South Carolina, which was adopted in March. South Carolina became the second colony, behind New Hampshire, to form a government completely separate from King George and Parliament.
Henry Middleton then decided not to return to Philadelphia and resume his position in the Continental Congress, so the Provincial Legislature sent young Middleton in his stead. It didn’t take long for him to make himself known. Benjamin Rush, ever the observer of people and their peculiarities, described Middleton as “a man of cynical temper, but of upright intentions toward his country. . . . He spoke frequently, and always with asperity or personality.” John Adams, another keen observer of personalities, wrote of Middleton: “He had little information and less argument; in rudeness and sarcasm his forte lay, and he played off his artillery without reserve.”
When noses were counted on July 1, 1776, South Carolina and Pennsylvania were the only two colonies against independence. New York abstained because they hadn’t received word from their Assembly and Delaware was deadlocked two to two due to the absence of Caesar Rodney. The slavery language in the Declaration of Independence was of major concern to the South Carolina delegation. After a night of wrangling the delegates decided that independence was at issue and not emancipation so the language was struck and South Carolina would vote yea in the morning. Which they did—and having negotiated a deal with Pennsylvania and the return of Rodney—the measure passed. Middleton signed the Declaration along with his fellow delegates on August 2, 1776.
Middleton continued in the Congress until 1777. But when the war’s attention shifted to the south, he went home to defend his state. He served in the militia and was capture during the siege of Charleston. Reunited with his cosigners Edward Rutledge and Thomas Heyward, Middleton was imprisoned in St. Augustine, Florida, supposedly in the Castillo de San Marcos—Fort St. Marks as it was know by the British. However, further historical evidence indicates that Middleton and the others were kept under house arrest—no doubt better conditions than they would have experienced in Ft. Marks. In July 1781, Middleton and his fellows were released in a prisoner exchange.
When Middleton returned to Middleton Place he found that his estate had been abused somewhat. Paintings in the house were either missing or found destroyed. Slaves, about two hundred in all, had been sold. Animals killed or run off. Crops destroyed. And silver stolen. Mary, his wife, while he was in prison, had to beg the British to return some necessary items for the care of her children. Probably to her loyalists ties with Mrs. Campbell, the British complied.
Middleton went back to Congress and serve until 1782. An original trustee of the College of Charleston, he also served in the state legislature until this death on January 1, 1787. Mary survived until 1814, and in the words of an old biography, she “had the satisfaction of seeing her [nine] offspring among the honored of the land.”
Arthur Middleton was certainly one who honored our land and deserves our remembrance and gratitude.