Founding Fathers Friday: Thomas Heyward Jr.

by Derrick G. Jeter

Like all of his South Carolina friends, Thomas Heyward Jr. was a dandy—a fine dresser, a fine conversationalist, and a fine friend if you were in need of a pound or two (or a dollar or two). Like the others, he was the son of a rich plantation owner. And like the others, he was a London trained lawyer.

Heyward traveled to the mother country when he was about twenty years old to begin his legal studies at the influential Inner Temple in London. According to an old biography, Heyward “prosecuted his studies with as much zeal as if poverty had been his inheritance, and the bread of his future existence depended upon his personal exertion when he should enter the profession.”

While Heyward received a top-notice education in the law in London, he also received a top-notice education in London’s social outlook concerning Americans. Native islanders of Great Britain were more than just a bit snooty when it came to their colonial brethren across the sea. Natives viewed colonials as inferior—inferior in breeding, tastes, and education. Slights by blokes on the street was one thing, but slights by blokes in Parliament was something else entirely. And if colonial appointments were any judge of Parliament’s opinion of Americans then the ruling class clearly saw the American colonialists as unable to rule themselves, for all prominent appointments were native islanders. Heyward’s observations of this fact was summed up well in that older biography: “These things, even at that early age, alienated his affection from the mother country, and he returned to his native land with mortified feelings, and a heartfelt desire to free it from the bondage of trans-atlantic rule.”

Shaking British dust from his expensive shoes, Heywards returned to South Carolina, hung out his shingle, married, and moved into White Hall, a plantation not far from his childhood home.

He also jumped into patriotic politics.

Heyward opposed the Stamp Act and was outraged at the passage of the Port Bill, which closed the port of Boston after the fabled tea party, fearing that Charleston, the leading port in the South, could befall a similar fate. Because of this, South Carolina patriots were compelled to act. And act they did: they threw out the royal governor, established a new government, and wrote a new constitution. Heyward worked on the drafting committee of the constitution.

In 1775, Heyward was elected to the Continental Congress. At first, he modestly declined the honor, but after a large number of citizens marched through White Hall pressing him to serve he relented and traveled to Philadelphia. Though considered “a firm republican,” Heyward along with the whole South Carolina delegation at first didn’t support Lee’s resolution for independence. But they came around and voted in the affirmative on July 2, 1776. And along with the majority of delegates, Heyward signed the Declaration on August 2.

Heyward left Congress in 1778, but not before he also signed the Articles of Confederation.

When Heyward returned to South Carolina he accepted an appointment as judge of criminal and civil courts. His appointment and his signature on the Declaration of Independence didn’t win him many friends among the tories of the state however. They tried, unsuccessfully until 1780, to have him arrested. Unfortunately for Heyward, he also held the captain’s rank in the militia at the same time and took up arms against Britain. In 1779, at Port Royal Island, he received a gun shot wound which scarred him for life. The following year, British troops marched through White Hall and carried away all his slaves—many of which were sold to Jamaican sugar plantations. Heyward was able to recover some of these slaves, but about 130 were simply gone for good. The estimated value of these slaves, even in 1848 dollars (the year of an early biography), was $50,000.

In May 1780, Heyward was captured while serving in the militia defending Charleston. Eventually, he, along with Edward Rutledge and Arthur Middleton, were sent to St. Augustine, Florida. While in captivity Heyward’s wife sudden died. He was released in July 1781 and made his way back to South Carolina to resume his seat on the bench. He remarried, served in the convention to write a new constitution for the state in 1790, and then retired to “the bosom of his family [where] he bore the honor, which a nation’s gratitude conferred, and there calmly awaited the summons for another world.”

Heyward answered that summons on March 6, 1809, at the age of sixty-three.