Who was Christopher Gadsden?

Who was Christopher Gadsden?


Almost a year ago Rick Reed put out an email to those interested in working on the Battery Gadsden Cultural Center project. In that email he included a brief history of Battery Gadsden and the man for whom it’s named, Christopher Gadsden. To quote: “Christopher Gadsden, Colonel, 1st South Carolina Regiment; Brigadier General, Continental Army.” That brief reference piqued my interest in Gadsden. More recently I finally got around to reading a book that had been on my shelf for a while entitled Charleston! Charleston! written by Walter J. Fraser, a former history professor at The Citadel and Chairman of the History Department at Georgia Southern University at the time he wrote the book. To my surprise there was a good bit about Christopher Gadsden in Dr. Fraser’s book and the role that Gadsden played in the early history of Charleston and South Carolina. He was certainly much, much more than just a colonel in the South Carolina Militia and a general in the Continental Army. I thought some of the rest of you might be interested in learning about this man as well, so I have abstracted the information on him from Fraser’s book. To save time with footnotes or quotation marks, you can assume that none of this is original research on my part, but rather is all taken directly from Walter Fraser’s work. I give him full credit for the following.

By 1761 Gadsden was a well-to-do Charles Town merchant and considered a hot-headed politico. In December of that year he joined others in criticizing British Lt. Colonel James Grant for not being aggressive enough in his campaign against the Cherokee Indians in that he did not permit his men “to cut the throats of as many as they could have.” In September 1762 opponents of Gadsden claimed an “irregularity” in his election to the Commons House of Assembly, but the Assembly voted to seat him anyway. Governor Thomas Boone refused to administer the oath of office to Gadsden and dissolved the legislature. The Assembly censured Boone and refused to conduct any further business until he apologized. Boone soon left for England, but this first clash between royal governor and local Assembly left the local elite even more tenacious of their rights as Englishmen in America.

In March, 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act. Gadsden, already a member of the Assembly and Captain of the Charles Town artillery company, now organized the fight against the Stamp Act. Known for his relentless pursuit of wealth and power, he viewed royal officials and England’s new schemes as threats to his ambitions. An acquaintance remarked that Gadsden “could not brook the encroachments of any man or body of men intrenching on his rights.” At forty-one years of age, Gadsden was an extremist, impetuous, and intemperate in his language. Unique among the members of the Assembly and Charles Town’s elite, he had established a following among the city’s laboring classes. Some of these artisans and mechanics were members of his artillery company, and he had apparently convinced them that their “natural privileges” and the town’s economy were being threatened. His politicking among the poor alarmed his conservative colleagues. Some found him “violent” and “wrongheaded”. Others saw him as a “tribune of the People”. Henry Laurens privately called him a “rash headlong Gentleman who has been too long a ringleader of people engaged in popular quarrels.”

In leading the opposition to the Stamp Act in the Assembly Gadsden believed that the measure was inconsistent with “the inherent right of every British subject not to be taxed but by his own consent or that of his representatives.” During the summer of 1765 he urged the Assembly to answer the call of the Massachusetts government for representatives from each colony to meet in New York to protest the act peacefully.  The South Carolina Assembly was the first to select its delegates. Gadsden was chosen along with Thomas Lynch, a wealthy rice planter, and John Rutledge, a young Charles Town lawyer. Gadsden took a leading role in the Stamp Act Congress, serving as chairman of the committee that drafted resolutions condemning the act and wrote the cover letter transmitting them to England. But while Gadsden used peaceful methods of protest in New York, members of his artillery company and others in Charles Town, calling themselves the “Sons of Liberty”, and probably following Gadsden’s instructions, used violence. Just as in northern cities, waves of protest gripped the city that summer until in October the two local stamp agents, George Saxby and Caleb Lloyd, announced publicly that to restore and preserve the peace, they would not enforce the act. Celebrating Sons of Liberty poured into the streets and unfurled a flag with “Liberty” sewn across it. Bonfires were lit and guns were fired. After that, all Charlestonians, rich or poor, black or white, were acutely aware of the power of violence as a political weapon. Even Christopher Gadsden, who was more sympathetic with the “lower class”, worried for the future of peace and order. On his return Gadsden convinced the Assembly to endorse the methods of peaceful protest adopted by the Stamp Act Congress. Commerce ground to a halt because of the lack of legal clearance the stamps would have provided. Ships could not leave the harbor. That led to hundreds of idle sailors frequenting the local tippling houses, harassing citizens and demanding from them “money of the People”. As a result, Gadsden actually called out the Sons of Liberty to control the mobs and restore order! He, like other members of the propertied class, was determined to preserve law and order. As one observer noted, “the richer folks were terrified at the spirit which themselves had conjured up.”

The late 1760’s brought new royal customs officials who began to enforce long ignored trade regulations. In doing so they were able to enrich themselves through bribes and “gratuities”. In return they decided which merchant’s ships would be allowed to ship their goods. Henry Laurens called it “customs racketeering”. The lowcountry elite faced a dilemma: either sacrifice basic, hard-won political prerogatives and remain within the safety of the British colonial system, or openly challenge the British government. No member of the elite saw the dilemma more clearly than Christopher Gadsden, who realized that successful resistance to Britain’s policies depended on the recruitment of the laboring classes to the cause. But Gadsden also knew that resistance itself might unleash the masses and disorder. Resistance, then, must be carefully manipulated. Gadsden as popular leader of the laboring classes carefully orchestrated the public meetings he called at taverns and the “Liberty Tree”, a huge oak on Isaac Mazyck’s lands in the northeastern section of the city. A stirring, rousing orator, Gadsden told the crowds that they must continue their peaceful vigilance to England’s conspiracies and designs that threatened their “Liberty and Property”. As adverse economic times rippled through Charles Town, Gadsden exploited the accelerating hard times among the laboring classes. He met with the local artisans and mechanics to organize and ensure peaceful resistance to the acts, and they repeatedly returned him to the Assembly as representative from St. Philip’s parish. He led the successful effort in the Assembly to join with the other colonies in boycotting British goods to force repeal of the hated Townshend Acts.

To ensure compliance with the boycott the Assembly appointed a Committee of Thirty-Nine that for the first time included not only the planter and merchant elite, but also artisans, giving the laboring classes a significant voice in the government. The wealthy elite fumed at such an arrangement as a threat to their oligarchy. Gadsden also recognized such a threat, but he believed that it was to his own interest and that of his class to work with the laboring classes, for if resistance did evolve into revolution it was best that the laboring classes “see it out, come what may” aligned with and led by the native rich. Henceforth, men representing the laboring classes, under the restraining influence of Gadsden, would serve on various local committees and in the town meetings until the outbreak of the Revolution.

Fast forward to 1773 and the British imposition of a tax on all tea imported into the colonies. In December of that year, the merchant ship London anchored in Charles Town harbor loaded with tea. Gadsden again assumed the leadership in resisting British policy. On the day the London arrived, the Liberty Boys circulated handbills and posted notices along Broad Street inviting all inhabitants to a meeting the next day where the “sense of the people” would be taken on what to do about the tea. In late December the captain of the London received anonymous warnings that unless he moved his ship into deeper water it would be burned. Mob action was averted when armed royal officials seized and stored the tea in the basement of the Exchange, but the city remained sharply divided over the question of a boycott.

In December 1773 Boston had its famous Tea Party, and mobs in New York and Philadelphia turned back tea laden ships. But Gadsden carefully managed meetings of his Liberty Boys so as to maintain the boycott without violence. An outraged king and Parliament closed the port of Boston and placed the government of Massachusetts under strict royal control. Gadsden and others of his class saw in the hostile acts of Parliament against Boston threats to their own colony and summoned the inhabitants of the colony to Charles Town in July 1774 to consider next steps, including the selection of delegates to a general congress in Philadelphia. During the wrangling that followed Gadsden again spoke for the interests of the artisans and was chosen as one of five delegates to attend with compromise instructions designed to satisfy all factions. In October 1775 the Continental Congress urged the colonies to continue with the boycott of English tea, so in November when the Britannia entered the harbor carrying tea consigned to local merchants, the governing General Committee, in order to avoid mob violence, ordered the consignees to dump the tea into the Cooper River, which they did---Charles Town’s own version of a tea party. It was at the Second Continental Congress in 1775, with the formation of the navy and marines, that Gadsden apparently devised his famous flag depicting a coiled snake on a distinctive yellow background above the words, “Don’t Tread on Me”.

In early 1776 a Provisional Congress met in Charles Town to consider the recommendations of the Continental Congress. When the two laboring class leaders, Gadsden and William Drayton, called for absolute independence from England, it shocked most of the representatives. Edward Rutledge warned that a struggle for independence would bring “those leveling principles which men without character and without fortune in general possess, which are so captivating to the lower class of mankind, and which will occasion such a fluctuation of property, as to introduce the greatest disorder.” Hence the proposals by Gadsden and Drayton were buried in committee and a conservative temporary constitution was adopted until a hoped for “accommodation” could be reached with England.

Those hopes were dashed by the attack on Charles Town on June 28, 1776, and the defeat of the British forces at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island. The Declaration of Independence was approved by the government at Charles Town in September, and South Carolina became an independent state. Under a new state constitution, Christopher Gadsden was chosen in 1778 as the first Lieutenant Governor, then referred to as Vice-President. Through his support of President (Governor) Rawlins Lowndes, who was viewed as too soft on the remaining British loyalists, he found himself increasingly unpopular. A riot was averted only through Gadsden’s personal intervention, after which he wrote: “ I am afraid we have too many amongst us who want to be running to the Liberty Tree, a disease amongst us far more dangerous than anything that can arise from the whole present herd of contemptible, exportable Tories.” Gadsden’s support of Lowndes displeased the people and made him very unpopular. For years Gadsden had tried to manipulate the city mob to his own interests and to those of his class. Now laboring-class leaders were emerging who sought far reaching social, economic and political changes that alarmed Gadsden. He feared class conflict and anarchy. Like other members of the elite, he realized that now more than ever the revolutionary movement had to be carefully “managed” lest the “licentiousness” of the masses rush out of control[!].

Efforts of the lowcountry’s propertied classes to control the course of the revolution and to maintain the status quo internally were reflected in the composition of South Carolina’s military organizations. The officers were therefore, like Gadsden, gentlemen of fortune and family, hence his rapid rise to militia colonel and Continental brigadier general.

In 1780 the British returned to Charles Town and besieged the city. Under grim conditions garrison commander, General Benjamin Lincoln, and most of his officers believed further resistance was futile and wanted to open surrender negotiations. Gadsden however, now in the role of Lieutenant Governor and senior civilian authority left in town, “damned any thoughts of capitulation” and therefore negotiations broke down. Capitulation of course came, as did eventual independence.

In 1783 Charles Town became the incorporated city of Charleston. Post-war years were no less turbulent as the city formed a government comprising 13 wards, each choosing a warden in a vote by free, white males who paid three shillings a year in taxes. Those thirteen then chose from among them the city’s chief executive, then known as the Intendent. Residual anti-loyalist sentiment was still rampant. Many of those still loyal to the crown were beaten or killed. Diatribes against the Tories were soon redirected toward the city government. Marches, riots and arson were commonplace. Newspaper campaigns were just as ugly. During one, Christopher Gadsden, the one-time hero of the artisans condemned an opponent, Alexander Gillon, as a ring leader of the “Mob” and questioned his patriotism during the Revolution. Gillon replied that Gadsden was a profiteer at public expense and the spokesman for a few “aristocratic” families who opposed democratic government. Partially thanks to Gadsden’s newspaper articles, ten of the thirteen incumbent wardens were reelected and Gillon was trounced by a vote of 387 to 260. It was a tremendous victory for the “Nabobs”, leading the city’s laboring class to believe that a “few ambitious, avaricious, and designing families have wriggled themselves into power.”

Here is where Dr. Fraser’s narrative of our city leaves the story of Christopher Gadsden. From other sources including Wikipedia we know that prior to the British attack on Sullivan’s Island Gadsden paid for a bridge from the island to the mainland that would allow William Moultrie’s men to escape if the battle went badly. He had the regiment he commanded, the 1st South Carolina Regiment, build the bridge. [Wonder where that bridge was located!] After the surrender to the British in 1780, Gadsden was originally paroled to his home by General Clinton, but when Clinton was replaced by General Cornwallis, Gadsden and about 20 other civil leaders were arrested and sent to St. Augustine, Florida. British Governor Tonyn offered the prisoners the freedom of the town if they would give their “parole”. Most accepted but Gadsden refused saying that the British had already violated one parole and he would not give his word again to a false system. Consequently he spent 42 weeks in solitary confinement at the old Spanish fortress, Castillo de San Marcos. When elected governor of South Carolina in 1781, Gadsden declined, citing poor health from his confinement.

Christopher Gadsden was married three times and had four children by his second wife. He was part of the state convention that voted to ratify the U.S. constitution. He lived until 1805 when he died of an accidental fall and is buried in St. Philips Churchyard.

Christopher Gadsden…wealthy Charleston native and merchant…American patriot and agitator against oppressive British rule…friend (or manipulator?) of the laboring class…military and civil leader…and namesake of our cultural center.

Written by one of our wonderful volunteers, Dr. Mike Walsh