Friday, March 19, 2021 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

Chief Justice Charles Shinner garnered prestige and wealth during his first several years in South Carolina, but the enforcement of a controversial British law in late 1765 triggered a tidal wave of political resistance that undermined his career and eroded his family’s health. During six months of tense factional opposition in Charleston, Shinner’s loyalty to the British Crown deprived him of the respect of colleagues and the company of his wife. In the final year of his life, he buried his children and fought a losing battle to defend his character against vengeful political assassination.

The downward spiral of Charles Shinner’s life was precipitated by the passage of the so-called Stamp Act of 1765. In an effort to defray some of the large debt incurred during Britain’s recent war with France, known as the French and Indian War or the Seven Years’ War of 1756–1763, Parliament ratified on March 22nd, 1765, “An Act for granting and applying certain stamp duties, and other duties in the British colonies and plantations in America towards further defraying the expenses of defending, protecting, and securing the same” (5 Geo. III, c. 12). By requiring a new paper stamp to be affixed to a wide variety of paper goods used in daily life, including things like playing cards, cargo manifests, licenses, bills of sale, court documents, and newspapers, the new law was expected to raise a large amount of revenue in a relatively short amount of time.

 

The provisions articulated in the Stamp Act did not come into force immediately because the British Government had to print a large volume of new stamps and ship them to the colonies in America. During the interval between the ratification of the act in March 1765 and its implementation on November 1st, opposition to the new tax grew in each of the colonies. Americans complained that they had no voice in the act because none of the members of Parliament represented constituents in the colonies. To coordinate the arguments circulating across the continent, nine of the eighteen British American colonies sent delegates to a convention held in New York City in October of 1765. This Stamp Act Congress paved the way for further inter-colony cooperation that eventually led to the formation of the United States of America.[1]

While the South Carolina delegates to the congress were still in New York, a British ship carrying bales of the dreaded paper stamps arrived in Charleston harbor on October 18th. The following day, there was a large and turbulent public protest against the Stamp Act on the streets of Charleston. The majority of the free citizens of South Carolina, like those in other colonial capitals, were determined to resist the unwelcome new tax by preventing the stamps from being officially received and distributed. To preserve public safety, Lieutenant Governor William Bull immediately ordered the stamps to be landed and secured at Fort Johnson on James Island. A week later, he coordinated with the captain of a warship in the harbor, HMS Speedwell, to take the bales of stamp paper onboard his vessel for safe keeping.

On the morning of October 23rd, however, a rumor spread across town that some stamps had been brought from Fort Johnson to Charleston during the previous night. That evening, a large mob assembled on the streets and decided to hunt for the stamps, which they suspected might be in the possession of some important public figure. They went first to the home of Henry Laurens, on the east side of Anson Street in Ansonborough, and demanded to search his house. Laurens refused to entertain their request, but he invited them to search his outbuildings. After terrifying Mrs. Laurens, the angry mob helped themselves to copious quantities of alcoholic beverages found in the cellar and began to look elsewhere for the stamps.

Daniel Stevens (1748–1835), who was a teenager at the time, later recalled that the mob visited the house of Chief Justice Shinner immediately after they left the Laurens residence on the evening of October 23rd 1765. Stevens’s memory of the timing of this event might be flawed, but it’s still a good story:

[The mob] turned their course to the Chief Justice’s in King-street; who they soon roused from his slumbers. Knowing as a Crown officer he was suspected, he [Shinner] parried their attack by receiving them in the most favourable manner: assuring them, he had nothing to do with the stamped paper, and that they were welcome to search every part of his house for it; which they did, but found nothing. In the meantime, he had large bowls of punch provided; and at the request of the populace, he deemed it prudent to drink with them their favourite toast; which was ‘Damnation to the Stamp-Act’: after which, the procession moved away, and fortunately subsided, without any farther interruption, to peaceable individuals.[2]

The officials charged with the task of distributing the stamps recognized the widespread public opposition as a danger of their position, and, in late October made public declarations in Charleston that they would refrain from executing the duties of their offices until they received further instructions from Britain. These statements pleased the vocal majority, who sought to legitimize their political protests. If they had simply refused to purchase and use the new stamps and carried on as usual, they would have acted in violation of the law. By preventing the distribution of the stamps, however, they could ignore the law without acting illegally. This strategy required a large measure of sacrifice, of course, as the absence of legally-required stamps forced a temporary cessation of nearly all forms of commerce. It was a mass protest based on political principal, and its effects spread throughout the American colonies.

Charleston was peacefully quiet when the Stamp Act went into force on November 1st, 1765. All forms of commerce that required paper documentation came to a standstill and remained dormant for some time. No property could be bought or sold, no vessels could clear out of the harbor, and no suits for debts could be pursued in court. Because of this last-mentioned circumstance, Chief Justice Charles Shinner soon found himself at the center of the most contentious debate spurred by the Stamp Act, between the definition of legitimate protest and loyalty to the British government.

South Carolina’s civil court, the Court of Common Pleas, opened its November Term of 1765 on Tuesday the 12th, according to its usual calendar. Instead of meeting in the court room in the State House at the northwest corner of Meeting and Broad Streets, however, Judge Shinner called all the attorneys and other public officials to a meeting at Robert Dillon’s tavern at the northeast corner of Broad and Church Streets. There the gentlemen of the bar read aloud the text of the Stamp Act, paragraph by paragraph, and discussed its effects on local business. Because there was no stamp paper available for purchase in the province, and the stamp distributor had declined to perform his duty to make it available, Charleston’s legal community agreed that it was not possible to comply with the measures dictated by the Stamp Act. More specifically, they concluded that it was not possible to conduct business in any court of law besides criminal jurisdiction, which was officially exempt from the new stamp duties.

To place this legal position on record, Judge Shinner formally opened the Court of Common Pleas on the morning of November 13th, and then promptly adjourned to December 3rd, in the hopes that further instructions might soon arrive. On December 3rd, the opened and adjourned the court for the same reason, and continued this practice monthly into the spring of 1766. The longer the sacrificial protest continued, the more impatient the community grew. As the weeks dragged on from November to December and into the new year, tempers flared and personalities clashed. As Chief Justice of the province of South Carolina and a staunch supporter of the British government, Charles Shinner soon became a target for abuse.

Shinner’s friend, Charles Woodmason, later recalled that the Chief Justice was the target of protests in the latter part of 1765. Woodmason mis-remembered the chronology of some of the events in question, however, a fact that might undermine the veracity of his statements. Regardless of its precise timing, some version of the scene Woodmason recalled probably did take place in late 1765: “They libelled him in songs and pasquenades—his lady was then big with her third child and near delivery—the next evening the towns people rose in a mobb and surrounded his house, demanding the seal of court. He refus’d—and stood arm’d in his defence. After many threats (at which he was not intimidated) they ruin’d his garden, broke his windows, and did other mischeif.”[3]

Around the 4th of January, 1766, local attorney Robert Williams Jr. (1732–1808) came to Shinner’s house to question him about a criminal case unrelated to the Stamp Act. The Chief Justice was distracted by his wife’s poor health and was in no mood to argue about points of law. Frances Shinner had just given birth prematurely to a son and was suffering from postnatal complications. Oblivious to the family’s domestic situation, Williams took offense at the judge’s cold reception and assailed Shinner, in his own house, with a torrent of “harsh expressions” delivered “in a most imperious manner & with a most rancorous accent.” Williams even filed a written complaint with the lieutenant governor, who demanded Shinner explain his actions.[4]

But the Chief Justice was too overwhelmed with grief to respond immediately. Mrs. Frances Shinner died on January 7th and was buried shortly thereafter at St. Philip’s Anglican Church.[5] Three weeks later, he penned a long rebuttal to the malicious charges made against him by Robert Williams Jr., and sent them to his colleagues on His Majesty’s Council. In another defensive statement written a few months later, Charles Shinner included a bit of personal information that sheds light on his frame of mind at the turn of the new year. “My house was a  house of mourning because of the death of my wife,” said the Chief Justice. Because of “mobs and frights about our house and her fear of my meeting some misfortune abroad when I went out,” the couple had adopted the habit of keeping “some arms conveniently laid by the bed side for fear of an attack upon our lives.” Anxiety over the local Stamp Act commotion “brought on her labour before her time,” said Shinner, “of which she died in some days after her delivery.”[6]

The death of Frances Shinner in early January 1766 seems to have taken a significant toll on the mental health of her grieving husband. The Chief Justice was now left to raise a toddling daughter, Anna Maria, and a newborn, premature son whose name is now lost. At a time when his personal life was filled with grief, the framework of his professional life also began to collapse. Shinner’s mourning was soon accompanied by renewed political strife ignited by the Stamp Act, and the combined weight of these events transformed his character. As his friend Charles Woodmason later recalled, the death of Frances Shinner “made [a] great impression on him and sunk his spirits already overpowered by the horrid calumnies and persecutions rais’d against him.”[7]

While Chief Justice Shinner was grieving in the early weeks of 1766, many of the attorneys in Charleston decided to push the provincial government to reopen the courts of law. Although they had agreed with Judge Shinner in November that the courts could not operate with the required stamped paper, they had since reached the conclusion that the absence of stamps invited the courts to proceed with business as usual. Shinner argued against this position on January 22nd, and urged his colleagues to wait patiently for the arrival of further instructions from Britain.

When the Chief Justice appealed to Lt. Governor Bull for support and advice, he received an unsympathetic response. Shinner, like most of the population, did not possess a copy of the text of the Stamp Act, and Bull refused to share the borrowed copy in his possession. As Shinner later wrote in his own defense, “the Chief Justice then observed to his honor [Lt. Gov. Bull] how hard it was under these circumstances for him to conduct himself for that he might ignorantly fall into error, that he wished he knew what was right and proper in this case and that he would pursue it with steadiness and resolution.” In response, wrote Shinner, “the Lieut. Governor replied with a repetition of a law maximum ‘that the ignorance of law doth not excuse.’” Following this unhelpful reply from Bull, “the Chief Justice showed great uneasiness and took his leave of his honor.”[8]

Lieutenant Governor Bull’s passive stance during the Stamp Act crisis soon undermined Shinner’s adherence to the letter of the law. Under pressure from rebellious lawyers in late February, Bull signed commissions appointing three local men to serve as assistant judges in the Court of Common Pleas. When the Chief Justice opened the court, per its most recent adjournment, on March 3rd, he was surprised by the arrival of his new assistants. Shinner had been the sole voice of the court for several years, but now he was outnumbered by men who were determined to proceed with legal business in defiance of the Stamp Act.

The court continued for many weeks under the authority of the assistant judges. Chief Justice Shinner presented a formal protest to the court on April 1st, but he was repeatedly overruled and ignored. Shinner maintained his loyal and conservative position that no one in South Carolina had received authorization from Britain to proceed on court business without the legally-required stamps. While the assistant judges continued holding court throughout the spring of 1766, Shinner remained committed to his belief “that all those proceedings are totally wrong and erroneous and ought to be set aside.”[9]

Meanwhile, back in London, the British government heard the loud American protests against the Stamp Act and revised their taxation strategy. On March 18th, 1766, Parliament ratified a new act to repeal the dreaded stamp duties. Unofficial reports of this repeal arrived in Charleston, by way of Barbados, on May 3rd and triggered immediate celebrations. To commemorate the arrival of this welcome news, the town’s leading citizens decided to stage an “illumination,” in which all households sympathetic to the cause would place lighted candles in their windows at night. Houses not illuminated were presumed to oppose the celebration and were therefore subject to attack, and there were some disturbances on the evening of May 3rd.

On Monday, May 5th, 1766, the Clerk of the Court of Common Pleas, Dougal Campbell, asked Shinner if he might have his blessing to dispense writs to lawyers as normal, now that news of the repeal of the Stamp Act had arrived. Shinner replied that official notice of the repeal was still lacking, and asked Campbell to wait. Campbell objected and seemed determined to ignore the Chief Justice, and Shinner simply gave up. “Every man for himself O house of Israel,” said Shinner as he turned his back on the court that defied him and walked home.

Shinner felt betrayed by his clerk, Lt. Gov. Bull, and his colleagues in the legal community. When the citizens of Charleston planned to hold another illumination on the evening of May 5th, Shinner believed the rowdy revelers might attack his house. After dinner, he walked into town with his two small children to speak to some people “he thought his friends, to receive his son and daughter . . . that night under their protection.” This request was refused, “in a civil, plausible manner,” so Shinner and his children returned home and prepared for trouble. To appease the crowds on the streets that night, Shinner had his servants place lighted candles in the windows. When a mob passed by his house between nine and ten in the evening, Shinner greeted them amicably and provided “dramms of the Scotch” to the revelers. The citizens returned this hospitality “with cheers and huzzas” rather than violence.[10]

Shinner was all the more contemptable at that moment because his British patron, George Montagu-Dunk, the 2nd Earl of Halifax, had occupied a high office in British government when the Stamp Act passed in the spring of 1765. Halifax lost his position later the same year, and also suffered a scandalous loss of reputation. Information surfaced that Halifax had formed a long-term liaison with a Irish-born married actress, Anna Maria Faulkner, and paid her husband to take a job in the Caribbean. Because Halifax had secured the post of Chief Justice to reward Charles Shinner in 1761, the judge soon found himself tarred with the same slander as his patron.

On Tuesday, May 6th, 1766, one of Charleston’s local newspapers reprinted an article originally published in a London periodical eight months earlier. The excerpt in question ridiculed the politicians who had engineered the Stamp Act and suggested that one might appreciate the poverty of their judgment by taking note of the individuals promoted by the incompetent British government of the early 1760s:

An Irishman of the lowest class (I mention not his country as any reflection, but to mark whom I mean) with no better education than is usually given to qualify for the meanest Mechanic Trades, one of which his father worked at for his daily bread, and brought him up to, had quitted his business as too confined for his enterprising genius, and risen through a series of various shifts and changes which chequer the lives of NEEDY ADVENTURERS, to the respectable office of carrying back and forward, for hire between the Law-Courts of England and Ireland, bills, answers, &c. which he authenticated by affidavit. Having the good fortune to do some service for a lady here [in England], who was engaged in a law suit of consequence in Ireland, and to whom he got access in the course of his occupation. She recommended him for provision to her * brother [Lord Halifax], then in an high office, and since in an higher office in the late Ministry. The complaisant brother, after considering for some time what could be done for him, his vulgar and illiterate ignorance making him unfit for any place of credit AT HOME, at length thought proper to send him, as CHIEF JUSTICE to one of our principal colonies in America, where he has sat in judgment on the fortunes, liberties, and lives of his Majesty’s subjects, now for near five years.

Such a fact requires no Illustration. The bare mention of it must raise the indignation of every honest heart, and yet this is the minister whose care of our colonies is blazoned so highly, as a proof of his capacity and fitness for the government of the mother country.

The [act of Halifax] giving [to a husband] of a place of mere profit in Purchase of a Man’s Wife, or on any other equally moral account, affects only the private character, and is no concern to the public! But [for Halifax] to pay a compliment thus [i.e., elevating Shinner], with the most sacred rights and dearest interests of a people, by making such a man [Shinner] judge of them, is a matter of the most serious importance, and accounts too plainly for the spirit of licentiousness which at this time begins to shew itself in some of the colonies; for what respect can they have for a sovereign, whom they know only by representation, and see SO represented?

I am, Sir, Your’s, &c., A. Marvel.

* The inhabitants of South-Carolina, beg leave to present their compliments to Lord Hal[ifa]x, to return him their thanks for such a tender regard and attention shewn to their lives, liberties, and properties, they assure him they are extremely sensible, and have a thorough feeling, of the great obligation.[11]

This damning, sarcastic publication did not identify Charles Shinner by name, but Charleston readers of May 1766 would have understood the link between the Earl of Halifax and the Chief Justice of South Carolina. Shinner acknowledged the salacious news story of May 6th in a defensive letter penned that summer, in which he described it as “a most false and scandalous and infamous libel put into the public paper, reflecting [negatively] on the Chief Justice and on [his] Hon[ora]ble Patron.”[12] Nevertheless, the public scandal surrounding Lord Halifax captivated public attention for a while, and even led to the publication of a raunchy novel based on the rise and fall of the earl’s theatrical mistress.[13]

The turbulent Stamp Act crisis came a rather quiet close in late May 1766 with further confirmation of the act’s repeal. A new royal governor, Lord Charles Greville Montagu (1741–1784), arrived in Charleston on June 12th and ushed in a spirit of cooperation that, for a while, healed the politic rift between Britain and her American colonies.[14] Having fallen out with his colleagues and his community, however, Chief Justice Shinner found himself a pariah on the bench and shunned by his assistant judges and other legal associates. “Seeing himself thus deserted,” Shinner wrote of his predicament in the summer of 1766, “wanting support and impotent in power . . . and he having no hopes of any redress or alleviation of his trouble . . . he was obliged to sit still and sup up the bitter draught.”[15]

The barrage of professional and personal criticism that Charles Shinner experienced in late 1765 and early 1766 seems to have transformed the once jovial Irishman into a callous and vindictive person. An early indication of this new spirit appeared that summer, when Shinner asked the new governor to help him obtain royal permission to suspend or bar from his courts any attorney who offended him, “without being obliged to give any reason for it,” or to dismiss any attorney who “shall enter into cabals or parties to enflame the minds of the people against the government.”[16]

On October 21st, 1766, Charles Shinner buried his infant son who had been born prematurely in early January.[17] From that point, he seems to have retreated into a very private sphere. The two attorneys who had acted as Shinner’s assistants during his judicial career in South Carolina, James O’Brien and Bennet Oldham, either deserted him or perished around this time. Although the superficial effects of the long protest against the Stamp Act soon dissipated, long-term resentment against Judge Shinner festered among the members of South Carolina’s legal community. Many rebellious attorneys who had opposed Shinner during the recent crisis also served in the elected Assembly, and soon determined to use their political position to punish the loyal Chief Justice.

In the early part of 1767, the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly appointed a committee to investigate the state of the courts of justice in the province. After weeks of research and interviews, the committee presented its long report to the House on April 9th. From its opening phrases, it was evident that the purpose of the legislative investigation into the “state of the courts” was to impugn the reputation of Chief Justice Charles Shinner and to destroy his career. Consider, for example, the opening paragraph of the committee report:

It is evident from the testimony of very competent witnesses, common observation, and the notoriety of the fact, obvious indeed to every one who goes into court, that the said Chief Justice is a person wholly unacquainted with and ignorant of the Common Law, such Acts of Parliament as are of force here, and the Acts of Assembly of this province, and that the general tenor of his conduct in that station manifests such ignorance, and shews him to be intirely unfit for a place of so much consequence.[18]

The body of the report presented a litany of a dozen specific instances, occurring both inside and outside the court room, in which Judge Shinner was alleged to have behaved poorly and demonstrated a contempt for traditional legal protocol. They depicted the Chief Justice as a short-tempered rogue who connived with known criminals and deprived honest men, as well as enslaved people and free people of color—of their legal rights of due process. Because the full text of this report is available elsewhere, I’ll skip past the tedious text to the conclusion and the resolutions adopted by the legislative committee:

And lastly, it appeared that the Chief Justice behaves commonly in court with the utmost levity, folly, ludicrousness and indecency, and that the chief duty of a judge on trials by jurys which is that of summing up the evidence and giving the jury a charge upon points of law is either wholly omitted or when attempted by him done in such a confused immethodical and injudicious a manner as serves to puzzle and perplex not to direct or illustrate. That he seldom fails to attend the execution of his sentences for inflicting corporal punishment on criminals, there strolling about the streets with a mob, and acting a part on such occasions beneath the character even of the executioner. . . .

Resolved, that it is the opinion of this committee that an adequate knowledge of the law of the land is essentially and absolutely necessary in a Chief Justice of this province, that the Honorable Charles Shinner Esquire is wholly ignorant of those laws, and therefore unfit for and incapable of executing the said office and that our Most Gracious Sovereign was deceived in his grant of the said office to him.

Resolved, That it is the opinion of the committee that the said Chief Justice in many of the instances above enumerated hath acted illegally, arbitrarily, partially and oppressively.

Resolved, That it is the opinion of this committee that the said Chief Justice by a long and continual series of misdemeanors and notoriously public indecent behaviour hath brought into contempt, redicule [sic] and disgrace an office of great trust and dignity, and of the highest importance to the rights of the Crown and the lives, liberties and properties of the good people of this province.

Resolved, That it is the indispensable duty of this committee to recommend to the house, which they therefore do, in the strongest manner, that an address be immediately presented to his Excellency the Governor to suspend the said Chief Justice from his Office, until his Majesty’s Royal will and pleasure upon our complaint be known, and all constitutional methods used to obtain his removal or dismission from his said office, and the appointment of some fit and proper person in his stead by whom justice may be faithfully and judiciously administered according to law.[19]

After hearing this long committee report on April 9th, 1767, the members of the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly voted in support of its conclusions and resolved to forward a copy to the governor. A fair copy was made and a summary address written the following week, which the Speaker of the House personally delivered to Governor Montagu in Council on April 20th.[20] Montague was somewhat surprised by this request, and offered a cautious reply at that moment: “The subject matter of your address is of so delicate a nature, that I must take some time to deliberate upon it, and then will give you an answer.”[21]

Governor Montagu immediately shared the report with the members of his advisory Council, of which the Chief Justice was a member. Shinner was not present at the Council Chamber on April 20th, however, and had not attended since the previous week.[22] His young daughter was unwell, and the judge elected to stay home and nurse her. After a brief illness, Anna Maria Shinner, his last remaining family in South Carolina, died and was buried at St. Philip’s churchyard on April 19th.[23] Three days after his daughter’s funeral, Judge Shinner received from Governor Montagu a copy of the unflattering committee report that called for his dismissal from office.[24]

Through a haze of grief and bitterness, Charles Shinner composed a long and learned rebuttal to the numerous charges made against his professional and personal character. He completed his “humble memorial,” as he called it, on May 2nd, and delivered it to Governor Montagu the following day.[25] The text of Shinner’s self-defense counters many of the specific accusations in turn, while dismissing some as trifling and irrelevant complaints. Because the full text is available elsewhere, I’ll skip to the conclusion, in which Judge Shinner fired a volley at his accusers and asked the governor for mercy:

Thus Sir, afflicted as I am, to observe such a torrent of unprovoked malevolence, of inveterate hatred, malice and revenge, and of the most virulent rancour, setting in upon me; afflicted too, with the sudden and very recent death of my only [surviving] child, I have, as you desired my defence in writing, made the best I could in the very few days which your Excellency was pleased to allot me, for that purpose, against the accusations of a body of nine very able men, who set longer than a month purposely to frame it.

I hope you Excellency will not immediately suspend me, I hope you will send the report and address together, with this defence, home that I may appeal to a good and gracious sovereign, to whom, and to the King of all Kings, I must in dernier resort be accountable.

As to my enemies, persecutors, and slanderers (more particularly a most remarkable Boutéfeau [an instigating person], well known at home) I pray the Lord, that he will deliver them from pride, vain glory and hypocrisy, from envy, hatred and malice, and all uncharitableness, and that it may please him to forgive them, and to turn their hearts.[26]

Governor Montagu and his Council studied both the committee report of April 9th and Shinner’s memorial of May 2nd and took more than a week to consider “so delicate a matter.” On May 11th, when the governor asked the members of Council if they had reached a decision on the matter, “the board unanimously gave it as their opinion the Chief Justice was ignorant of the law and very unfit for filling the important office he was appointed to in this province and adviced [sic] his Excellency to comply with the request of the Assembly and to suspend him till his Majesty’s pleasure be known.” Later that same day, Montague sent a message to Shinner informing him of his peers’ decision and formally suspending him from the office of Chief Justice. [27]

Although no words survive to describe Shinner’s reaction to this news, we can deduce his mood from an item that appeared in the local newspaper a few days afterwards. On May 12th, the day after learning of his suspension, Shinner penned a brief notice of his intention “soon to leave this province,” and asked his debtors and creditors to settle their accounts with him as soon as possible.[28] Meanwhile, Governor Montagu informed the Commons House that after he had read their committee report and Shinner’s rebuttal, “that gentleman’s deficiency in the knowledge of the laws of the land has appeared plain to me; I have therefore found it expedient . . . to suspend the Honorable Charles Shinner from acting in the office of Chief Justice, till his Majesty’s pleasure be farther known.”[29]

Copies of the damning committee report of April 9th and Shinner’s memorial of May 2nd were sent to government officials in England during the summer of 1767. While South Carolinians waited for those distant judges to render a verdict on their harsh treatment of Judge Shinner, members of the provincial assembly traded news with a hired lobbyist in London. They were sure that Governor Montagu’s suspension would be confirmed, and opined that the text of Shinner’s own defensive essay “seems of itself a sufficient proof of his incapacity.”[30]

In contrast to the confidence exhibited by the lawyers of Charleston, Crown officials in London did not see the matter in the same light. On October 8th, 1767, William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, the Secretary of State for the Southern Department, wrote a letter chastising Governor Montagu for failing to provide Judge Shinner with a sufficient opportunity to defend himself against the charges leveled by the provincial assembly. The British government suspected that the charges against Shinner stemmed from his earnest loyalty to the crown during the agitation surrounding the Stamp Act. Acting on instructions from King George III, Lord Shelburne ordered Governor Montagu to try Shinner in a formal tribunal before the members of His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina. Following that trial, said Shelburne to Montagu, “your Lordship shall either continue, or take off the suspension (till the King’s Pleasure shall be known) according as he shall be found culpable or innocent, transmitting to us, for His Majesty’s information, a full account of the process, and his defence.”[31]

Owing to the slow and unpredictable methods of eighteenth-century trans-Atlantic communication, Lord Shelburne’s letter of October 8th, 1767, did not arrive in Charleston until the nearly twenty weeks later. Governor Montagu received it on February 25th, 1768, but did not convene the tribunal as instructed. His non-compliance was not motivated by contempt, but by the lack of opportunity. Charles Shinner, aged around fifty-eight years, died on Friday, February 26th, and was buried at St. Philip’s churchyard with his wife and their three children on Sunday the 28th.[32] Although suspended from office and deprived of the opportunity to clear his name, Shinner still bore the title of Chief Justice of South Carolina at the time of his death.[33]  

After a career in the legal profession, Charles Shinner did not leave a will. The Court of Ordinary (probate) assigned all of his personal property to his creditors—Lionel Chalmers and Thomas Adam—who appraised every item and arranged an estate sale.[34] On May 11th, 1768, citizens gathered at the house of the late Chief Justice at the southeast corner of King and George Streets to bid on “all the personal estate of the said deceased, consisting of seven Negroes, among whom are an excellent cook, washer, and ironer, two likely boys, used to wait in the house, &c. &c. Also a variety of household furniture, a horse chair, a collection of books, and sundry other articles.”[35]

In the six years and six weeks following his arrival in Charleston, Charles Shinner lost his reputation, his position, his family, and his own will to live. His last surviving friend, Charles Woodmason, later recalled that the loss of Shinner’s wife and children “so affected him, that he sunk under the greifs [sic] and troubles that lay heavy on him—took to his chamber and . . . dy’d of a broken heart.”[36] In an undated sermon, Rev. Woodmason frankly described his late friend as “a gentleman not of bright parts, but of tried integrity. Not of shining abilities but [of] valuable qualities. The upright judge—the sincere friend—the honest lawyer, the worthy man, and humble Christian.”[37]

My purpose in narrating the rise and fall of Charles Shinner in his final years was to strive to identify his true character. By examining the contemporary evidence, we see several different facets of a complicated and imperfect man. He was no saint, to be certain, but most of the damning allegations leveled against him in the spring of 1767 were tainted by a spirit of political vengeance fomented by the Stamp Act crisis of the previous year. Later historians have used those harsh words to demonize and dismiss South Carolina’s Irish Chief Justice. Viewing a broader field of evidence drawn from the general life and times of Charles Shinner, however, we might perceive a more sympathetic, even tragic character. In the words of Charles Woodmason, “he had his weaknesses and infirmities—but the virtues of his heart far outweigh’d the defects of his head.”[38]

 

 

[1] For more information about the effects of the Stamp Act crisis in South Carolina, see Robert Weir, “’Liberty and Property, and No Stamps’: South Carolina and the Stamp Act Crisis” (Ph.D. diss., Western Reserve University, 1966); Maurice A. Crouse, “Cautious Rebellion: South Carolina’s Opposition to the Stamp Act,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 73 (April 1972): 59–71.

[2] John Drayton, Memoirs of the American Revolution, volume 1 (Charleston, S.C.: A. E. Miller, 1821), 46–48, describes a mob searching the houses of George Saxby, Henry Laurens, and Charles Shinner, and speaking with all three of those gentlemen, on the evening of 23 October 1765. The accuracy of this description, which Drayton said he adapted from a story conveyed to him by Daniel Stevens, is questionable. George Saxby did not arrive in Charleston from London until 26 October, but a mob attacked his house and broke several windows during the unrest of 19 October. There is no contemporary corroboration that a mob visited the Shinner household during October, and there was no reason for them to do so at the time. A mob did visit the home of Henry Laurens on 23 October, however, and Laurens complained to Lt. Gov. Bull and His Majesty’s Council the following day. See South Carolina Department of Archives and History (hereafter SCDAH), Journal of His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina, No. 32, page 637. Contemporary reports published in the local newspapers describe the mob visiting the house of “a gentleman” in Ansonborough on the evening of 23 October; see SCG, 19–31 October 1765; SCAGG, 23–31 October 1765. I believe Stevens might have conflated the events of 5 May 1766 (see below) with those of 23 October 1765.

[3] Richard J. Hooker, ed., The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution: The Journal and Other Writings of Charles Woodmason, Anglican Itinerant (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1953), 295. I have reproduced Woodmason’s spelling.

[4] See the text of Shinner’s answer, dated 1 February 1766, to the allegations made by Robert Williams, recorded in SCDAH, Journal of His Majesty’s Council for the Province of South Carolina, No. 32, pages 721, 723 (13 February 1766).

[5] South Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, 14 January 1766 (Tuesday): “Died.] Jan. 7. The Lady of the Honourable Charles Shinner, Esq; Chief-Justice of this Province; whose Death is universally regretted by all who had the happiness of her Acquaintance.” D. E. Huger Smith and A. S. Salley Jr., eds., Register of St. Philip’s Parish, Charles Town, or Charleston, S.C., 1754–1810 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1927), 312.

[6] Shinner’s narrative of the events of early May 1766 was annexed to a letter from Governor Montagu to the Board of Trade, dated 6 August 1766, and was transcribed in Records in the British Public Record Office Relating to South Carolina, 1663–1782 (hereafter BPRO), volume 31: 130. This source is available on microfilm in the South Carolina History Room at CCPL.

[7] Hooker, Carolina Backcountry, 295. Following the death of Frances Shinner, Woodmason misremembered the chronology of Shinner’s surviving  children: “The next week he lost his eldest son, and in about 3 months, his little daughter.”

[8] BRPO vol. 31, pages 91–99 (enclosed with a letter from Gov. Montagu to the Board of Trade, dated 6 August 1766, citing Board of Trade, South Carolina, vol. 21, No. 40, which is now part of CO 5/378).

[9] See Shinner’s summary of the Court of Common Pleas proceedings of 3 March–1 July 1766, which was annexed to Governor Montagu’s letter to the Board of Trade, dated 6 August 1766, transcribed in BPRO vol. 31, pp. 99–182. The quotation is taken from Page 133.

[10] See Shinner’s commentary on the arrival of news of the repeal of the Stamp Act, 3–8 May 1766, annexed to a letter from Gov. Montagu to the Board of Trade, dated 6 August 1766, transcribed in BPRO vol. 31, page 131–33.

[11] SCGCJ, 6 May 1766, page 2. Emphasis original. In this short essay, the author condemned Lord Halifax by comparing two of the earl’s misdeeds—one private and the other public. After introducing the story of Halifax promoting the uneducated chief justice, the author acknowledged the well-known story of the earl’s “purchase” of another man’s wife, Mary Anne Faulkner, by securing her husband, William Donaldson, a position “of mere profit” in the West Indies. The latter act was morally reprehensible, the author admitted, but it was a private matter that directly impacted only a few people. Halifax’s elevation of Charles Shinner, on the other hand, was a more serious crime because it affected “the most sacred rights and dearest interest of a people.” In making this comparison, the author’s text implies a connection between the two offenses—Shinner’s elevation and the “purchase” of Mary Anne Faulkner. Shinner might have been involved in the machinations behind the promotion of William Donaldson, but the author of this 1765 essay did not draw a causal link between that private matter and Shinner’s elevation to the chief judgeship of South Carolina.

[12] See Shinner’s commentary on the arrival of news of the repeal of the Stamp Act, 3–8 May 1766, annexed to a letter from Gov. Montagu to the Board of Trade, dated 6 August 1766, transcribed in BPRO vol. 31, page 133.

[13] Anonymous, The Genuine Memoirs of Miss Faulkner, Otherwise Mrs. D***l**n, or, Countess of H*****x in Expectancy. Containing, the amours and intrigues of several persons of high distinction, and remarkable characters: with some curious political anecdotes, never before published (London: William Bingley, 1770). This was a fictionalized biographical narrative of Anna Maria Falkner Donaldson, mistress of George Montagu-Dunk, 2nd Earl Halifax

[14] SCG, 9–16 June 1766; SCGCJ, 17 June 1766.

[15] See Shinner’s commentary on the arrival of news of the repeal of the Stamp Act, 3–8 May 1766, annexed to a letter from Gov. Montagu to the Board of Trade, dated 6 August 1766, transcribed in BPRO vol. 31, page 135.

[16] “Observations of the Chief Justice of South Carolina on the Expediency of Enlarging his authority and augmenting his Salary,” no date, transcribed in BPRO vol. 31: 230.

[17] Smith and Salley, Register of St. Philip’s Parish, 1754–1810, 314.

[18] SCDAH, Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, No. 37, part 1, page 352.

[19] SCDAH, Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, No. 37, part 1, pages 358–59.

[20] The text of the “address” of the Commons House appears in Commons House Journal No. 37, part 1, pages 390–92 (18 April 1767).

[21] SCDAH, Journal of the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly, No. 37, part 1, pages 395–96 (20 April 1767).

[22] According to the fair journals at SCDAH, Shinner was absent from all Council meetings after 13 April 1767.

[23] Smith and Salley, Register of St. Philip’s Parish, 1754–1810, 317.

[24] In his letter of 12 May 1767 to the Board of Trade, transcribed in BPRO volume 31: 326–92, Montagu said he forwarded a copy of the committee report and the address of the of the Commons House “two days after” receiving those materials on 20 April.

[25] In his letter of 12 May 1767 to the Board of Trade, Montagu said he received Shinner’s “memorial” on Sunday, 3 May.

[26] The text of Shinner’s “humble memorial” of 2 May 1767 appears in SCDAH, Journal of His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina, No. 33, pages 106–42, under the date 7 May 1767, and in SCDAH, Journal of the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly, No. 37, part 1, pages 429–49, under the date 27 May 1767. The Committee of Correspondence of the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly also forwarded a copy of Shinner’s response to Charles Garth in England with a letter dated 1 October 1767. This letter and Shinner’s “memorial” were transcribed and published in Joseph W. Barnwell, ed., “Garth Correspondence,” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 30 (January 1929): 27–49.

[27] SCDAH, Journal of His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina, No. 33, pages 143–44. In his letter of 12 May 1767 to the Board of Trade, Montagu said he sent Shinner a message on 11 May informing him of the Council’s decision to suspend him.

[28] South Carolina and American General Gazette, 8–15 May 1767 (Friday): “South Carolina. Charles Shinner intending soon to leave this province, gives publick notice to all persons indebted to him, that, unless they immediately pay off his demands on them respectively, their accounts, notes, bonds, judgments, and other securities, will be put into the hands of an attorney at law to be sued for without distinction; and all persons having any demands upon him, are desired to furnish him with accounts thereof forthwith. Charlestown, 12th May, 1767.”

[29] SCDAH, Journal of the Commons House, No. 37, part 1, pages 402–3 (19 May 1767). On 22 May (pages 408–9), the Commons House sent Montagu their “most cordial thanks” for suspending Shinner and requested a copy of Shinner’s memorial.

[30] Barnwell, “Garth Correspondence,” 27.

[31] Lord Shelburne, at Whitehall, to Gov. Montagu, 8 October 1767, in BPRO vol. 31: 418–21 (citing America and West Indies, Vol. 223, No. 9).

[32] Shinner’s death on Friday, 26 February 1768, was reported in SCG, 29 February 1768; SCGCJ, 1 March 1768; and South Carolina and American General Gazette, 26 February–4 March 1768. His burial is noted in D. E. Huger Smith and A. S. Salley, Jr., eds., Register of St. Philip's Parish, Charles Town, or Charleston, S.C., 1754–1810 (Charleston: South Carolina Society and Colonial Dames of America, 1927), 323.

[33] Gov. Montagu to the Earl of Hillsborough, 25 March 1768, transcribed in BPRO transcripts, vol. 32: 7 (citing America & West Indies, Vol. 224): “The death of the Chief Justice has prevented my complying with His Majesty’s pleasure signified to me in your Lordships letter of the 8th of October, which I did not receive until the 25th of February by the Grenville packet. In justice to my own sentiments to which nothing can be more contrary than the condemning a man without hearing his defence, I must beg leave to say that so far was it from my intentions or those of the Council to condemn the Chief Justice unheard that he had his option given him in what manner he would make his defence, and at his request was indulged with a longer time to make it than he at first desired. The Memorial he gave me I understood him was his defence, and the Attorney General and the Council deemed it as such, as he did not apply to be heard in any other manner.”

[34] Brent Holcomb, comp., Journal of the Court of Ordinary 1764–1771 (Easley, S.C.: Southern Historical Press, 1979), 51, 52 (1, 19 March 1768).

[35] SCGCJ, 19 April 1768. The inventory and appraisement of Shinner’s estate appears in SCDAH, Inventories of Estates, book X (1768–1769), pages 336–41.

[36] Hooker, Carolina Backcountry, 296. Woodmason misremembered that Shinner’s death occurred “about 3 weeks” after the death of his last surviving child.

[37] Hooker, Carolina Backcountry, 289.