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The South Carolina Revolution of 1719, Part 1
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Frustrated by years of neglect and contrary government, the citizens of South Carolina asserted their political will in the closing months of 1719 by organizing a rebellious confederacy that descended on Charleston to seize the reins of power. It was a contest enacted exclusively by white men, but the outcome affected the entire population of the faltering colony. Today we’ll follow the chain of events that precipitated the political and military revolt that forms one of the most important, but least remembered, events of this state’s early history.
In a previous episode, I talked about the general differences between the two principal eras that comprise the colonial period of South Carolina’s history: the Proprietary Era, which commenced with the creation of the Carolina colony in 1663 and continued until the Revolution of 1719, and the Royal Era, which commenced unofficially with that local Revolution, then became official about a decade later, and continued to the start of the American Revolution in 1775. I want to emphasize that this chronological division of our state’s first century of existence into two parts isn’t just a matter of academic convenience. By acknowledging the differences between South Carolina’s Proprietary and Royal eras, historians draw attention to the great importance of the political and military coup that occurred here in 1719. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to state that the Revolution of 1719 was the pivot point that defined a major shift in the government, economy, and culture of early South Carolina.
The narrative of South Carolina’s Revolution of 1719 is a sprawling, intricate, soap opera of a story involving a lot of complex political issues and many colorful personalities. Somebody needs to write a proper book about this topic, but I have too many irons in the fire already. As I mentioned in the previous episode, there aren’t many surviving records of this dramatic event, so we have to rely on fragments of documentary evidence and a brief 1726 memoir produced by an eye witness, Francis Yonge, titled A Narrative of the Proceedings of the People of South Carolina, In the Year 1719. My goal here is to provide a brief yet engaging summary of the Revolution to encourage more South Carolinians to appreciate this pivotal event in our state’s early history.
From the beginning of colonial settlement in 1670, South Carolina’s provincial government consisted of a bicameral (two-house) legislature: An executive “Council” of eight appointed men—the governor and seven advisors—who served as deputies of the eight Lords Proprietors back in England (who owned the colony), and a larger body of representatives elected from the local population of adult white males. This larger body, officially named the Commons House of Assembly in 1692, became the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1776. The Council and the Commons House jointly formed a “General Assembly” that passed laws, raised taxes, constructed defensive fortifications, and generally administered the inner workings of our provincial government. The Lords Proprietors back in England, who technically owned all of Carolina, ran the colony much like a board of executive investors might run a large corporation today. They left the general management to trusted administrators on the ground and tried not to micromanage their investment. When the Carolina venture didn’t produce the wealth they expected, the proprietors became more detached from the colony’s local affairs and generally neglected various suggestions for improvement that came from the settlers overseas. South Carolina became a self-sufficient colony in the late 1600s, but it wasn’t exactly a thriving business or an especially attractive investment.
The fate of South Carolina changed dramatically in the spring of 1715, when a confederation of Native Americas led by the Yemasee Indians began attacking colonial settlements across the Lowcountry frontier. While the provincial government focused its energies and resources on combatting the Indians and protecting the settlers, the appointed Council and elected Assembly also appealed jointly to the Lords Proprietors for immediate aid. The response from England was slow and inconsequential. The proprietors were unable to offer much beyond their earnest encouragement to persevere.
As the Yemasee War dragged on, the South Carolina provincial government passed several laws to strengthen the colony at a time of crisis. It voted to borrow large sums of money for defensive operations and to create the tax mechanism necessary to repay this wartime debt. It voted to encourage the immigration of white settlers by offering new land grants in confiscated Indian territory. It voted to improve the representation of rural parishes in the provincial government by abolishing the traditional method of holding elections only in urban Charleston. In all of these measures, the adult white males of South Carolina took bold steps they felt necessary to prevent the colony from withering into oblivion.
In response to these legislative measures enacted by the provincial government in 1715–17, the Lords Proprietors of Carolina expressed their great displeasure. The proprietors heard loud complaints from influential London merchants who purchased South Carolina commodities and profited by sending manufactured goods to the colony. The wealthy merchants, who felt slighted by the tax policies enacted during the Yemasee War, asked the Lords Proprietors to rescind provincial measures that reduced their profits in London. In addition, two men who objected to South Carolina’s more equitable election law had used their influence to distort proprietary opinion. Chief Justice Nicholas Trott, who personally controlled every court of justice and appeal in the colony, and William Rhett, the powerful collector of His Majesty’s customs in South Carolina, convinced the Lords Proprietors that the old method of holding elections only in urban Charleston, where they could control the outcome, had to be reinstated.
In a stern rebuke of colonial presumptions, written in July of 1718, the Lords Proprietors of Carolina dismantled the legislative measures recently undertaken by the provincial government for the preservation of the faltering colony of South Carolina. They overturned seven recent laws (one of which the King had also rejected), restored the elections to urban Charleston (under the supervision of Trott and Rhett), and ordered the governor, Robert Johnson, to dissolve the assembly that had been improperly elected. The practice of granting free land to white settlers, which formed a major incentive to new South Carolina immigrants, was ordered to cease until further notice.
Back in Charleston in the autumn of 1718, the response to these punitive measures was initially muted by the presence of a number of pirate ships that were harassing shipping along the Carolina coastline. Local attention remained focused on the elimination of that maritime scourge through the end of the year. Following the trial and execution of forty-nine pirates at White Point, news arrived in early 1719 of the outbreak of a fresh war between Britain and Spain (the War of the Quadruple Alliance, December 1718–February 1720). In light of such never-ending defensive challenges, the members of South Carolina’s provincial government were dumbfounded by the stinging rebuke they received from the Lords Proprietors. The people had fought to defend their lives and property and had voluntarily enacted laws to raise tax revenue to cover the costs of their own defense. In their minds, the elected leaders and their families were fighting to preserve the struggling colony of South Carolina from collapse. In response to these home-grown measures, the Lords Proprietors had swept aside these acts of self-preservation and cast shame on what they viewed as colonial ingratitude.
In the early days of 1719, most of the members of South Carolina’s provincial government were rather generously inclined to believe that the Lords Proprietors had been misinformed about the state of affairs in the colony and had misjudged their response. To clarify their provincial position and to seek a more equitable solution, Governor Robert Johnson, his appointed Council of proprietary deputies, and the elected Commons House of Assembly jointly agreed to send an emissary to London to negotiate with the proprietors in person. Francis Yonge, a former member of the provincial Council, arrived in London in May of 1719 and waited many weeks for an opportunity to discuss the affairs of South Carolina with the Lords Proprietors. The Palatine, or chief proprietor, John, Lord Carteret, was departing for a diplomatic mission to Sweden and directed Yonge to speak with his colleagues. The remaining proprietors reluctantly agreed to receive papers from Francis Yonge in June and declined to negotiate with him directly. In late July, the proprietors handed Yonge a packet of sealed letters addressed to Governor Robert Johnson and bid him on his way.
Francis Yonge returned to Charleston in late September or early October 1719 and delivered the packet of sealed letters to Governor Johnson. Finding the contents to be somewhat incendiary, Johnson and his Council tried to delay sharing the news with the Commons House. The proprietors scolded Johnson for not having complied with their earlier orders to dissolve the assembly and ordered him to do so immediately. They ordered new elections to be held according to the older, less equitable method. They purged several members from the Council and appointed other, more compliant men in their place. In short, they reminded the governor of his duty to uphold the rights and privileges of the Lords Proprietors and not to countenance any deviation inspired by colonial democratic pretentions.
Details from the Lords Proprietor’s letters were eventually leaked and spread through the South Carolina Lowcountry in late October. At the same time, intelligence reports brought to Charleston by ship captains reported significant Spanish military preparations in Havana and St. Augustine. The only question was which of the nearby English settlements might be attacked first—the Bahamas or South Carolina. When Governor Johnson dutifully dissolved the assembly and called for fresh elections, to be held on November 26th, the adult white men who formed the electorate began to grumble loudly about the need for change. The majority view of the situation was simple: By failing to undertake measures to defend the people of South Carolina, and by discouraging and disabling the colonists from undertaking their own defense and self-preservation, the Lords Proprietors had forfeited their legal and moral right to govern the colony. Facing the possibility of another hostile attack from Spanish forces based in the Caribbean, the members of the voting populous were motivated to undertake radical steps to protect their way of life and the colony in general.
If you were to travel back in time to Charleston in early November 1719 and sit in the corner of a local tavern, I’m sure you’d hear lots of heated conversations about the perilous state of South Carolina. For the most part, people were scratching their heads and asking rhetorical questions like the following: How can we pay our public debts without the necessary tax laws? How can we raise money to defend the colony again without the necessary credit? How can we attract new settlers to help defend the colony without the freedom to grant land? How can we choose elected representatives under a biased election law? How can anyone gain justice in courts of law monopolized by that cantankerous judge, Nicholas Trott? Do the proprietors have the right to tax the people of South Carolina while ignoring the voice of our representative government? Should we give up and let the colony fizzle, or should we stand together and fight to preserve what we’ve created here?
Meanwhile, at the provincial Council Chamber, Governor Robert Johnson and his advisors penned a final plea for assistance on November 6th. Addressing not the Lords Proprietors of Carolina but the British Board of Trade responsible for overseeing colonial commerce, the Council reported that South Carolina was in a “forlorn condition” and steadily getting worse. Settlers were leaving, and those who remained couldn’t raise the tax money necessary to the defend against an invasion. If nearby Spanish forces, who were reportedly preparing for battle, actually did try to destroy the colony, they’d probably succeed. In short, Governor Johnson asked the Board of Trade to convince the crown to send British troops and warships as soon as possible.
Around the middle of November, the exact date is now unclear, Governor Johnson and his Council summoned a number of South Carolina’s leading planters and merchants to a meeting in Charleston. Johnson proposed to them the idea of starting a private subscription to raise money to repair the fortifications around Charleston. The capital’s defensive works, built of brick, earth, and wood, had been neglected for several years, and now required immediate attention in case Spanish forces did attack the colony. The governor pledged £500 of his own money towards the effort and encouraged the other leading men to do the same. In response, the former leaders of the Commons House of Assembly stated that there was no need to raise a private subscription for the repairs, as the provincial legislature had recently passed a tax law to raise the necessary funds. It was now simply a matter of collecting the tax from the people. Governor Johnson reminded them that the Lords Proprietors had repealed that tax law, and that no funds were available in the public treasury. The governor’s guests scoffed at this excuse. In their minds, the tax law was still valid. The repeal dictated by the distant and neglectful proprietors meant nothing to them. Johnson’s appeal for a private subscription went nowhere.
Almost immediately after that unproductive confrontation with the governor, the leading planters in the South Carolina Lowcountry convened their own meeting of like-minded citizens. The threat of an imminent Spanish invasion was real, and the fortifications of Charleston required immediate repair. Having rebuffed the governor’s appeal for a private fund to accomplish this work, the planters started their own subscription to repair the fortifications. Furthermore, the assembled men formed a loose-knit faction, which they called an “Association,” built around several shared political opinions. They agreed that the Lord Proprietors’ act to repeal several laws created by the South Carolina General Assembly was illegal and of no force. By neglecting the colony’s defensive needs and the political voice of the people, the proprietors had forfeited their right to govern South Carolina. The members of the Association pledged to vote in the upcoming election for men who opposed the rule of the proprietors and who would attempt to rework the provincial government from the inside. Finally, they agreed to pledge allegiance only to King George I, and to appeal directly to his government for relief.
A few days after the creation of the Association, around the third week of November, the adult white men of South Carolina gathered in various locations across the Lowcountry for their regularly scheduled and compulsory militia musters. Men aged sixteen to sixty assembled at local rendezvous points in companies and then regiments to review elements of basic military discipline, inspect their weapons, share a meal, and grouse about politics. The leading planters ranked as officers in the provincial militia, and they used these meetings to spread word of the newly formed Association. Frustration with the political system was now rampant throughout the colony, and scores of men joined the opposition. By the end of the November militia muster, most of South Carolina’s voting populous had resolved into a secret “confederacy” against the proprietors and anyone—like Governor Robert Johnson and his appointed Council—who supported those distant overlords.
November 26th was election day in 1719, as South Carolina’s white male population traveled to urban Charleston to cast votes for representatives to sit in the Commons House of Assembly. Of course, it would have been easier for everyone if they had been allowed to vote in their home parishes, but the Lords Proprietors had recently repealed a law to that effect. There are no surviving official records of the election results, but a letter delivered to the governor shortly afterwards provides a useful summary. On the morning of November 28th, Governor Johnson received a letter from several members of the not-so-secret confederacy. Respect for Johnson’s service to colony, said the authors, induced them to warn him of a coming storm. The “whole province,” they said, had recently entered into an “association to stand by their rights and privileges, and to get rid of the oppression and arbitrary dealings of the Lords Proprietors.” Members of the association were elected to the Commons House on the 26th, and on the 27th they held a secret meeting to plan the overthrow of South Carolina’s existing provincial government. On the morning of the 28th, a committee of the people’s representatives were planning to visit the governor and declare their disregard for the proprietors. They also intended to invite Johnson to continue acting as governor, but in the name of King George, not the Lords Proprietors of Carolina.
Having read this incendiary news, Johnson scrambled from his executive mansion (located immediately north of what is now Magnolia Cemetery) to nearby Charleston and called together members of his advisory Council. With them he shared the information contained in the letter and waited for the arrival of the expected delegation. When the purported rebels mysteriously failed to appear, the governor asked his Council their opinion of the matter. To their knowledge, the letter to the governor was the sole piece of evidence concerning a plot to overthrow the government, and the letter’s prediction of a confrontational meeting had proved false. If the newly elected members of the Commons House were planning some sort of political action, then it probably wouldn’t materialize before the new legislative session commenced on December 16th. In short, the Council advised Governor Johnson to simply ignore the strange news contained in the letter and to wait passively for further developments.
The events that unfolded in the coming days of December 1719 soon proved the error of the Council’s decision to ignore a warning of the people’s discontent. The citizens were indeed in a rebellious mood, and they were plotting their strategy to unseat South Carolina’s legitimate, proprietary government. Tune in next week for the dramatic conclusion of the story of the Revolution of 1719, when we’ll see Governor Robert Johnson and his Council recoil in the face of an audacious political coup, and witness the men of Charleston parading in arms to secure the will of the people.
For further reading on this topic:
Lesser, Charles H. South Carolina Begins: The Records of A Proprietary Colony, 1663–1721. Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1995.
Moore, John Alexander. “Royalizing South Carolina: The Revolution of 1719 and the Evolution of Early South Carolina Government.“ Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 1991.
Rivers, William James. A Sketch of the History of South Carolina to the Close of the Proprietary Government by the Revolution of 1719. Charleston, S.C.: McCarter & Co., 1856.
Rivers, William James. A Chapter in the Early History of South Carolina. Charleston, S.C.: Walker, Evans & Cogswell, 1874.
Roper, L. H. Conceiving Carolina: Proprietors, Planters, and Plots, 1662–1729. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Scheerer, Hanno T. “‘The Proprietors can’t undertake for what they will do’: A Political Interpretation of the South Carolina Revolution of 1719,” in Michelle LeMaster and Bradford J. Wood, eds., Creating and Contesting Carolina: Proprietary Era Histories (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2013), 273-94.