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The South Carolina Revolution of 1719, Part 2
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The secret confederacy of angry South Carolinians that formed in November 1719 assembled in Charleston that December as an elected Convention of the people. In a showdown with the legitimate proprietary government, the members of the Convention staged a dramatic, bloodless coup d’etat that unhinged the colony’s political landscape. Born of frustration with the neglectful and arbitrary Lords Proprietors who owned the colony, South Carolina’s Revolution of 1719 was won at the end of a musket barrel and crowned by the royal approval of King George I.
Let’s resume our story with a brief review of last week’s episode. In the autumn of 1719, South Carolina was a British proprietary colony facing an existential crisis. A long Indian war, depopulation, pirate trouble, and threats of Spanish military aggression had all caused significant damage to the provincial economy and local morale. The Lords Proprietors back in England (who owned the colony and passively managed it from a distance), declined to send aid to the settlers and actively blocked their legislative efforts to stabilize the faltering economy and to defend South Carolina’s colonial frontiers. Resentment and frustration reached a fever pitch in Charleston that November, and men across the Lowcountry entered into a secret confederacy to overthrow the provincial government. Independence from Britain was not their goal. Rather, they sought to bypass the authority of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina and to establish a new, more stable government under the direct management of the British crown.
In late November 1719, the adult white men of South Carolina gathered in Charleston to elect representatives to the provincial Commons House of Assembly. The day after the poll, most of the newly elected men held a secret meeting at which they began to formulate a plan to undermine the authority of the existing government. News of this development was leaked to Governor Robert Johnson (ca. 1676–1735) on November 28th, at which time the governor immediately summoned his executive Council to ask their advice. The Council, composed of twelve men appointed by the Lords Proprietors, failed to understand the gravity of the situation. They saw little evidence of a dangerous rebellion, and so they advised Governor Johnson not to worry. If the newly elected representatives had a subversive political agenda, the more powerful Council would address it when the General Assembly officially convened later in the month.
It’s very difficult for us today to understand what sort of conversations and machinations were taking place across the Lowcountry of South Carolina in that period of two and a half weeks after that Council meeting of November 28th. The lack of surviving records from that era frustrates our ability to gain a clear picture of the political landscape, but events become much clearer shortly thereafter. According to a previous decree from Governor Johnson, the recently elected members of the Commons House of Assembly gathered in Charleston on the morning of Wednesday, December 16th (on the Julian Calendar), to commence a new legislative session.
A quick note about the scene of these events: South Carolina did not have a functional “state house” to host both branches of its bicameral government until the late 1750s. Before that time, both the Commons House and the Council met in separate rented facilities in Charleston, the capital of South Carolina. The identity and location of the venues rented by the government in 1719 is not described in any surviving records. The Commons House at that time included approximately thirty elected members, while the Council included the governor and twelve appointed advisors. We don’t know precisely where in urban Charleston these legislative bodies met, but we can imagine that they rented rather substantial houses to accommodate the meetings of the most elite white men of the colony.
Because most of the men elected to the Commons House in late 1719 were already involved in the not-so-secret “association” or “confederacy” to overthrow the government, they commenced their initial meeting on December 16th with a revolutionary declaration: they acknowledged the invalid nature of their own elections. Several years earlier, the South Carolina General Assembly had passed a law enabling men to cast ballots in their home parishes, but the Lords Proprietors had arbitrarily repealed that law and ordered them to return to the earlier practice of holding elections solely in urban Charleston. The recent election in Charleston was therefore conducted in a manner contrary to the will of the people and thus invalid. In light of these facts, the men assembled on December 16th resolved to identify themselves not as the Commons House of Assembly, but rather as a “Convention” comprised of “the representatives of the people” of South Carolina.
Now assembled after several weeks of canvassing and strategizing, the members of the Convention reviewed their purpose and began plotting an agenda. The arbitrary and neglectful behavior of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina in recent years was counter-productive to the survival of South Carolina, and had effectively altered the unwritten constitution or contract that existed between the Proprietors and the colonists. By actively 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. To address these failings, the members of the Convention resolved to form a new government for South Carolina in lieu of the present proprietary system. They agreed to pledge allegiance only to King George I, and to appeal directly to His Majesty’s government for relief.
These decisions represented the first steps of rebellious coup d’etat, but not the sort of coup you might see in a Hollywood blockbuster film. Rather than grabbing the reins of power by force and imprisoning their opponents, the members of the rebel Convention embarked a rather polite and passive-aggressive course of action that reflected a very British sense of honor and decorum. They were frustrated with the present government, but that frustration did not extend to Governor Robert Johnson personally. Like every other governor of South Carolina up to that point, Johnson been appointed by the Lords Proprietors and confirmed by the king. The king’s approval merited respect in the eyes of the Convention, and trumped Johnson’s association with the neglectful proprietors. The governor’s Council, on the other hand, represented directly the loathsome Lords Proprietors. The rebellious strategy conceived by the Convention, therefore, was to convert the governor to their cause, to ignore or disavow the present Council, and to form a new government in the name of the king.
The opening salvo of the revolution of 1719 began with a face-to-face confrontation on Wednesday, December 16th. As was customary on the opening day of a new session of the legislative assembly, Governor Robert Johnson sent a message to the Commons House summing its members to join him in the Council Chamber to hear his speech outlining the upcoming legislative agenda. The members of the Convention complied with the governor’s request, and that body of nearly thirty men gathered around the table or tables at which sat the governor and his Council of twelve advisors—the appointed deputies of the Lords Proprietors. Once the crowd settled into place, the familiar dialog of formal salutations commenced. On this day, however, there was a palpable hint of tension in the air. Arthur Middleton, (1681–1737), the leader of the rebel Convention, stepped forward and addressed Governor Johnson and his Council in the following words:
“I am ordered by the representatives of the people here present, to tell you, that according to your hon[or’]s order, we are come to wait upon you & I am further ordered to acquaint you, that we own [meaning “acknowledge”] your hon[o]r as our govern[o]r, you being approved of by the king & as there was once in this province a legal Council, representing the proprietors as their deputies; which constitution being now altered we do not look upon the gent[lemen] present to be a legal Council, so I am ordered to tell you, that the representatives of the people do disown them as such, & will not act with them on any acc[oun]t.”
Arthur Middleton’s brief speech, though delivered in calm and rational manner, amounted to a political bombshell. Governor Johnson was dumbfounded by its rebellious implications, and asked Mr. Middleton if he would be so kind as to render the same speech in writing, so the Council might have a record of the incident. Middleton agreed to put his words to paper and then he and the other members of the Convention bowed and quietly withdrew from the Council Chamber. The revolution had just begun.
Apparently blind to the gravity of the situation, Governor Johnson and his Council took no further action on that day. We have no record of their reaction to Mr. Middleton’s brief speech, but it appears they viewed it as little more than an inconsequential display of petulant ingratitude. Meanwhile, the members of the Convention briefly returned to their own chamber before adjourning for the day. Although no detailed record of their work survives, it seems likely that some of the Conventioneers spent the evening drafting formal resolutions intended to define their position and their objectives.
On the morning of Thursday, December 17th, the Convention reviewed and adopted a preamble outlining their political grievances and a series of resolutions that defined their agenda. Having resolved that the Lords Proprietors had “unhinged the frame of government & forfeited their right to the same,” the Convention invited Robert Johnson to continue to serve as the executive of a new government formed in the name of King George I. A Copy of this text was then delivered to the governor and his Council, who then finally realized the magnitude of what now clearly a revolution. How should they reply to the declarations of this rebellious Commons House that called itself a “Convention”? Should the governor order the local militia leaders to muster their men and assert the government’s power by force? No, they decided, it was too late for military maneuvers. The majority of the Council concluded that “the defection [to the rebel cause] was too general” to defeat by force. Their predicament was now quite precarious. The governor might issue a proclamation to dissolve the recently elected assembly, but that act might further enflame the rebels and draw support to their cause. Better to attempt to work with the Convention, the Council advised Governor Johnson, and try to diffuse the situation with “mild expostulations.”
On the afternoon of December 17th, Governor Robert Johnson sent a message to the Convention summoning them to the Council Chamber for a conference to discuss their grievances. In response, the Convention curtly declined to attend and reiterated their refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the present “illegal Council.” Governor Johnson was now enraged by the defiance of the rebellious Convention. He replied to them with a long, chastising letter that belittled their grievances and the method of their redress. Responding to Johnson’s second demand that they meet with the Council, the Convention again curtly refused to take notice of the governor as long as he associated with the present Council.
In a final gesture towards resolution, the members of the Convention then sent to Governor Johnson a conciliatory personal address. Using flattering language and professing great respect for Johnson, they humbly repeated their request that the governor should take the leadership of their new government in the name of the king. Johnson again refused to abandon the Lords Proprietors, who had appointed him to power, and now determined to disperse the rebellious Convention. He and his Council drafted a proclamation dissolving the recently elected assembly and handed it to Provost Marshal Thomas Conyers, South Carolina’s chief law enforcement officer. When Marshal Conyers entered the chambers of the Convention and began to read aloud the governor’s order, members of the rebel assembly snatched the paper out of his hands and showed the marshal to the door. The Convention then issued its own public proclamation, directing all officers, civil and military, in South Carolina to continue to execute their respective duties until they received further orders from the new government.
Robert Johnson’s refusal to join the revolution against the Lords Proprietors of Carolina forced the members of the Convention to chart a new course for their proceedings. On Friday, December 18th, they voted to invite Colonel James Moore Jr. (ca. 1680–1724), son of a former governor of the same name, to serve as governor of the nascent rebel movement. Moore had been a high-ranking and revered officer in the South Carolina militia during the recent wars against the Tuscarora and Yemasee tribes, but his anti-Proprietary views and actions led to the loss of his militia command in 1717. Now invited to lead a government in defiance of the Lords Proprietors, Moore readily accepted the challenge. The Convention acknowledged Colonel Moore’s acceptance on Saturday, December 19th, and began planning an elaborate inauguration ceremony to take place in Charleston on Monday, the 21st.
Shortly after James Moore agreed to lead the rebel government, the streets of Charleston began to buzz with news of his upcoming inauguration. When the proprietary governor, Robert Johnson, heard this incendiary gossip, he experienced a moment of panic. Some weeks earlier (the exact date is now lost), Governor Johnson had issued an order for a formal parade and review of Charleston’s urban militia to be held in town on Monday, December 21st. Now it seemed that the rebel faction was intending to use this military event as a means to legitimize their shadow government with a public show of force. Hoping to thwart his political opponents, Johnson summoned the commander of Charleston’s urban militia, Colonel Alexander Parris (1661–1735), on Saturday the 19th, and ordered him to cancel the upcoming militia review. Colonel Parris’s promise that he would obey the governor’s commands provided a modicum of relief to Johnson, who then issued a circular letter summoning his Council to meet in Charleston on Monday morning.
Despite Robert Johnson’s orders that he would not “suffer a drum to beat in the town” on Monday, December 21st, and despite Colonel Parris’s assurances that he would cancel the militia review scheduled for that day, the proprietary governor came to Charleston early on Monday morning to find the town in arms and in a festive mood. Most, or perhaps all of the militia aged (16–60) men of urban Charleston—numbering between 200 and 300 individuals—had assembled in East Bay Street, adjacent to the town market within the Half-Moon Battery, where the Old Exchange Building now stands, with their muskets and sabers. British flags were flying at each of the bastions surrounding the small, walled town, and all the ships riding at anchor in the harbor likewise displayed their national colors. In the words of Francis Yonge, an eyewitness who in 1726 published a narrative of these events, the townsfolk were preparing with “great solemnity” a ceremony for “proclaiming their governor.”
Francis Yonge’s narrative of Monday, December 21st, represents our sole source of information about the events that formed the climax of the Revolution of 1719. His description is rather brief, however, and omits many details that would help us re-imagine the scene today. “It would be tedious to the reader,” said Yonge in his published Narrative, “to enumerate all he [Robert Johnson] did at this juncture to oppose their proceedings.” Despite Yonge’s brevity, we can still form the outline of the scenes that transpired along East Bay Street on December 21st.
Robert Johnson, the proprietary governor, walked hurriedly among ununiformed citizen-soldiers arrayed in the street and tried to solicit their attention. “Some he menaced, and handled more roughly,” said Yonge, “and some [he] spoke fair to, to perswade [sic] them from what they were doing.” But the men in arms had sided with the rebel confederacy and ignored the man they now viewed as their former governor. Johnson then marched directly to Colonel Alexander Parris, the commanding officer of the town militia, and addressed him in a forceful tone. “How durst he appear in arms, contrary to his orders?” asked Johnson, but the colonel did not reply. Johnson commanded him sternly, in the name of King George, “to disperse his men” immediately. Colonel Parris now replied curtly that he was obeying the orders issued by his superiors, the rebel Convention, and would not retire from the field. Johnson, now visibly shaken, stepped towards Parris for a more personal exchange, but his approach was suddenly blocked. The colonel “commanded his men to present their muskets” at Johnson’s breast, and bid the old governor “to stand off,” or suffer the consequences “at his peril.” The revolution that had commenced with quiet seditious talk was now completed at the point of a musket.
Robert Johnson backed away from Colonel Parris and staggered in disbelief along East Bay Street. As Francis Yonge observed on that 21st of December 1719, the old governor “was in hopes some gentlemen and others might have joyn’d him; but the defection was so general, that [there was] hardly a man but was in arms.” Johnson had earlier called the twelve members of his Council to join him in Charleston that day, but only one of them appeared with him at the militia review (and his name was not recorded). Mr. John Lloyd, a prominent English merchant in town, volunteered to accompany Johnson, and seemed to support the old governor’s cause. Lloyd’s friendship was not sincere, however, for he was really acting as an agent of the rebel party. The Convention had sent Lloyd to shadow Johnson in order “to prevent any hot action he might have been provok’d to do.” Johnson was oblivious to the ruse, and two days later John Lloyd was sworn-in as a member of the new rebel Council.
The few men in the colony who continued to support the Lords Proprietors of Carolina kept a low profile on the day of the militia review and rebel inauguration in Charleston. Men like Colonel William Rhett and Judge Nicholas Trott, whose political advice Francis Yonge said was largely responsible for “this whole affair,” remained in hiding. Robert Johnson alone harangued the crowd of citizen soldiers in the street and tried to uphold the authority of the proprietary government. As the column of militia men began to march southward along East Bay Street towards Granville Bastion, the traditional site for inaugurating South Carolina’s colonial governors, Johnson walked among the silent men at arms and pleaded for their allegiance.
At some point in their march, according to Francis Yonge’s Narrative, Johnson managed to stop the procession. For a moment, the citizen-soldiers listened to his pleas. Johnson represented the legitimate owners of the Carolina Colony, the Lords Proprietors, and his authority was endorsed by the king. He must have begged them to consider the gravity of their actions, and the possible consequences of appearing in arms to support an illegal coup d’etat. The old governor “had almost perswaded [sic] them to alter their opinion,” recalled Francis Yonge, when another strong voice appeared on the scene. Sir Hovenden Walker (1666–1725), a former admiral in the British Navy who was now residing in South Carolina, stepped into the column and shouted back at Johnson to silence his efforts. The precise language Sir Hovenden used to rouse the militia on this occasion is now lost, but Yonge tells us that the salty old admiral “put them in mind to keep up the spirits of the people.” Walker’s strong words succeeded in dispelling the last vestiges of Robert Johnson’s authority and rallying the men to resume their allegiance to the rebel cause. Officers of the militia ordered the men to regroup and attend to their business. As Governor Johnson stood by, helpless and no doubt exhausted, the column of citizen-soldiers resumed their march towards a revolutionary climax.
Moments later, under the guns of Granville Bastion (now under the headquarters of the Historic Charleston Foundation), Colonel James Moore Jr. was sworn in as the new governor of South Carolina. With that act, the rebellious confederation that had emerged quietly in November 1719 accomplished its goal of deposing the colony’s legitimate government. The majority of the free white men of South Carolina and their families had rallied around the rebel cause, and resistance was futile. Robert Johnson and his Council bit their tongues and looked for future opportunities to recoup their honor.
In the days following this dramatic but non-violent coup d’etat, members of both the new rebel government and the old proprietary government each wrote to their superiors in England to explain the recent events in South Carolina. News traveled slowly across the Atlantic in that era, so everyone in the colony knew that many months would pass before instructions and legal opinions might arrive from authorities back home. In the meantime, on Wednesday, December 23rd, 1719, the rebel Convention resolved itself into a traditional General Assembly composed of a governor, Council, and Commons House. To legitimize their own creation, which they backdated to Monday the 21st, they passed an explanatory law titled “An Act for Removing and Preventing All Questions and Disputes Concerning the Assembling and Sitting of this Present Assembly of the Settlement in South Carolina.”
The Revolution of December 1719 succeeded in deposing the proprietary government of South Carolina and replacing it with a rebellious assembly, but this radical episode was merely the first step in a much longer effort to place the colony under the direct management of the British crown. The new government, under the leadership of Governor James Moore Jr., worked diligently throughout 1720 to attend to South Carolina’s immediate needs and to convince officials back in London that they had acted in the king’s best interest. On August 11th, the Lords Justices of Great Britain (the king’s senior legal counsel), officially endorsed the revolutionary coup by declaring that South Carolina should “be forthwith taken provisionally into the hands of the Crown.” From that moment in the late summer of 1720 commenced a protracted negotiation between the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, who technically owned the colony, and the British crown. The royal authority sent a provisional governor, Sir Francis Nicholson, who arrived in late May of 1721, but the process of “royalizing” Carolina took nearly a decade to complete.
The Revolution of 1719 was the culmination of an extended period of struggle and strife in South Carolina, and it was followed a decade of dysfunctional government and economic doldrums. The goal of the revolution was to put the colony on a more secure and stable political footing as a royal colony, but the rewards sought in 1719 did not materialize until the early 1730s. South Carolinians living through the 1720s witnessed a number of interesting events and developments, but we’ll save the details of that turbulent decade for future programs.
Today’s episode, and the two preceding ones, represent my humble attempt to draw attention to the 300th anniversary of one of the most pivotal events in the early history of South Carolina. I wanted to use this occasion to emphasize the evolutionary nature of our state’s history. Carolina was not stamped from a mold and endowed with power, wealth, and equality from its birth. Rather, our state commenced as a social experiment that gradually evolved through a series of crises and triumphs to become the home we enjoy today. Though flawed from the outset by prejudice and greed, South Carolina has endured for three and a half centuries. The imperfect home we enjoy today was crafted by generations of diverse citizens working to refine and improve the government that binds us together. As our own history shows us, sometimes it takes a revolution to turn our society in the direction of a better future.
This essay represents an overview of the dramatic events that took place in South Carolina in the final weeks of 1719. My text is based on the facts presented in a number of sources. Francis Yonge’s 1726 publication, A Narrative of the Proceedings of the People of South Carolina, In the Year 1719, provides a valuable first-person overview of those events. Several nineteenth- and twentieth-century historians published admirable descriptions of the Revolution of 1719, including William James Rivers and Edward McCrady, but their works were flawed by a lack of access to important manuscript resources. A cache of manuscript Sessional Papers from the rebel Convention of late 1719 and the early days of 1720 were rediscovered in the 1980s and are now available in digital form from the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. Alexander Moore made extensive use of those manuscripts in his 1991 doctoral dissertation, which you can find on the shelf in the S.C. History Room at CCPL under the title “Royalizing South Carolina.” To this date, Moore’s dissertation represents the most detailed authoritative analysis of the Revolution of 1719 and its aftermath in the 1720s.
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.
McCrady, Edward. , The History of South Carolina under the Proprietary Government, 1670–1719. New York: Macmillan & Co., 1897.
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.