Fiery "Lover of Country": A Man of Explosive Temperament, South Carolina's Christopher Gadsden Willingly Endured Solitary Confinement Rather Than Forsake the Cause of American Independence

Article excerpt

The South Carolina legislature elected 58-year-old Christopher Gadsden governor on January 18, 1782, but South Carolina's leading patriot rose to the podium to decline the honor:

   My sentiments of the American
   cause, from the Stamp
   Act downwards, have never
   changed. I am still of the
   opinion that it is the cause of
   liberty and human nature....
   The present times require the
   vigor and activity of the prime
   of life; but I feel the increasing
   infirmities of old age to such
   a degree, that I am conscious
   I cannot serve you to advantage.
   I therefore beg, for your
   sakes, and for the sake of the
   public, that you would indulge
   me with the liberty of declining
   the arduous task.

Having been released after suffering 10 months of solitary confinement in a British dungeon just months earlier, Gadsden was suffering bouts of dizziness and memory lapses and was unsure of his future health.

Gadsden had been in a British prison as a result of his unwavering support for American independence from Great Britain. Taken as a prisoner of war after the surrender of Charleston in 1780, Gadsden was initially released, but he was rearrested on a trumped-up charge. Taken by prison ship to the old Spanish fort Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida, Gadsden was offered a limited parole, allowing him the freedom to walk about the grounds of the prison if he would only swear allegiance to the British crown.

Many other American prisoners took the oath in order to be able to walk about the grounds of the prison castle, and few thought less of them for doing so. But Christopher Gadsden refused, choosing instead to sit out the rest of the war in solitary confinement in the castle's dungeon rather than to swear a false allegiance to the king. This was the character of the man who had been South Carolina's greatest force for independence. And it is one reason why the legislature chose to convey the honor of governorship upon Gadsden.

"Philo Patrios"

Christopher Gadsden succeeded throughout his life despite suffering more than his share of misfortune and difficulties. Born on February 16, 1724, Gadsden had lost his mother and all three older siblings before attaining the age of four. His father, Thomas Gadsden, remarried in 1728, but Christopher's stepmother died within two years. His father married for a third time in 1732, but young Christopher was shipped off to boarding school in England that same year. When he returned to the New World eight years later, 16-year-old Christopher immediately moved to Philadelphia to serve as a businessman's apprentice. The following summer, he needed to return to South Carolina to bury both his father and his second stepmother. Later in life, Christopher himself survived the death of two wives and his son Christopher, Jr.

In 1745, with the idea of beginning an import and export business, he sailed for England but was impressed for three years into service of the Royal Navy during King George's War (the War of Austrian Succession in Europe). By the time he was released from service, Gadsden had gained a high estimation of the importance of a navy, a view he would later take to the Continental Congress. He had also gained a wife, the wealthy Jane Godfrey, during a 1746 port stop in Charleston (and in 1747, a daughter, Elizabeth).

Back in Charleston, Gadsden finally launched his trade business. He used his inheritance from his father" to purchase three ships to transport indigo seeds, flour, tobacco, butter, and sugar, as well as violins, mahogany, and lead. When the French and Indian War began in the colonies in 1754, Gadsden extended his business dealings to military supplies.

The increasingly wealthy Gadsden recruited and equipped his own militia artillery company to fight the Indian forces on the South Carolina frontier during the war. His militia company was the most smartly dressed and most regularly drilled company in the southern states, but it never saw significant action. …