For most today, the American Revolution refers to the eight-year war waged by the United States to secure independence from Great Britain. The real revolution, however, was the struggle to create a republican government that answered directly to the people. The fracture in colonial ties began in the early 1760s when the British Parliament passed a series of legislative acts designed to exert greater authority over the thirteen American colonies. Many colonists perceived these measures as the first steps on the road to tyranny, and they fully understood the necessity of resisting the mother country’s encroachment on their liberties. One of the foremost leaders of the resistance was Sam Adams of Boston, Massachusetts. Along with his “Sons of Liberty,” he fought to defend Massachusetts from British oppression. He was not the only one wholly committed to the fight, however. Among the others was a Southern colonist just as devoted to the cause as Adams. This colonist possessed as fiery a temperament as Sam, just as he shared his counterpart’s dedication to the principles of liberty. His name was Christopher Gadsden. This is the story of how he launched South Carolina on the road to revolution.
As was the case with many of the leaders in the South during the Revolution, Christopher Gadsden belonged to a well-to-do and prominent family. He was born in Charles Town, South Carolina (now Charleston) in February 1724 to the town’s customs collector. Christopher likely enjoyed a comfortable childhood as his father accumulated a sizable fortune, both in money and in land. The family’s wealth allowed him to attend school in Britain before securing an apprenticeship under a Philadelphia merchant. In 1748 he returned to Charles Town to open a store selling goods from Europe, the West Indies, and the northern colonies. The store’s profitability allowed Christopher to purchase a home in one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods as well as large tracts of land along the Pee Dee River in nearby Georgetown. As his reputation grew, he was invited to join several of Charles Town’s most prestigious organizations, such as the Library Society and the South Carolina Society. His involvement introduced him to some of the colony’s most prominent citizens, including Henry Laurens, a future president of the Continental Congress. Gadsden’s prestige continued to rise, and by the mid-1750s he was a vestryman for St. Philip’s parish and captain of the city’s artillery company. In September 1757 he won election to the Commons House of Assembly and was immediately appointed a commissioner of fortifications, charged with overseeing the colony’s defenses to prevent Indian attacks. In this capacity, he first established himself as an opponent of British policy.
The dawn of the 1760s witnessed the first clash between Christopher Gadsden and British officers. Along with his fellow South Carolinians, he bristled under accusations that the colony was not committed enough to defeating the Cherokee Indians along the western border. These attacks were made more loathsome by the ever-present harsh criticisms and haughty attitudes displayed by British officers towards their colonial comrades. Among the worst was Lieutenant Colonel James Grant who condemned colonial troops for deserting at the first hint of combat. Gadsden was outraged, therefore, when Grant was given command of the 1761 campaign rather than the more senior South Carolinian, Colonel Thomas Middleton. As the expedition unfolded, he heard reports that Grant rejected Middleton’s advice on several occasions and the colonel quit the army as a result. Gadsden’s anger finally exploded, and he took up his pen to denounce Grant. He decried the man’s arrogance and disdain for colonists, even insinuating Grant blamed them for his own military ineptitude. Grant and his supporters, most notably Henry Laurens, insisted Christopher’s attacks were unwarranted. Indeed, Laurens said, Grant shared his supplies with militiamen when the provincials ran out. Although forced to back down, Christopher had shown a determination to defend his native South Carolina against any threat — even from the mother country. South Carolinians applauded his actions and began to view him as a champion for the rights of colonists. It was a mantle Gadsden was proud to wear as Britain cracked down on the colonies.
As part of the South Carolina legislature, Christopher understood that a very real part of his duty was to protect the colony from England’s attempts to subject its citizens to oppression. In particular, he contended, the assembly’s integrity was threatened when royal officials replaced locally elected politicians with British placemen, or political appointees. In 1762 he felt the menace personally when Royal Governor Thomas Boone refused to accept his election from St. Paul’s parish since the church wardens had not taken the oaths to serve as election officials, as required by the Election Act of 1721. Boone censured the assembly for not adhering to a Crown-approved law before dissolving the body. Affronted, the populace returned nearly all the membership, including Gadsden, to a new legislative session. Taking his seat, Gadsden drew up four resolutions outlining the prerogatives of the assembly, and when the governor remained intransigent, he supported suspending business until Boone acknowledged the privileges of the legislature. In early 1763 he defended his position in the South Carolina Gazette, basing his argument on the principle that an independent legislature was necessary for the preservation of individual liberty. He repudiated the virtual representation of Britain’s House of Commons in favor of actual representation, with each colonial assembly acting as a miniature Parliament. His zeal for colonial rights grew more intense upon learning British officials passed legislation directly taxing the colonists.
By 1765 Gadsden was one of South Carolina’s most radical and ardent patriots. Seeing the rights of the colonial assembly as sacrosanct, he was outraged when Parliament attempted to override the assembly’s powers by adopting the Stamp Act. He deplored the act as a violation of the principle that no British subject could be taxed without his consent, and he declared it must be contested. Holding firm to his convictions, Christopher lent his voice to those patriots calling for a Stamp Act Congress to demonstrate national opposition against the tyrannical measure. At the Congress, he joined with fellow radical James Otis of Massachusetts to persuade his fellow delegates to stand firmly on the bedrock principles espoused by John Locke regarding the natural rights belonging to every Englishman. He enthusiastically endorsed armed resistance, and upon returning to Charles Town in mid-November, he joined the city’s tradesmen and other “sons of liberty” in forcibly opposing those supportive of the Stamp Act, even employing mob violence against royal officials. As the crisis continued, however, Gadsden’s views became even starker. Writing to an English friend, he questioned if the ministry considered “Americans all a parcel of asses” before asserting that Britain’s treatment of the colonists was “worse than the Egyptian task masters of old [towards] the Israelites.” He ended the letter by declaring his allegiance to liberty before all else, including his loyalty to Great Britain.
In the years following the Stamp Act, Gadsden’s radicalism led him to urge harsher measures to combat encroaching British oppression. He celebrated the Stamp Act’s repeal in 1766 but saw the subsequent Declaratory Act as evidence of British ministers’ intent to accept nothing less than colonial acquiescence to royal authority. Adoption of the Townshend Acts in 1767 seemed to confirm his suspicions, and he called for South Carolina’s participation in a nationwide nonimportation agreement, cutting off trade with British merchants. Simultaneously, Christopher urged increasing the importation of Dutch goods, further utilizing the threat of economic independence to force a redress of grievances. If that failed, he proposed political independence from Great Britain. To those who feared taking such a leap, Gadsden reasoned separation was nothing compared to the destruction of liberty. British ministers, he maintained, cared nothing for the rights of colonists. His vision proved prophetic when, in the early 1770s, British officials censured the assembly for raising revenue in support of English radical John Wilkes, staunch opponent of King George III, even declaring funds could only be used in matters relating to South Carolina. Gadsden was infuriated Britain dared tell the colony how to conduct its affairs. Other legislators shared his views, and relations deteriorated even further.
By early 1775 Christopher Gadsden was convinced Americans had to defend their rights with military force. Disgusted by Parliament’s attempt to manipulate the colonies to purchase taxed tea through the 1773 Tea Act, he attacked royal authorities for unloading the tea despite colonial protests. He was subsequently incensed at Parliament’s passage of the Coercive Acts, which closed Boston Harbor and revoked Massachusetts’s charter. Believing no good existed in Parliament, he asserted that he “would rather see my own family reduced to the utmost extremity and half cut to pieces than to submit to their damned machinations.” His fearless outspokenness resulted in his selection as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. To the shock of those in attendance, including Sam and John Adams, Gadsden was so vehemently opposed to parliamentary authority he was “for taking up his firelock” immediately against British troops. That militant stance did not enjoy widespread support at that point. His position also distanced him from his fellow South Carolinians, many of whom were moderate, and returning to Charles Town, he spent the winter of 1774-75 arguing for military action and against reconciliation. Christopher’s views ultimately prevailed, and as spring approached, South Carolinians gathered weapons and gunpowder — which he stored at his private wharf. Following the outbreak of war at Lexington and Concord, Gadsden took his seat in the Second Continental Congress where he worked to provide military supplies to the army outside Boston. Even more important, however, was his zealous advocacy for a final break with Britain. At last, his efforts bore fruit when the South Carolina Provincial Congress instructed the colony’s delegates to vote for independence, which they promptly complied with.
With adoption of the Declaration of Independence, it appeared Christopher Gadsden’s mission was finished, but he remained a fierce warrior for liberty the rest of his life. In October 1776 he served on a committee responsible for creating a new state constitution, which reduced the president’s (governor’s) power and replaced the Legislative Council with a popularly elected Senate. He also praised the addition of a bill of rights. Although considered too democratic by some, the South Carolina constitution was adopted in 1778 and Gadsden was chosen to serve as the new vice president under it. He maintained the government would be just to all citizens, as demonstrated by his support for a proposal offering leniency to those who had not signed a loyalty oath to the new nation. His stand cost him the support of the tradesmen, but he remained in power as the chief civil administrator during the British siege and subsequent capture of Charles Town. Seen as a symbol of American resistance, Gadsden was imprisoned in the dudgeon of the Castillo de San Marcos at St. Augustine, Florida from September 1780 to July 1781. Despite repeated British efforts, he refused to renounce his commitment to the American cause. Upon being released, he returned to South Carolina where he was elected governor in honor of his long and faithful service, though he refused the office. Choosing instead to serve in the assembly, Christopher sought to achieve a unifying peace following the long and brutal struggle for independence. Though primarily concerned with business affairs after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, he participated in South Carolina’s 1788 ratification of the Constitution and supported Presidents George Washington and John Adams. With Thomas Jefferson’s election in 1800, however, Christopher Gadsden realized his services were no longer needed, and at the end of August 1805, he finally departed this life and the country he helped create.
Although not as famous as other Revolutionary patriots, Christopher Gadsden was certainly one of the most vocal and devoted, particularly at a time when those characteristics could cost a man his life. He never lost his unflagging commitment to the cause of liberty and refused to rest until victory was achieved. He believed individual freedom was the cornerstone upon which America existed, and when that right was threatened, Americans would fight rather than submit. It was a principle he shared with his comrade-in-arms from Massachusetts, so it is only fitting, therefore, that his nickname bear witness to their shared struggle. In tribute and credit to both men, firebrand Christopher Gadsden proudly bore the title of the “Sam Adams of the South.”