Henry Laurens

Charleston merchant, legislator and slave trader Henry Laurens found his neck at the end of a sword during the Stamp Act riot of 1765.

Editor’s note: This is the 14th installment in a serialized history of Charleston to commemorate the city’s 350th anniversary.

The Planters Adventure sailed into Charles Town harbor on Oct. 18, 1765, its crew members well aware they were unlikely to get a friendly welcome.

It went even worse than expected.

Since the summer, angry mobs had been rioting throughout the colonies in protest of the Stamp Act. There had been no violence in Charles Town, but British officials recognized local public sentiment was firmly on the side of the mobs.

And that was unfortunate because the Planters Adventure was delivering one of Charles Town’s first batches of stamps.

Parliament had passed the Stamp Act to pay off debts from the French and Indian War, and it was little more than a thinly veiled tax on colonists. Basically, no printed material — legal documents, newspapers or even playing cards — could be distributed without a government stamp. Which, of course, had to be bought from the British government.

The colonists considered this taxation without representation.

By the time the Planters Adventure arrived, Christopher Gadsden, Thomas Lynch and John Rutledge were in New York as the colony’s representatives to the Stamp Act Congress. Gadsden was selected chairman of the committee that wrote the resolutions condemning the Stamp Act.

Gadsden, ever the politician, had been courting Charles Town’s mechanics, basically craftsmen and laborers, to build a populist movement against the British. These people would form the core of his “Sons of Liberty,” and in his absence, they took the fight in an extreme direction.

On Oct. 19, locals awoke to find a towering gallows at the corner of Broad and Church streets with the stuffed figure of a taxman swinging from its noose. A sign on the gallows read “Liberty and No Stamp Act.” The message wasn’t subtle.

That evening, a crowd of 2,000 — a sizable percentage of the city’s population — had gathered under the gallows, which was loaded onto a wagon for a parade along Broad Street. It was the beginning of a week of protests, riots and violence.

That night, some of the mob burst into the home of a British-appointed stamp inspector to destroy the newly arrived stamps. When the search turned up nothing, they simply vandalized the house.

A few nights later, the mob showed up at the Ansonborough home of Henry Laurens. It was rumored that Laurens — a local rice planter, politician, merchant and co-owner of the largest slave-trading company in the colonies — was hiding the stamps.

To stop the rioters from breaking down his door — and to appease his hysterical and quite pregnant wife — Laurens ultimately let them in.

Unfortunately for Laurens, Robert Rosen reports in “A Short History of Charleston,” the men “put a cutlass to his throat, searched his home (in vain) and rummaged through the wine cellar, wasting much of his wine.”

The men threatened to torture Laurens, but lost interest and left after he proclaimed that he, too, despised the Stamp Act. Which wasn’t a lie.

Laurens was shaken by the experience. He’d been friends with Gadsden for years, but they’d fallen out over their different political styles. After the attack, Laurens denounced the Sons of Liberty for using patriotism as a cloak to commit “unbounded acts of Licentiousness … burglary and robbery.”

It took eight days for the rioters to figure out William Bull, the colony’s lieutenant governor, had smuggled the stamps to Fort Johnson. Rumor held they were being guarded there by two local stamp agents, Caleb Lloyd and George Saxby (whose house had been ransacked on the first night of rioting).

The mob threatened to kill them unless they resigned their posts, and Bull didn’t have enough men to stop it. As Walter Fraser Jr. reports in “Charleston! Charleston!” the threats ended only after Lloyd and Saxby announced that to “restore and preserve the peace,” they wouldn’t enforce the Stamp Act.

That solved the immediate problem. The riots quickly turned into a parade, one man marching along the street waving a flag that read “Liberty.” The party was only slightly premature. Soon, Parliament would repeal the unpopular Stamp Act.

But this was only the end of the beginning of the trouble with Britain. The tension would not abate anytime soon, and many locals, including Gadsden, feared more violence was inevitable.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.