Editor’s note: This is the 13th installment in a serialized history of Charleston to commemorate the city’s 350th anniversary.
It was not Christopher Gadsden’s first clash with the British, and it certainly wouldn’t be his last.
The voters of St. Paul’s parish in 1762 chose Gadsden — a wealthy merchant, planter and native of Charles Town — to represent them in the Commons House of Assembly. But election officials made some mistake with the paperwork, and that was all the excuse Gov. Thomas Boone needed to teach the recalcitrant colonists a lesson.
The ensuing constitutional crisis would keep Charles Town in disarray for more than a year.
It had been a difficult decade for the city. Residents spent years rebuilding after the great hurricane of 1752 and, no sooner than life returned to normal, the French and Indian War began. Charles Town was overrun with British soldiers they could not feed, and French prisoners of war they didn’t want.
Residents worried these POWs might form an alliance with the city’s enslaved population, which was growing exponentially. In a five-year stretch, more than 12,000 African slaves had been imported to handle the increased demand for rice to feed the troops (this was a decade before Gadsden's Wharf opened and slave ships began landing there). Charles Town was profiting from distant battles, but residents weren’t happy about it.
Despite constant rumors of a French fleet in the West Indies headed for Carolina, the only fighting the Colony saw during the war was a campaign against the Cherokees. And that fed Gadsden’s disillusionment with the British.
The trouble with the Cherokees, who’d always gotten along with Charles Town residents, had started a few years earlier in Virginia. Gadsden was among the locals who dutifully joined the battle, but he was outraged when Col. Thomas Middleton of the provincial militia was passed over and a British officer took command of the operation.
Gadsden believed it was overreach, an insult to Middleton and all of Carolina — and he was quite vocal about it. Although he considered himself a subject of the crown, he believed the colonies should have home rule, or at least a measure of … liberty.
That was a growing sentiment in the Assembly, and the British recognized as much. The colonists had clashed with their governors for most of the past decade, an ongoing power struggle with the crown. Boone was sent specifically to rein in the hotheaded Carolinians.
The new governor was not particularly welcome, even though he had strong ties to the Colony. Boone’s uncle had been an influential man in Charles Town 20 years earlier, and his mother had been a Colleton — one of Carolina’s oldest families. Boone was born and raised in England, but had inherited land in the Colony and married a Charles Town woman.
But he was, above all else, loyal to the crown. After a short appointment as royal governor of New Jersey, Britain had sent Boone to deal with the increasingly rebellious Carolina House of Commons. For some reason, British officials were particularly interested in the Assembly’s election laws.
And the bureaucratic mistakes in Gadsden’s election gave Boone a natural opening to address that.
When the new Assembly convened that spring, Boone refused to administer the oath of office to Gadsden. The governor said errors by election officials mandated another vote, but colonists took it as proof the British didn’t recognize their right to elect their own representatives.
When the Assembly objected to this executive overreach, the governor only confirmed their suspicions. He dismissed the entire group and ordered new elections for all legislative seats. This was war.
The new Assembly elections were held in September 1762 and, in a clear show of defiance, Gadsden was reelected by an almost unanimous vote.
After the new members were seated, their first act was to censure Boone. The collective members of the Assembly refused to do any work until the governor apologized to Gadsden. Boone quickly left Charles Town and returned to England.
For more than year, through the end of the war, the Assembly conducted no business. And when relations with the British government resumed, they didn’t last long. Charles Town was incensed by a new tax on the colonists approved by Parliament.
The Stamp Act enraged all the American colonies, and it was the final straw for Gadsden. Soon, he would join a secret organization called the Sons of Liberty, a group that was quietly talking about a revolution.