Religious Convictions of America's Founders: Thomas Heyward, Jr.
"And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
An Episcopalian, The eldest son of a wealthy planter, Thomas Heyward, Jr., was born in Old House, in St. Luke’s Parish (now Jasper County) in the Province of South Carolina, about 25 miles north of Savannah, Georgia, on July 28, 1746. His father was Colonel Daniel Heyward, his mother, Mary Butler Heyward. They were among those to grow rice, the “golden seed from Madagascar” which became the big money crop of “low country” South Carolina. Thomas used the “junior” suffix to differ him from his father’s younger brother of that name.
He received a classical education at home. His father was a strong royalist, devoted to the British crown. He had acquired his wealth chiefly by his own industry, and did not appear to idolize his possessions. He was determined to see that his son receive an excellent education and sent Thomas to the Middle Temple, Cambridge University, London, in 1765, where he completed his legal studies in 1770.
There is no doubt that Thomas came from an aristocratic family. Today, this term implies unearned privilege and snobbery, by birth. The aristocracy has been resented by the middle and lower class. But in previous centuries, aristocrats were expected to display courage, faith, and high personal nobility. They possessed a sense of obligation to their region and to those who labored for them. These are the qualities that Thomas Heyward, Jr., exemplified.
During the time he spent in England and Europe, it became clear to him that a colonial British subject was considered inferior to the native born Englishman. The government preferred appointing natives born in the British Isles to office in the colonies. They frequently disregarded the rights and privileges of the colonists, as if they were not equally protected by the British Constitution. Thomas also witnessed "the indolence and luxury, the pride and haughtiness, so prevalent on the old continent," in contrast to the industry and simplicity of his countrymen.
When he returned to his native country, Thomas Heyward, Jr., was determined to free it from bondage of trans-Atlantic rule.
Political Career Begins
He began practicing law in South Carolina in early 1771. By September 1772, his political career had begun with his election to the Commons House of Assembly from St. Helena's Parish. In this role, he was at odds with Royal Governor Montagu. "The Commons House struggled on with the Royal governors until September 15, 1775, when Lord William Campbell, the last Royal governor, dissolved the assembly and fled the province." Heyward was a delegate to the provincial congress from Charles Town, South Carolina, which met in January 1775. They met again in June 1775, where Heyward was elected as one of 13 members of the Council of Safety. This Council virtually replaced the Royal governor and His Majesty's Council in the government of South Carolina. From this point forward, Thomas promoted the patriot cause and defied British rule. See Delegates to the Continental Congress from South Carolina: 1774-1789.
In 1773, Thomas Heyward married Elizabeth Matthews, the daughter of Col. John and Sarah Gibbes Matthews. They had six children, but only one son, Daniel, survived childhood.
At age 29, in 1775, Mr. Heyward was elected as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in time to enter upon the lengthy discussion of American independence. His election filled the vacancy of John Rutledge, whose presence was required at home to assist in defending the state against a threatened invasion.
In February 1776, he was appointed to a committee to prepare a constitution for South Carolina. It was adopted on March 26, 1776.
Much to his royalist father’s displeasure, Thomas voted for independence on July 4, 1776, and signed the Declaration of Independence, along with the other South Carolina delegates on August 2. His father admonished him, and said that the British likely would hang him for this act. The two men reconciled before the father’s death the next year.
Thomas left political life upon his father’s death to return home, but he signed the Articles of Confederation on behalf of South Carolina on July 9, 1778. He also accepted a judgeship of the criminal courts of the new government. He was called on to preside at the trial and condemnation of several persons charged with treason with the British Army which, at that time was attacking the City of Charleston. The trial of these persons was followed by their execution, which took place by hanging within view of the enemy. This earned Judge Heyward the eternal enmity of the British.
Prisoner of War
Heyward accepted a commission in the South Carolina Militia, and served as a Captain of Artillery. He was shot during the 1779 battle where General Moultrie defeated the British at Beaufort, and this scarred him for life. He was taken prisoner by the British during the siege of Charleston. In 1780, the British brought 37 Charlestonians to St. Augustine and held them at the Castillo de San Marcos, called St. Marks at that time. Among the captives were three signers of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Heyward Jr., Arthur Middleton, and Edward Rutledge. At war’s end, Judge Heyward and some fellow prisoners were transported by ship to Philadelphia. He narrowly escaped death en route, from an accident when he fell overboard, but survived by holding onto the ship’s rudder until assisted.
His wife Elizabeth died in childbirth in 1782 in Philadelphia, where she had gone to be with him upon his release as a prisoner of war. She is buried in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church yard.
Thomas Hayward, Jr., resumed his Judgeship following the war. He married again, to another Elizabeth, in 1786. The second Elizabeth was the daughter of Col. Thomas and Mary Elliott Savage of Charleston, S.C. They had three children to live to adulthood, Thomas, William, and Elizabeth. Judge Hayward retired in 1798. He died on April 17, 1809, at the age of 62.
Additional Sources: Founding Father Quotes, Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Find a Grave, Charleston Museum, Timeline of the Revolutionary War, Prisoners of War, St. Augustine and St. Augustine: Written Timeline