The story of the early Revolutionary War in Charleston is well known and widely taught in South Carolina public schools: How the patriots under William Moultrie drove off the British fleet, fighting from behind a makeshift fortress of palmetto logs. How the flag was shot away by British fire and Sgt. Jasper climbed onto the parapet and remounted it.
We love that story. We put the palmetto tree on our state flag and only three years ago erected a statue of Moultrie in White Point Garden, looking across the harbor to the site of his great victory.
But there is another side of that story, a darker side, a side we do not teach in the public schools or celebrate in song or legend — and for good reason. In the run-up to independence and revolution, as fiery patriots demanded their rights as Englishmen – including their right to trial by a jury of their peers – they were more than satisfied to let a “free man of color” go to the gallows for no apparent reason except that they were frightened and he was “insolent.”
J. William Harris tells a fascinating and finely researched story of principles in conflict and of individuals holding conflicting principles. First, there was Henry Laurens, one of the wealthiest business and social leaders in Charleston. Laurens built his first fortune in the slave trade and later owned several large plantations, made viable only through the labor of hundreds of slaves. Universally respected by his peers for his integrity and sense of duty, he was elected president of the Continental Congress in 1777.
Then there was Thomas Jeremiah, one of about 500 free black people in Charleston, a fisherman and harbor pilot, a man who owned slaves and had amassed a fortune estimated at £1,000 sterling (some $200,000 in today's currency.) Harris writes that Jeremiah was perhaps the wealthiest free black in all North America — and his wealth was probably his doom.
After the first shots of the Revolution were exchanged in Massachusetts in April 1775, there was fear and confusion throughout the colonies. In the South, British agents incited the Cherokees to rise up in the backcountry and there was much bloodshed before the militia suppressed the uprising. It was feared that the British were also working to incite rebellion within the huge Lowcountry slave population.
It was in this atmosphere that Henry Laurens received a letter from London, warning that British agents were “instigating the slaves to insurrection.” Then two slaves came forward to point fingers at Jeremiah. From that moment he was marked and damned as the wheels of injustice began to turn.
Harris makes it clear that Jeremiah never had a serious chance to defend himself. The evidence against him was “extraordinarily weak,” but Jeremiah was tried under the Negro Act of 1740 (passed in the wake of the Stono Rebellion of the previous year), which left little room for leniency or deliberation. The law was written to protect whites and convict blacks, and that's what it did in the case of Thomas Jeremiah.
There is no question that Jeremiah's wealth and visibility played against him in the eyes of the white men who sat in judgment. More than anything else, it was the testimony of Henry Laurens which condemned Jeremiah. According to Laurens, Jeremiah was “a forward fellow, puffed up by prosperity, ruined by Luxury & debauchery & grown to amazing pitch of vanity & ambition.” If there was any guilt whatsoever attached to Jeremiah, Laurens demanded that “nothing less than Death Should be the Sentence.”
In the midst of this drama, on June 17, 1775, the last royal governor of South Carolina, Lord William Campbell, arrived in Charleston. A slave owner himself, Campbell was nevertheless shocked at the harsh and hasty justice that was being meted out to Thomas Jeremiah. Campbell is mostly remembered in this city — if he is remembered at all — for his undecorous departure in the face of an angry mob of patriots, only two months after his arrival. That mob was motivated, in part, by Campbell's attempted intervention on behalf of Jeremiah. With his departure, British rule effectively ended in South Carolina.
On August 18, 1775, Jeremiah was hanged on a crude scaffold in front of the Work House on Magazine Street. His body was immediately taken down and “burned to ashes” on the site.
Eleven months later, four gentlemen slaveholders from Charleston signed the Declaration of Independence, with the stirring affirmation that “all men are created equal.” But as Harris writes, it is clear in the trial and execution of Thomas Jeremiah that these Founding Fathers intended that “the America being born … would be a white man’s country.”