HISTORY: Christopher Gadsden

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Gadsden in portrait by Charles Fraser.

Gadsden in portrait by Charles Fraser.

Patriot and merchant Christopher Gadsden was born in Charleston on February 16, 1724, the son of Elizabeth and Thomas Gadsden, a collector of customs. Gadsden received a classical education in England before completing a four-year apprenticeship to a prominent Philadelphia factor. Between 1745 and 1747 he served as purser aboard the British man-of-war Aldborough. With money from his seafaring service and a large inheritance from his parents, who had both died by 1741, Gadsden launched one of the most successful mercantile careers in the province. By 1774 he owned four stores, several merchant vessels, two rice plantations (worked by more than ninety slaves), a residential district called Gadsdenboro in Charleston, and one of the largest wharfs in North America.

Possessing financial independence and a civic spirit, Gadsden pursued public office. In 1757 he began his nearly three decades of service in the Commons House of Assembly. He first revealed himself as a vocal defender of American rights during the Cherokee War by attacking the British colonel James Grant for taking command of local troops above provincial Colonel Thomas Middleton. Gadsden continued to defy British authority as a member of the assembly by opposing the governor and Royal Council in their attempt to infringe on the legislature’s right to raise troops, control money bills, and determine the election of its own members. Governor Thomas Boone marked Gadsden a troublemaker in 1762 and used a violation of a minor electoral practice to deny him his seat in the Commons House. The ensuing controversy between the governor and Gadsden swelled the merchant’s reputation as a defender of colonial rights and helped transform him into a zealous American patriot.

Gadsden continued to champion American home rule and to oppose Parliamentary supremacy at the Stamp Act Congress in New York in 1765. During the next decade, Gadsden joined with Charleston mechanics (Sons of Liberty) to lead the local “patriot party” against every perceived infringement of America’s rights by Parliament. Gadsden’s influence and dedication earned him election to the First Continental Congress, where his extremism manifested itself in proposals for Congress to reject all Parliamentary legislation passed since 1763, to attack the British fleet in American waters, and to instruct each colony to prepare for war. Gadsden returned to South Carolina in February 1776 to serve as colonel of the First Regiment and as a member of the Provincial Congress, where he promoted independence and coauthored the South Carolina constitution of 1776. That summer he helped repulse the British navy’s attack on Charleston, conduct that earned him a position as brigadier general in the Continental Army. Two years later Gadsden helped secure the disestablishment of the Anglican Church and popular election of senators in the state’s 1778 constitution. But the conservative faction dominating the assembly managed to dampen the firebrand’s influence in the new government by electing Gadsden to the impotent position of vice president (as the office of lieutenant governor was then known).

While Gadsden’s zealous and suspicious personality was ideal for organizing American resistance, it was counterproductive in the post-1776 political structure. In 1777 he impulsively resigned his commission as brigadier general over a petty dispute with General Robert Howe. The following year Gadsden violently upset the masses by favoring leniency toward local Tories. And while serving as lieutenant governor in 1780, Gadsden’s irrational temperament cost the United States more than two thousand Continental troops when Charleston fell to the British. Following a ten-month imprisonment in St. Augustine, Gadsden returned to South Carolina to rebuild his many business interests, which suffered considerably during the war. He returned to public service briefly in 1788 to vote for ratification of the United States Constitution and again in 1790 to serve in the state’s constitutional convention.

Gadsden married three times. On July 28, 1746, he married Jane Godfrey. The couple had two children. He married Mary Hasell on December 29, 1755. His second marriage produced four children. Following Mary’s death in 1768, Gadsden married Ann Wragg on April 14, 1776. They had no children. Gadsden died on August 28, 1805, from head injuries suffered in a fall near his home in Charleston. He was buried in St. Philip’s Churchyard.

– Excerpted from the entry by Keith Krawczynski. To read more about this or 2,000 other entries about South Carolina, check out The South Carolina Encyclopedia by USC Press. (Information used by permission.)
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