The eldest son of a wealthy planter, Thomas Heyward, Jr., was born in at his father’s home, 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. He was in the fifth generation of the Heyward family in America. That family’s pioneer settler, Daniel, was among the early English colonists who came to make a new settlement in Carolina in 1670. He came from Little Eaton, a tiny village near Derby on the west bank of the River Derwent in midlands England, today still a beautiful fertile valley of rolling hills and flood planes.
The early Heyward generations in America had been successful planters of crops such as indigo and cotton, but the Signer’s father, Colonel Daniel Heyward, 1726-1777, son of Capt. Thomas and Hester Taylor Heyward of James Island, S.C., was among those to also grow rice, the “golden seed from Madagascar” which became the big money crop of “low country” South Carolina. His father acquired thousands of acres of land stretching from the Combahee River south toward Beaufort and Savannah, and was an astute, very successful planter and businessman. His mother, Mary, 1727-1761, was the daughter of William and Mary Butler Miles, of the Parish of St. Andrew in Berkeley County, South Carolina. They had six children. Thomas used the “junior” suffix to differ him from his father’s younger brother of that name.
The father, convinced of the importance of intellectual cultivation, determined to bestow upon his son all the advantages, which a thorough education might impart. Accordingly, the best school in the province was selected for young Heyward, who, with diligence, became well acquainted with the Latin language and such other studies as at that time were taught in the most respectable schools and seminaries. He then entered the law office of a Mr. Parsons, a barrister of some eminence in South Carolina at that time, and a gentleman distinguished for his professional learning and practical skill. The father was also a strong royalist, devoted to the British crown, and upon his son accomplishing the usual term of study, young Mr. Heyward was sent to England to complete his legal preparation, to which he applied himself in the same manner of diligence as his earlier studies. He was admitted to the Middle Temple, Cambridge University, London, in 1765, and on May 25,1770 he was called to the bar by the Inns of the Court.
While in England, Mr. Heyward became deeply impressed with the injustice of the prevailing feeling there, that a colonial British subject was quite inferior (and should be treated as such) to the native born Englishman. The government seemed to act by appointing to office in the colonies few but natives of the British Isles; and, in its carelessness of the rights and privileges of the colonists, as if they were not equally protected by the broad reach of the British Constitution. These things, even at that early age, alienated his affection from the mother country, and when he returned to his native land, it was with mortified feelings, and a heartfelt desire to free it from bondage of trans-Atlantic rule.
But first, he commenced a tour of Europe, which occupied him several years. This was an advantage which he enjoyed beyond most of the youth of the colonies; and it gave him a superior means of gaining a first hand knowledge of the different countries of Europe. This also gave him a rare opportunity to contrast the industry and simplicity of his countrymen with the indolence and luxury, the pride and haughtiness, so prevalent on the old continent. At length, satisfied with the observations he had made of the men and manners abroad, he returned, with anticipation and pleasure, to his native country, where he devoted himself, with great zeal for a man of fortune, to the labors of the practice of law.
Heyward was among the earliest in South Carolina who resisted the oppressive measures of the Home Government, and from the passage of the Stamp Act, to the battle of Lexington, he promoted the patriot cause, ever repudiating the degrading terms of conciliation – absolute submission – which the British Government demanded. The openness and manly frankness, with which he espoused the patriot cause, made him a leader in the revolutionary movements in that Province. He was placed in the first General Assembly that organized after the abdication of the colonial governor, and he was appointed a member of the first “Committee of Safety” there.
At age 29, he was elected to fill the vacancy of John Rutledge as Delegate to the Second Continental Congress in early 1776, in time to enter upon the lengthy discussion of American independence. He warmly supported Richard Henry Lee’s motion for absolution from British rule, and, much to his royalist father’s displeasure, Thomas joyfully voted for independence on July 4, and signed the famous parchment along with the other South Carolina delegates on August 2, a few days after his 30th birthday. His father admonished him, and said that the British likely would hang him for this act. Happily for the family relationship, Heyward blood was thicker than politics, and the two men reconciled and were close as father-son before the father’s death the next year.
Thomas left political life upon his father’s death to come home and help with the family plantations, but he was a signer of the American Articles of Confederation on behalf of South Carolina on July 9, 1778. He also had a home in Charleston, where he accepted a judgeship of the criminal courts of the new government. Here 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, and which served to render the Judge most obnoxious to the British,
Heyward, like his fellow signer, Edward Rutledge, accepted a commission in the South Carolina Militia, and served as a Captain of Artillery. He received a gunshot wound in the 1779 battle where General Moultrie defeated the British at Beaufort, and this scarred him for life. During the siege and capture of the City of Charleston by General Clinton and the British forces in 1780, Judge Heyward had command of a battalion and was seized as a prisoner of war for being a leader of the revolution. He, Rutledge and several others were taken to the British fort at St. Augustine, Florida, and held to the end of the war in 1781. During his imprisonment, he wrote a parody on God Save the King, the British national anthem, of patriotic verses which became known as God Save the Thirteen States, a rendition that soon echoed from Georgia to New Hampshire! Also during this time he suffered greatly in respect to his property; the British injured his plantations and a band of marauders, his slaves seized and carried away, some of which were afterwards recovered. At war’s end, Judge Heyward and some fellow prisoners were transported by ship to Philadelphia, and he narrowly escaped death en route, from an accident where he fell overboard, but survived by holding onto the ship’s rudder until assisted. After the war, he returned to Charleston, served as Associate Law Judge for South Carolina, and served South Carolina again as a delegate to adopt the State Constitution in 1790. Heyward turned his attentions to agriculture and worked to restore the family plantations. He was one of the founders of the South Carolina Agricultural Society, and in 1785 became its first President. In 1799, he withdrew entirely from public life.
The Heyward family was one of only a few of our colonial families to whom a patent for Arms was issued directly. This patent, dated December 1, 1768, from the Heralds College, London, (Grants XI, 326) was issued to Thomas Heyward, Jr., while a student at Middle Temple, London. The Arms and Crest were issued to his father, Daniel Heyward.
Judge Heyward was married twice, at age 26 and at age 40, and each wife was named Elizabeth. The first Elizabeth, daughter of Col. John and Sarah Gibbes Matthews, born 1753, and whose brother, John, was Governor of South Carolina, 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 there in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church yard. They had six children, but only one son, Daniel, survived childhood. The second Elizabeth, 1769-1833, daughter of Col. Thomas and Mary Elliott Savage of Charleston, S.C., had three children to live to adulthood, Thomas, William and Elizabeth. There are a number of descendants today in the 21st century surviving his four children Notable descendants include Duncan Clinch Heyward, twice elected Governor of South Carolina (1903-07) and 1937 published author of “Seed of Madagascar”, which relates the story of his rice-planting family; and Dubose Heyward, whose 1920’s novel and later stage play “Porgy”, portrayed blacks without condescension, and was transformed by George Gershwin into the popular opera “Porgy and Bess”, an American musical masterpiece.
The Signer built a beautiful plantation home, which he called White Hall, and lived also in two different homes in Charleston. When President George Washington made his triumphal tour of the southern states in 1791, the City of Charleston rented the home of Thomas Heyward, Jr., for the use of the President during his week’s visit. That home, at 87 Church Street in the downtown Charleston Historic District, is known today as the Heyward-Washington House. It is owned by the Charleston Museum and is open for public touring, furnished with Heyward family and other period furniture. President Washington also stopped on his way to Savannah to spend a night at White Hall with Judge and Mrs. Heyward, and there was a great party. White Hall was a large and beautiful mansion, overlooking the marshes on Hazzard’s Creek, a tributary of Broad River, which flows to the ocean. This home burned to the ground in the latter 1800’s, no pictures survived of the home, only a few bricks and tabby remain today on the low bluff, along with the grand entrance lane of stately live oaks and moss stretching perhaps a quarter mile to the brick gates at the road.
Thomas Heyward, Jr., died on April 17, 1809, at age 63, and was buried next to his father in the family cemetery at Old House, his father’s property near White Hall on the same marshy creek. This cemetery is now a state-designated historic site on S.C. Route 336 in Jasper County, the entrance to which is identified by a roadside historical marker. The state of South Carolina has also marked his grave with a memorial stone and a bust of the Signer.
Heyward was apparently well regarded by his peers. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Signer from Pennsylvania and a prominent Philadelphia physician and medical teacher, had this to say about him: “he was a firm Republican of good education and most amicable manners. He possessed an elegant political genius, which he sometimes exercised with success upon the various events of the war”.
“Aristocrat” is a word that is not always in good repute. Unworthy aristocracies have many times gone into discard or to the guillotine; but there are certain qualities, which no people may lose without disaster. These are courage and faith and high personal nobility, a sense of obligation to one’s region and to those who labor for one. Such qualities seem to stand as the very autograph of Judge Heyward. The world is poorer that such qualities seem rare today. A reader may be assured that he was among the most estimable of the men who lived in his time, and one of the most firm, honest, intelligent, and fearless, who embarked in the revolution. Happy for America, happy for the cause of freedom, that the God of Heaven raised up such a generation of men at a time when the civil and religious liberties of the country demanded their wisdom, fortitude and patriotism. God bless them and God bless America!
Edited for D.S.D.I.,Inc. by Rieman McNamara, Jr. 2007
- Drawing: Oil, 1976, by Helen Hasell Heyward Loving, after J. Theuss, Independence National Historical Park
- The Signers of the Declaration of Independence, by Robert Ferris and Richard Morris, National Park Service
- Seed of Madagascar, by Duncan Clinch Heyward, UNC Press 1937
- Heyward, by James Barnwell Heyward II, published privately in 1925.
- Heyward Family Papers and Records, Rieman McNamara, Jr., DSDI member
- The Signers of the Declaration of Independence, A Biographical and Genealogical Reference, by Della Gray Barthelmas, McFarland & Co.
- Lives of the Signers of the Declaration, by B. J. Lossing, a reprint of the 1848 edition of Geo F. Cooledge & Bro.
- Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, by the Rev Charles A. Goodrich,William Reed & Co,1856 (Colonial Hall)