Christopher Gadsden was a successful merchant from Charleston, South Carolina. He is important because he was vocal in his opposition to British laws and participated in many key events that shaped the American Revolution, including the Stamp Act Congress, First Continental Congress, Second Continental Congress, and Constitutional Convention.
- Gadsden was born in Charleston, South Carolina on February 16, 1724.
- His father was Thomas Gadsden, who served in the British Royal Navy and then became a customs collector at the Port of Charleston.
- His mother’s name was Elizabeth.
- As a boy, he was sent to England to receive his education.
- In 1733, Gadsden’s father lost his estate to Admiral Lord Anson.
- In 1740, Gadsden returned to Charleston.
- In 1741, both of Gadsden’s parents died, and he inherited their fortune.
- He was married three times and had a total of six children.
- From 1740 to 1745, Gadsen was an apprentice in a counting house in Philadelphia.
- From 1745 to 1746, he served on board the British man-of-war Aldborough as a purser.
- He returned to the colonies and started his own business.
- In 1747, he bought back his father’s estate in Charleston.
- By 1774, he owned four stores, his own small fleet of merchant ships, and two rice plantations.
- He owned a residential district in Charleston called Gadsdenboro.
- He built and owned a Gadsen’s Wharf on the Cooper River, which was one of the largest in all of North America.
- In 1757, he was elected to the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly.
- He was one of the first to appreciate the full measure of the difficulty with Great Britain, and from the outset, he was sympathetic and resolute on the popular side.
- In 1765, he represented South Carolina at the Stamp Act Congress.
- In 1774, he attended the First Continental Congress.
- In 1775, he attended the Second Continental Congress.
- In 1782, he was elected Governor of South Carolina but declined.
- In 1787, he attended the Constitutional Convention.
- He served as captain of a militia company during a 1759 expedition against the Cherokees.
- He criticized British military commanders for taking control of the local militia during the Cherokee War.
- Before the American Revolutionary War began, he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the militia.
Delegate to the Stamp Act Congress
On March 22, 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which required a stamp to be placed on all legal documents and many printed materials in the colonies.
In May, news of the new law reached the colonies. There was immediate opposition, including riots in Boston, Massachusetts, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Savannah, Georgia.
On June 8, 1765, the Massachusetts Assembly sent a circular letter to the legislatures of the other colonies, inviting them to send delegates to a congress in New York to discuss a unified response to the Stamp Act. The precedent for such a meeting had been set by the Albany Congress in 1754.
Nine of the 13 colonies, including South Carolina, chose to send delegates to the meeting, which was held in New York City. Gadsden was elected as a delegate from South Carolina, along with Thomas Lynch, Sr., and John Rutledge.
The Stamp Act Congress convened on October 7, 1765. On October 19, the Stamp Act Congress issued a Declaration of Rights and Grievances. Congress sent petitions to the King and both houses of Parliament and asked for the Stamp Act to be repealed.
Gadsden voted in favor of the Declaration of Rights and Grievances, however, the delegates from South Carolina were not authorized to sign their names to the official documents of the Stamp Act Congress.
On November 1, 1765, the Stamp Act took effect, but there were no stamp masters available to distribute the stamps. They had resigned or refused to perform their job due to violence and intimidation against them.
On March 18, 1766, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, primarily due to protest from British merchants who believed it would damage their prospects of doing business in the colonies. However, on that same day, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, which declared it had the “full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever.”
Charleston Sons of Liberty
- Gadsden was one of the founders and leaders of the Sons of Liberty in Charleston.
First Continental Congress
- In 1774, Parliament passed five laws known collectively as the Coercive Acts. Four of them were intended to punish Boston and Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party and opposition to British policy.
- The Virginia Committee of Correspondence called for another Congress to discuss how the colonies would respond. 12 of the 13 colonies, including South Carolina, chose to send delegates to the meeting.
- Gadsden was elected as a delegate from South Carolina, along with Henry Middleton, Thomas Lynch, Sr., John Rutledge, and Edward Rutledge.
- On October 14, the Congress sent the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress to the King.
- Before adjourning, Congress agreed to meet again in the spring of 1775 if Great Britain had not adequately addressed their complaints.
Second Continental Congress
- On March 30, 1775, Parliament passed the New England Restraining Act, which did not address the concerns of the First Continental Congress, so the Second Continental Congress moved forward. 12 of the 13 colonies, including South Carolina, chose to send delegates to the meeting. Later on, Georgia sent delegates, so all 13 colonies were represented.
- Gadsden was elected as a delegate from South Carolina, along with Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton, Edward Rutledge, and John Rutledge.
- The Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia on May 10. 1775, less than a month after the American Revolutionary War began.
- In early 1776, he left Congress and returned to South Carolina to take command of the South Carolina 1st Regiment of the Continental Army and to serve in the First General Assembly of South Carolina.
- During the Second Continental Congress, Gadsden was part of a committee that was tasked with outfitting the first Marines.
- In December 1775, when the Marines were preparing for their first mission, Gadsden presented a yellow flag to Commodore Esek Hopkins. The flag featured a logo with a coiled rattlesnake on it, with the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.”
- On February 9, 1776, Gadsden presented a copy of the same flag to the South Carolina Congress.
Declaration of Independence
- On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution declaring independence.
- On July 4, 1776, Congress approved the formal Declaration of Independence.
- Gadsden had already returned to South Carolina and was not present to sign the Declaration of Independence.
American Revolutionary War
- When the war broke out he took the field with the rank of Colonel and was actively engaged in the defense of Charleston in 1776.
- On June 28, 1776, Major General Charles Lee wanted the Army to abandon positions outside of Charleston as the British prepared to attack. Rutledge and other officers disagreed with Lee and they agreed to reinforce Sullivan’s Island. Colonel William Moultrie’s men prepared the defenses. A bridge was built that would allow the Americans to escape if necessary. Gadsden paid for the bridge and his regiment built it. The Americans were able to defeat the British at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island.
- On September 16, 1776, the Continental Congress commissioned him a Brigadier General in the state’s Continental Line.
- On August 21, 1777, he resigned his commission due to his disagreements with Brigadier General Robert Howe, who had been given command of all American forces in the Southern Department.
South Carolina Government
- In 1780, he was elected Lieutenant Governor under Governor John Rutledge.
Capitulation of Charleston
- In 1780, British forces, under the command of General Henry Clinton, laid siege to Charleston.
- Governor John Rutledge evacuated and went to North Carolina where he continued to operate the government of South Carolina in exile.
- Gadsden stayed in Charleston and represented the government.
- On May 12, the commander of the Americans, Major General Benjamin Lincoln, surrendered his forces.
- Gadsden surrendered the city to Clinton.
- Gadsden was placed on parole and confined to his home in Charleston.
Imprisonment at Castillo de San Marcos
- When Clinton returned to New York, he left Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis in charge of British forces in Charleston.
- On August 27, 1780. Gadsden and other members of the provincial government were arrested by order of Cornwallis, and taken to Fort Augustine in St. Augustine, Florida.
- Gadsden and the others were offered parole by Patrick Tonyn, the Governor of British East Florida, which gave them the freedom to move about the town. Although some accepted the offer, Gadsden refused on the grounds that the British had already violated his parole. He was held in solitary confinement at Castillo de San Marcos, an old Spanish fort.
- In 1781, Gadsden and the others were released as part of a prisoner exchange. They were taken to Philadelphia.
Return to South Carolina Politics
- In 1782, he was elected Governor but declined due to his age and poor health.
- In 1787, Gadsden represented South Carolina at the Constitutional Convention and voted for ratification.
- Gadsden owned rice plantations that were worked by enslaved people.
- A large percentage of enslaved people that were brought to the colonies came through Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston.
- On August 28, 1805, he fell in his home and died from head injuries.
- He was buried in St. Philip’s Churchyard.
Christopher Gadsden is important because he represented South Carolina in many of the most important political events that shaped the American Revolution, including the Stamp Act Congress, First Continental Congress, Second Continental Congress, and Constitutional Convention. However, like many other Patriots from the southern colonies, his legacy is tarnished due to his involvement in slavery.