Tempering Zeal with Moderation

Category: The Notebook

Notes of the Life of Henry Middleton, Part Two

In recognition of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Henry Middleton, founder of Middleton Place, the spring edition of the Notebook contained an article on the first forty-five years of his life. In his early years, Henry prioritized himself around a devotion to family, fortune and country, perhaps in that order. Advancement came to all of those priorities in his first four decades but his most significant achievements were yet to come.

After his wife and the mother of all his children, Mary Williams Middleton, died in 1761, Henry married Maria Henrietta Bull, the sister of Acting Governor William Bull II. By then, Henry’s enslaved carpenters and brick makers had completed the North and South Flankers, doubling the residential space for his large family on the banks of the Ashley River. His garden was already well known, as Scottish physician and botanist Alexander Garden referred to it in a 1760 letter as “a fine garden about 12 or 14 miles up the Ashley River.”

Turning his attention from Middleton Place, Henry purchased a large lot on Broad Street near the corner of present day Meeting Street. There, enslaved builders constructed what Charles Fraser called “a fine mansion” to provide a convenient place to stay in town for Henry’s frequent Royal Council meetings or to attend services at the recently completed St. Michael’s Church. Henry, Maria and their children sat in pew 60, while Henry’s brothers Thomas and William reserved pews 61 and 49 respectively. (Since William lived in England by this time, he likely kept pew 49 in case his sons decided to return to Charleston.)

On Christmas Eve, 1763, eldest son Arthur returned to South Carolina after nine years of formal education in England. With five sisters ranging in age from three to thirteen, a ten-year-old brother, and a loving stepmother and father, Arthur’s family reunion was likely similar to another returning planter’s son who described “being kissed and slobbered by all the Masters, Misses, Negroes, Dogs and Cats of your family.”

Soon afterwards, Henry relinquished Middleton Place to his adult son. At age twenty-one, Arthur was ready to start his own family and within less than eight months he married Mary Izard of Cedar Grove located directly across the Ashley River.

Without a country seat, in 1765 Henry purchased The Retreat, a five-hundred acre plantation on the Cooper River near the site of the 20th-century Navy base. It was described as “inferior to few places in the Province on account of its healthful, pleasant situation… [with] acres of pleasure and kitchen gardens.” But with the passing of Henry’s stepmother Sarah Wilkinson Middleton later that same year at age eighty-two, he then had the opportunity to return to The Oaks in Goose Creek. Henry had inherited The Oaks from his father in 1737, but his stepmother had a life tenancy to occupy the country house. Soon Henry made known that he had “thoughts of removing to Goose Creek,” and he advertised The Retreat for sale.

While balancing the needs of family and the management of a large network of plantations, Henry remained an active member of the Governor’s Council throughout the 1760s. His positions were often at odds with his brother-in-law Acting Governor William Bull, because he frequently sided with the interests of his fellow colonials rather than those of King or Parliament. In 1769, when South Carolina established the Non Importation Association to enforce a boycott of British goods, a permanent split developed between Henry and the other members of the Council. The boycott was in response to a series of British taxes, import duties and other restrictions placed on the North American colonies to help pay down the national debt. Henry joined the Association even though he technically represented Royal authority as a member of the Governor’s Council.

One year later Henry resigned his seat after William Wragg, a long-standing political rival, was reappointed to Council. Henry wrote to his brother William that Wragg won favor “by opposing almost every measure that has been thought necessary for the good of the Province in particular and the Colonies in general, which seems to be nowadays the surest way to preferment.” Even though Henry believed “we shall in time have a Council made up of King’s Officers only,” he retired from public service, ending a Middleton presence on the Governor’s Council that stretched back to his Grandfather’s arrival in the young Carolina colony almost a century earlier.

During the early 1770s, while Henry remained secluded from direct involvement with government, he was fully occupied with plantation and family affairs. His second wife, Maria Henrietta, died in 1772, and soon afterwards Henry’s oldest three daughters Sarah, Henrietta, and Hester married in rapid succession, to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Edward Rutledge and Charles Drayton, respectively. The marriages solidified close kinships of neighboring plantations (Drayton Hall) and created the politically powerful Rutledge-Pinckney-Middleton block, including Arthur, that would band together in the Commons House, and beyond, for years to come.

Henry’s retirement from public life would be brief. In 1774, Britain closed the Port of Boston, forced its citizens to quarter British troops in their homes and moved the courts to England. Delegates from around South Carolina gathered in Charleston to consider sending representatives to a General Congress “of the several Colonies of North America” because the acts against Boston were “repugnant to the rights of people.”

Henry Middleton, John Rutledge, Christopher Gadsden, Thomas Lynch and Edward Rutledge were elected to attend the Congress. So, in early August 1774, Henry, his son-in-law and fellow delegate Edward Rutledge, his daughter Henrietta (Mrs. Rutledge), and his son Thomas boarded the Brigantine Charles-Town Packet bound for Philadelphia.

Henry soon began to impress delegates from other colonies. Contemporaries such as John Hancock described him as “of first character and fortune of Carolina.” John Adams and Silas Deane remembered Henry as quiet, modest, and reserved. Perhaps his vast political experience led him to understand the importance of listening, but when it was time to act, Henry did. When a plan was proposed to create a Continental Association to refuse all British imports or exports, Henry and the other South Carolina delegates (except Gadsden) insisted that exceptions must be made for rice and indigo, or the colony would be ruined. Congress passed a compromise to exclude rice from the embargo.

With Congress still in session, President Peyton Randolph was called back to Virginia to take his seat as Speaker of the House of Burgesses. On October 22, his fellow delegates elected Henry as presiding officer. Congress dissolved itself four days later, but it was during this time that a Petition to King George III was approved and sent to Britain. The letter essentially blamed Parliament for creating a “destructive system of colony administration” that caused “distresses, dangers, fears and jealousies that overwhelm your majesty’s dutiful colonists with affliction.” The King responded by sending a Royal Proclamation to General Gage, calling Henry, John Adams, and others, “actual rebels” and demanding that they should be captured, tried and executed.

Henry returned to Congress in 1775, and he was again elected President, but declined to serve due to “the infirmities of age.” The second session of Congress elected George Washington as commander of a Continental Army and produced the Olive Branch Petition which, like the previous plea for reconciliation, only hardened the King’s resolve to bring the Colonies into submission.

Henry’s ongoing physical “infirmities” caused him to ask not to be nominated to return to Congress in 1776. He remained in Charleston, newly married to Lady Mary Mackenzie, and served on South Carolina’s Legislative Council and the Council of Safety. Henry eventually did retire to Goose Creek but his support of South Carolina never stopped. Between April, 1778 and November, 1779, he loaned the Colony £210,000 (Over thirty-six million dollars in today’s currency) for the war and other expenses. He was one of the largest bondholders of South Carolina debt during the period.

Henry was forced back into the political spotlight after the fall of Charleston in 1780. In order to avoid being taken prisoner and to protect his family, he swore the Oath of Allegiance to the King. Other prominent citizens, such as Henry’s son-in-law Charles Drayton, also took the oath, but his son Arthur refused and was taken to St. Augustine as a prisoner of war. Some members of Congress were disappointed and Henry Laurens reacted, stating, “Mr. Middleton, although he has been a President of Congress, loves his rice fields.”
Taking the Loyalty Oath allowed Henry (now aged sixty-three) to have a sense of peace and concentrate on his family. His advice to Arthur, his more radical son, was to “temper zeal with moderation.” Henry lived to see the defeat of Cornwallis, evacuation of Charleston by the British, and the end of the war.

Henry died on June 13, 1784. Only one month before his death, Henry endured the loss of his daughter Sarah, Mrs. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Henry’s lifelong habit of handling family affairs was again apparent, as his will included provision for Sarah’s share of his estate to be given to her husband, the father of his grandchildren. Henry also freed his enslaved servant Caesar and provided £1000 for his care. Henry and Caesar must have had a close relationship, one that we may never fully understand. Caesar spent his life shaving, dressing and attending to all of Henry’s every day needs. He is the only enslaved person Henry is known to have manumitted.

Perhaps Henry’s greatest achievement is not that he served as a President of the Continental Congress, but rather that his large family sacrificed so much for independence. His son and son-in-law signed the Declaration of Independence, and three years after Henry’s death, another son-in-law signed the United States Constitution. Together with his forbears and descendants, the Henry Middleton family is unsurpassed in its contribution to colonial America and the founding of our Country. •

M. Tracey Todd, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer

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