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The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah

The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah: A Free Black Man's Encounter with Liberty

J. William Harris
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah
    Book Description:

    The tragic untold story of how a nation struggling for its freedom denied it to one of its own.

    In 1775, Thomas Jeremiah was one of fewer than five hundred "Free Negros" in South Carolina and, with an estimated worth of £1,000 (about $200,000 in today's dollars), possibly the richest person of African descent in British North America. A slaveowner himself, Jeremiah was falsely accused by whites-who resented his success as a Charleston harbor pilot-of sowing insurrection among slaves at the behest of the British.

    Chief among the accusers was Henry Laurens, Charleston's leading patriot, a slaveowner and former slave trader, who would later become the president of the Continental Congress. On the other side was Lord William Campbell, royal governor of the colony, who passionately believed that the accusation was unjust and tried to save Jeremiah's life but failed. Though a free man, Jeremiah was tried in a slave court and sentenced to death. In August 1775, he was hanged and his body burned.

    J. William Harris tells Jeremiah's story in full for the first time, illuminating the contradiction between a nation that would be born in a struggle for freedom and yet deny it-often violently-to others.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15569-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-ix)
  4. [Illustrations]
    (pp. x-xii)
  5. Prologue: Trials
    (pp. 1-4)

    ON THE MORNING OF August 18, 1775, a cart was hauled from the Charles Town, South Carolina, Work House on Magazine Street to the execution place on the workhouse green. On the cart was a black man, Thomas Jeremiah, known around the city as “Jerry the pilot.” He had been convicted just a week earlier of conspiring to foment a slave insurrection. The green was a good place for hangings, with room for the crowds that came to witness them. On this day the witnesses undoubtedly included many slaves, from the city and from nearby plantations, since a principal point...

  6. Part I: Liberty and Slavery

    • CHAPTER ONE “Slavery may truly be said to be the peculiar curse of this land”
      (pp. 7-38)

      CHARLES TOWN WAS NOT a big place in 1775, but it was the fourth largest in Britain’s North American colonies, and its whites, a little fewer than half of its twelve thousand or so residents, were the richest on the continent. Renowned for its wealth and refinement, the city impressed many a visitor. For those who arrived by ship, their first sight was the tip of the steeple on St. Michael’s, soaring 186 feet, the landmark captains looked for when they arrived off the bar that protected the harbor. There they anchored, staying well away from the outermost shoals, and...

    • CHAPTER TWO “Those natural and inherent rights that we all feel, and know, as men”
      (pp. 39-62)

      WHEN THE CHARLES TOWN Library Society printed itsRules and By-Lawsin 1762, an “Advertisement” appeared in its first pages, outlining the society’s goals: a “liberal Education, together with the Use of valuable books,” to make possible the “Advantages, arising to Mankind, from Learning.” Should anyone doubt these advantages, let them compare the state of the Indians of North America, or even the “rude and savage State” of Britain in the days of the Roman Empire, with the “splendid Figure, whichGreat Britain, the Admiration and Envy of the World, at present makes.” Unfortunately, such a “splendid Figure” was not...

    • CHAPTER THREE “God will deliver his own People from Slavery”
      (pp. 63-80)

      HENRY LAURENS, Christopher Gadsden, and Charles Town’s other leading citizens spoke sometimes of “the rights of Englishmen,” and sometimes of “natural rights.” To them, these were the same thing—the former a special case of the latter. When Gadsden had written, during the Stamp Act crisis, of a “broad common ground of those natural and inherent rights that we all feel, and know, as men,” he had added, “and as descendants of Englishmen we have a right to.” What made England (and now Britain) special was the complex of customs, laws, and institutions—the constitution—that had grown up there...

  7. Part II: Liberty’s Trials

    • CHAPTER FOUR “A plan, for instigating the slaves to insurrection”
      (pp. 83-99)

      ON MAY 3, 1775, well-wishers gathered on a Charles Town wharf to see off Christopher Gadsden, Henry Middleton, Thomas Lynch, and the Rutledge brothers, Edward and John, on theLloyd, the Philadelphia packet, heading for the opening of the Second Continental Congress. (Lynch and Edward Rutledge would still be in Philadelphia in July 1776 to sign the Declaration of Independence.) In the two months since the Provincial Congress had appointed them, tensions had escalated, not only between the patriots and the royal government, but also within the patriot ranks. In March, the General Committee of Charles Town divided sharply on...

    • CHAPTER FIVE “The Young King was about to alter the World, & set the Negroes Free”
      (pp. 100-118)

      AS CHARLES TOWN’S patriot elite debated the fate of Thomas Jeremiah, His Majesty’s ShipScorpionarrived outside the Charles Town bar. On board were the new governor of South Carolina, Lord William Campbell, and his family. Some radicals had urged that pilots be forbidden to bring theScorpionpast the bar, but more moderate figures like Henry Laurens prevailed, and on the evening of June 17, 1775, the governor’s ship was guided into the harbor. In its hold were not the thousands of arms for slaves and Indians that Carolinians had feared but elegant furniture, china, and textiles for Lord...

    • CHAPTER SIX “Dark, Hellish plots”
      (pp. 119-135)

      THE AMERICANS’ CONFLICT with the Mother Country showed no signs of abating as the summer progressed, and Henry Laurens feared a “bloody” result. “I do not retreat as danger approaches,” he wrote to his son John, in London, in July. “I only pray that God will enable me in every trial to do my Duty.” He held out hope that King George would “put aside” his bad ministers and that harmony would be restored. Laurens was working intensely throughout the month, meeting daily, including Sundays, with the Council of Safety, and sometimes twice a day. Afterward he composed and copied...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN “Justice is Satisfied!”
      (pp. 136-151)

      ON THE AFTERNOON of August 12, 1775, the day after Thomas Jeremiah’s trial, a rowdy crowd surged through the streets of Charles Town, hauling on a cart the forlorn figure of George Walker, a British gunner at Fort Johnson, naked, tarred, and feathered. According to Arthur Middleton, one of the members of the Council of Safety who favored extreme measures, Walker’s “crime” was “nothing less than damning us all.” Walker gave a rather different version of the events. As he later claimed, he had been on board a ship in the harbor when the captain demanded that he “drink damnation”...

  8. Epilogue
    (pp. 152-161)

    AFTER HIS EXECUTION, Thomas Jeremiah’s name disappeared from the public records of South Carolina. There is no gravesite or memorial tablet. There is no surviving inventory of his property, as usually would have been made for a deceased property owner. Whether this was a deliberate omission or deletion, or simply the result of the destruction of records during the Revolutionary War, is unknown. There is nothing about his wife; we do not know her name or whether she was free or if Jeremiah had purchased her freedom. We know nothing of his children, if any; nothing about his slaves or...

  9. Afterword: Thomas Jeremiah and the Historians
    (pp. 162-166)

    THE REDISCOVERY OF Thomas Jeremiah, his trial, and his execution was part of the broader recovery of African-American history inspired by the Civil Rights Movement. John Donald Duncan devoted several pages to Jeremiah in his 1971 dissertation, but it was a 1978 essay by Peter H. Wood that did the most to bring Jeremiah to the attention of historians: “‘Taking Care of Business’ in Revolutionary South Carolina: Republicanism and the Slave Society.”¹ Since Wood’s essay, other historians of South Carolina have incorporated Jeremiah’s story into their own work. Robert M. Weir added important details about Jeremiah’s life in hisColonial...

  10. Abbreviations Used in the Notes
    (pp. 167-168)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 169-200)
  12. A Note on Sources
    (pp. 201-210)
  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 211-214)
  14. Index
    (pp. 215-223)