The Extraordinary Story of the Hanging of the Black Man Who Owned Slaves
Mr. Harris, professor of history, University of New Hampshire, is the author of The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah: A Free Black Man's Encounter with Liberty (Yale University Press).The bare bones of the story are simple. A black man, Thomas Jeremiah, was accused in 1775, in Charleston (then, Charles Town), of trying to organize a slave insurrection. He was tried, in a slave court, and hanged. In the bare bones, not such an unusual story, but all the details are unexpected. To begin, Jeremiah was not a slave, but free; not just free, but a substantial slaveowner himself. He may have been the richest man of African descent in British North America. Then, he was put on trial by American patriots who had already seized effective power in South Carolina in the name of liberty, and to prevent the British government from reducing them, they said, to “slavery.” Indeed, the accusation was triggered in part by the arrival of news from Massachusetts that the British government had marched into the countryside and fought with American militia at Lexington and Concord. To be sure, Jeremiah’s execution was contested by a man who believed that the trial – without judge, jury, or attorneys – was a mockery of British traditions of liberty. That man was the royal governor of South Carolina, just arrived in Charleston–the man who symbolized the “enslaving” empire. The layers of irony, then, are rich and complex.
When I first read about Jeremiah in the work of the outstanding scholars of South Carolina’s early history, including Peter H. Wood, Robert M. Weir, and Philip D. Morgan, my initial reaction was an instinctive, “What a story!” In part this was because it embodied the themes I had written about in my career as a historian of the 19th and 20th century South–the deeply intertwined histories of slavery and freedom, race and power. My reaction, though, was really more elemental. The rise of fall of this black man in the era of the Revolution seemed worthy of an opera.
It was only some years later that I decided I might be able to move back a century from my usual research projects to try to write, if not an opera, a book about Thomas Jeremiah. I knew that the sources were scarce and difficult to interpret, but perhaps his story could capture the attention of readers who otherwise pass over monographs on the complex relationships of class, race, and ideology in American history. I began with a trip to Charleston; within minutes of starting to work in the South Carolina Historical Society, I came across a tidbit that had not appeared in any previous account: an advertisement, placed in the South Carolina Gazette, announcing the recovery of a ship’s anchor from the harbor by Thomas Jeremiah, “A FREE NEGRO.” Anticipating more such finds, I determined to write the book, even though, as it turned out, that was pretty much the last undiscovered “fact” about Jeremiah that I would come up with. Carolina’s early records have been savaged and scattered; no tax record existed to tell me how many slaves he owned, no inventory spelled out his wealth after his death, no record of emancipation explained when or how he became free.
But the other characters in the story added layers of complexity I had not anticipated. Henry Laurens, South Carolina patriot, later President of the Continental Congress and member of the Peace Commission in 1782, was a force behind the trial and execution. He had become known throughout the colonies as a critic of the British admiralty courts, because they violated the sacred rights of trial by jury. A hard-working businessman and planter and a pious Christian, Laurens was from time to time troubled about slavery--but only after he had risen to great wealth by selling slaves on commission for British merchants and buying hundreds to work on his own plantations. Lord William Campbell, the royal governor, was the son of the Duke of Argyll. He was born to privilege, but as just the fourth son, could expect neither title nor great wealth. He entered the Royal Navy as an adolescent and, in that meritocracy, worked his way up like other officers, showing, among other things, that he could tie all the proper knots. While commander of a ship on the Charles Town watch in 1763, he had met, wooed, and married Sarah Izard, heiress of one of South Carolina’s greatest fortunes. He was no egalitarian or anti-racist; just before coming to South Carolina as governor, he purchased a slave plantation on the Savannah River. But he did have a vision of the British Empire as a bastion of liberty, and I came to believe that this vision is one of the things that made him a champion of Thomas Jeremiah. It was the unfair trial – in a slave court, without a jury or sworn testimony, and with no right appeal – that appalled Campbell. But when he tried to intervene, he was informed that a pardon would prompt the Charles Town patriots to hang Thomas Jeremiah on Meeting Street, in front of the governor’s house.
It was only in following out the threads of the arguments about trials, well along in my research, that the story of Thomas Jeremiah began, for me, to intersect with another one. As I thought about Jeremiah waiting in the Charles Town Work House for his trial and, then, his hanging, I thought also of Guantanamo, another prison filled with people swept up in a Great Fear, where questions of individual guilt or innocence had taken a back seat to an overriding determination to protect the people’s safety. But this was personal story, too, because my wife’s sister, Laura Rockefeller, was at the top of the North Tower of the World Trade Center that day, murdered along with the other thousands. The parallel made me a bit more understanding of the panic of Charles Town’s whites in 1775, but at the same time still less accepting of the rank injustices perpetrated by our own government’s response to September 11. As I finished up, I decided to dedicate the book to Laura’s memory. Thus I felt, after having turned to a subject in an earlier century, that I was also writing about something as contemporary as today’s headlines. Following a distant story, I had, unexpectedly, been led back home.
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