Born in St. Luke’s Parish, South Carolina, now known as Jasper county, a mere 25 miles north of Savannah, on July 28, 1746, Thomas Heyward Jr. was the eldest son of a wealthy plantation owner. Previous generations in the affluent Heyward family had been successful indigo and cotton planters, but the Signer’s father, Daniel Heyward, was the first to grow rice as well, which proved to be highly successful crop in the low country. Due to his adroit business skills, the elder Heyward was able to acquire thousands of acres of land stretching from the Combahee River south toward Beaufort and Savannah.
As a staunch Royalist, devoted to the British crown, Daniel Heyward sent Thomas to study law at Middle Temple in London in an effort to impress the value of an intellectual education and also to influence loyalist views upon his son. However, the trip to England had the opposite effect on the young man. While studying abroad, Heyward experienced directly the prevailing prejudice towards the British colonists, including blatant injustices involving the rights and privileges neglectfully disregarded. The exposure to the overtly condescending and discriminatory temperament of the British towards the Americans forever severed any emotional attachment to the mother land. In fact, his observations in Europe only spurred Heyward on more towards the patriotic cause.
But before he returned to the colonies, Heyward embarked on an extensive tour of Europe, which lasted several years. While traveling, he gained a comprehensive knowledge into different governments and cultures, which heavily influenced him in the founding of the new colonies. Once he was content with his observations, he returned to South Carolina and began to practice law. Soon after, he married Elizabeth Matthews and together they had five children.
In 1775, he was elected to serve as a delegate in the First Continental Congress, in addition to serving on the Committee of Safety. Unlike some of his fellow South Carolina delegates, Heyward was not hesitant to vote for independence. Much to his father’s chagrin, Heyward strongly supported separation from the mother country and encouraged other delegates to vote similarly. Shortly after his thirtieth birthday, Thomas Heyward Jr. made the indelible decision to affix his name to the Declaration of Independence. Outraged by his son’s rebellious action, Daniel Heyward told Thomas that the British would most likely hang him for his treason.
Although they were in political conflict for much of the war, father and son would later reconcile before Daniel’s death. After signing, Heyward was appointed as a judge of the criminal and civil courts of South Carolina. In an effort to make an example out of the Loyalists charged with carrying treasonous correspondence with the British, Heyward ordered the prisoners be hanged in full view of the British militia. Needless to say, this spiteful action did not make him popular with the British forces.
Not only did Heyward serve as a judge, but he also served as captain of the artillery. During the capture of the City of Charleston, Heyward was seized as a prisoner of war for being a leader of the revolution. Along with fellow South Carolina delegates Edward Rutledge and Arthur Middleton, Heyward was taken to the notorious British prison in St. Augustine and held for a number of years. During his imprisonment, he defiantly composed a song, “God Save the States” to be set to the tune of “God Save the King” and taught it to the other prisoners.
While imprisoned, his plantations and slaves were ransacked and seized to a total loss of $50,000. The British had completely destroyed his property and his wealth. To make matters worse, his wife had died in his absence. Although the British contrived to take away all his earthly goods, they were unable to quench his patriotic pride. Heyward’s allegiance to freedom and independence could not be tainted.
At the end of the war, he was released in a prisoner exchange. However, he almost did not survive the trip, as he was on ship destined for Philadelphia, Heyward accidentally fell overboard and managed to sustain himself by clinging onto the ship’s rudder. He continued to serve in public office by being among the few to sign both the Declaration and the Articles of Confederation. He also was elected president of the Agricultural Society of South Carolina, and helped to write the new South Carolina state constitution. Retiring from public life at the age of 45, Heyward remarried and rebuilt his decayed plantation to new success. Enjoying at last the fruit of his labor and sacrifice, Thomas Heyward died quietly on March 6, 1809 on his estate, leaving a legacy of freedom, liberty, and happiness to bestow upon further generations.