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Florida's Odd Role in the Declaration of Independence

July 1, 2012 - 6:00pm

Think Florida has no connection to the Declaration of Independence? Actually, Florida played a large role in the lives of four of the signers, three of whom celebrated the first Independence Day in Florida on July 4, 1781.

While there are some prominent names among the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, most of the men who added their names to that document in the summer of 1776 remain unknown even to history buffs. Certainly some of the names are recognizable -- Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and Sam Adams. But even some of the more important signers remain unknown; few outside of Connecticut have heard of Roger Sherman, for example, even though he was one of the most important of the Founding Fathers.

The names of Button Gwinnett, Arthur Middleton, Thomas Heyward and Edward Rutledge pale in comparison to the likes of some of the founders who did not sign the Declaration, like George Washington and Patrick Henry. But those four signers have a special connection to the Sunshine State -- which would not be part of the United States until 45 years after the long, hot summer of 1776.

One of the most obscure of the signers, Gwinnett, was born in England in 1735 and moved to South Carolina in 1765. While he was intending to work as a merchant in the colonies, Gwinnett joined the planter class and rose up in Georgia politics, eventually becoming a late member of the faction in the colony that wanted independence from Great Britain.

During his tenure in the Continental Congress, Gwinnett voted in favor of independence and signed the Declaration, but after he returned home in the late summer of 1776 he abandoned national politics to focus on those in his fledgling state. Gwinnett hoped to become a general in the new continental army, but the only Georgian chosen for the honor was an old political rival, Lachlan McIntosh. Gwinnett served in the Legislature, rising to the post of speaker and eventually becoming Georgia president.

While Washington led the Continental Army up North, his commanders who led the Department of the South often clashed with state politicians as they argued over who had authority over troops. The problems plagued Major General Charles Lee when he led the department in 1776 and his replacement, Major General Robert Howe of North Carolina, a witty politician who was something of a womanizer, had the same headaches. Howe would even end up fighting a duel with prominent South Carolina political leader Christopher Gadsden over their feud.

Gwinnett found himself ensnared in the same problems -- which weren't helped by his often tyrannical rule as president, accusing political opponents, like Lachlans brother George, of treason to the revolution. When Howe launched an invasion of East Florida in early 1777, Gwinnett ordered the Georgia militia to join the campaign. The invasion bogged down in the marshlands north of the St. Johns River with Continental leaders like Howe and McIntosh angry about Gwinnett not fully cooperating. This failed invasion -- and his harsh leadership -- led to Gwinnetts ouster as president.

When McIntosh returned to Savannah after the botched attack on East Florida, he called out Gwinnett, attacking the politician as a scoundrel and blaming him for the failed campaign. Gwinnett fired back, blaming McIntosh for the East Florida failure. The two men agreed to hold a duel on May 16, 1777, and in the exchange of shots both of them were wounded. While McIntosh recovered from being shot in the leg, Gwinnett was shot in the hip and gangrene set in. Gwinnett passed away on May 19, 1777, less than a year after he signed the Declaration. Gwinnetts allies in Georgia accused McIntosh of murder but he was cleared. Nonetheless, Washington and Howe ordered McIntosh to serve in the North for the rest of the war.

1778 proved just as frustrating for the Department of the South, with Howe being relieved of command after yet another failed invasion of East Florida. Even worse, before Benjamin Lincoln arrived to replace Howe, British forces moved up from St. Augustine to strike Savannah. Vastly outnumbered, Howe could offer little resistance against the British who captured Savannah in December 1778.

While Howe would prove a solid commander under Washington for the rest of the war, Lincoln -- who had taken more than three months after being named to command the Department of the South -- was in over his head. Lincoln led American forces against Savannah in October 1779 but the British repelled the attack. British forces under General Sir Henry Clinton moved up to South Carolina in the spring of 1780 and forced Lincoln to surrender Charleston in May -- the largest British victory of the war with more than 5,000 American troops captured.

Among the captured Americans were three South Carolinians who had signed the Declaration -- Arthur Middleton, Edward Rutledge and Thomas Heyward.

Middleton came from one of the wealthiest families in South Carolina. His father Henry was a wealthy planter and had served a stint as president of the Continental Congress. Educated in Europe, including studying law at the Middle Temple, Arthur Middleton was one of the most cultured signers of the Declaration and a staunch supporter of independence. Only 32 when he signed the Declaration, Middleton was a passionate advocate for the American cause and often pushed for harsh reprisals against Tories.

Edward Rutledge -- the younger brother of John Rutledge, who was a distinguished political leader in his own right -- married Henrietta Middleton, Arthurs younger sister. A distinguished lawyer who was the partner of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, who became one of the leading figures of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Rutledge was elected to the Continental Congress and, at the age of 26, was the youngest man to sign the Declaration. He would leave Congress toward the end of 1776 to take a legislative seat in South Carolina. Rutledge would serve as a captain in the South Carolina forces, taking part in the various attempts to hold off the British forces.

Like Middleton, Thomas Heyward was from a prominent South Carolina family and he studied law at the Middle Temple in England. Only 28 when he signed the Declaration, Heyward would serve in Congress until 1778 when he returned home to take a judicial position. He served in the militia in the defense of Charleston before Lincoln surrendered the city.

The British sent Middleton, Rutledge and Heyward -- along with other former members of Congress like Richard Hutson, who had joined Heyward in signing the Articles of Confederation in 1777, and Christopher Gadsden -- as prisoners to St. Augustine. The 37 political prisoners, all of whom backed American independence, landed in St. Augustine in September 1780 after being confined to British ships in Charleston harbor. Most of them were given permission to walk around the city on parole, though Gadsden -- showing the same spiritedness that led to the duel with Robert Howe -- refused the offer and was held in the Castillo de San Marcos. After Washington ordered the execution of Major John Andre, an aide to Clinton and a spy who had helped lure Benedict Arnold to the British, there were fears that the British would retaliate by executing Gadsden, though they did not.

While the captured Americans were given fresh vegetables and seafood, they were checked in on three times a day, denied most newspapers, refused worship unless they included King George III in their prayers during Church of England services, and given sulfured water.

In early July 1781, the prisoners found they were being exchanged and sent to Philadelphia. What followed was the first -- and one of the most memorable -- Independence Days in Floridas history. The prisoners celebrated their coming freedom and the fifth anniversary of American independence with a banquet with many speeches and toasts followed by singing and a desert set in the shape of an American flag with 13 stars and stripes. Heyward took the tune God Save the King and penned new words to it, and so he and his fellow prisoners sang God Save the 13 States. Americans still use the tune to sing another patriotic song -- America, which is also known by its first line, My Country 'Tis of Thee.

Many of the prisoners returned to economic hardship. The British had plundered Heywards plantation, and Middleton Place had also been sacked. Most of Middletons art collection had been stolen or destroyed.

Middleton passed away in 1787 at the age of 44. His family would continue to flourish in South Carolina and Europe for decades, producing politicians, Confederate generals and, oddly enough, Hitler Youth leader and convicted Nuremberg war criminal Baldur von Schirach, as well as Charles Middleton the actor best known for playing Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s. Middleton lived in Middleton Place which still stands with its lovely gardens just north of Charleston. The signers tomb is at Middleton Place which is open as a museum.

Rutledge would spent the rest of his life in politics back home in South Carolina. He would eventually become governor in 1798 but he died in office in January 1800 at the age of 50 -- with rumors that he passed away of apoplexy after hearing that fellow Federalist George Washington had died. Sadly, Rutledge is best known today through the musical "1776" where he sings Molasses to Rum, defending the slave trade. In fact, there is no evidence that Rutledge led opposition to emancipating slaves during the debates over independence.

Heyward would also return to state politics, serving in the legislative branch in the 1780s while remaining a judge. In 1790, Heyward served in the state Constitutional Convention, and passed away in 1809 at the age of 62.

While none of the four signers of the Declaration of Independence who were impacted by Florida are household names by any means -- though one of the largest counties in Georgia is named after Gwinnett -- all of them faced trials and tribulations for their commitment to American independence.

Reach Kevin Derby at or at (850) 727-0859. Kevin still regrets not being able to finish a paper on Arthur Middleton in grad school, though the replacement paper on Robert Howe -- to whom he was introduced by longtime First Coast Congressman Charles Bennett -- still got him a good grade.

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