Seven Generations of the Drayton Family
From the Colonial Period to Modern Day
Spotlight on William Henry DraytonPerhaps the most influential member of the Drayton family of all, in terms of the history of South Carolina and of the United States, was William Henry Drayton, 1742-1779. The son of John Drayton and the father of Gov. John Drayton, William Henry Drayton played a decisive role in leading both the Carolina colony and the nation toward independence.
Born in 1742 at Drayton Hall, William Henry was the oldest son of John Drayton and his second wife, Charlotta Bull. He lived in England from the time he was nine until he was 21, and while there he studied at Oxford University. His first political writings appeared in the mid 1760s under the name "Freeman," and his most famous early piece was the 1774 pamphlet Letter from Freeman of South Carolina to the Deputies of North American Assembled in the High Court of Congress at Philadelphia. The pamphlet, addressed to the Continental Congress, discussed in detail America's grievances and included a suggested bill of American rights.
Leading South Carolina to IndependenceIn 1775, Drayton was appointed to the South Carolina provincial congress and became its president. As president, he oversaw the formation of South Carolina's first constitution and issued the state's first order to fire on the British when, on November 9, 1775 — almost eight months before the colonies would officially declare their independence — he ordered Colonel William Moultrie to fire from Fort Sullivan on British ships as they tried to enter the harbor.
In fact, William Henry Drayton was one of the first South Carolinians to openly call for a break from England. Speaking before the South Carolina provincial congress in February of 1776, Drayton declared that the British "hand of tyranny" threatened to "spoil America of whatever she held most valuable" and that America needed to decide quickly between "independence or slavery!"
Later appointed first chief justice of South Carolina, Drayton led the colony further along its path to independence with a series of charges to South Carolina's grand juries. According to his famous April 23, 1776 charge, "Under color of law, the king and parliament of Great Britain have made the most arbitrary attempts to enslave America," and "true reconcilement never [could] exist between Great Britain and America." Printed in newspapers throughout the colonies, Drayton's charge was also read by Arthur Middleton, another South Carolina patriot, to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and has been credited with inspiring the delegates to push forward with the Declaration of Independence.
Another achievement of Drayton's was the design of South Carolina's state seal. Drayton designed one side of the state seal, while Arthur Middleton, designed the other. Drayton's side features two trees-an upright palmetto tree over a fallen English oak-representing South Carolina's victory at Fort Sullivan under Colonel William Moultrie on June 24, 1776.
Drayton later played a role in national politics when he was appointed to be a member of the 2nd Continental Congress. While serving in Congress, he distinguished himself not only by serving on five of the eight standing congressional committees, but also by solving a severe supply shortage at the Continental Army's winter camp at Valley Forge.
Unfortunately, Drayton's public service to the state and nation were cut short, when, after serving sixteen months in Congress, he died on September 4, 1779 at just thirty seven years of age. The cause of his death remains unknown. Unfortunately, many of his papers in Philadelphia, including correspondence with family members and his interpretations of the revolution as it unfolded, were burned as they allegedly contained "secrets of state." Because of this, little is known about his private thoughts during those momentous days.
Drayton was buried at Christ Church in Philadelphia in the same cemetery as Benjamin Franklin and other founding fathers. Upon his death a Charleston newspaper wrote: "By his death, the American States have lost one of their principal supporters, and posterity may regret that his fate prevented him from exerting his great talents towards organizing this new world into a great, happy, and flourishing empire."