How old was Thomas Heyward Jr when he signed the Declaration of Independence?

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Thomas Heyward Jr.

Thomas Heyward Jr. (  (July 28, 1746 – March 6, 1809)  was a signer of the Declaration of Independence who came late to the party. He was named for his grandfather. Born to Colonel Daniel Heyward and Ann Heyward, his was a life of luxury prior to his involvement in the cause of independence. Daniel owned thousands of acres, a wealthy planter, and one of the first to invest heavily in rice planting. His mother, Mary, 1727-1761, was the daughter of William and Mary Butler Miles, of the Parish of St. Andrew in Berkeley County, South Carolina. The Heyward family had already been in the colonies for four generations when Thomas was born. Thomas might have let the riches go to his head, but instead proved himself a diligent and hard worker, and an above-average student. He attended the best private local schools in Charleston, South Carolina, and when finished there, spent time studying with a local barrister, Parsons. According to the custom of the rich, he then was admitted to the Middle Temple, Cambridge University, London, in 1765, and on May 25, 1770, he was called to the bar by the Inns of the Court.

Following his education, Thomas went on a grand tour of Europe, visiting with nobility, and learning the European customs and lifestyle. It is perhaps here that Thomas learned to think for himself, disgusted with the privilege of the nobility while so many starved. His father Daniel was a staunch Royalist, a Tory, but Thomas was not impressed with the divine right of kings.

On return to South Carolina, Thomas took up a law practice and gained the respect of his peers. And as Jane Austen says, it is well known that a young man with a fortune must be in want of a wife – Thomas found Elizabeth Matthews, two years younger than himself. Elizabeth was twenty-five when they married – the marriage was short, but happy while it lasted. After ten months of marriage, the couple had a son, Daniel, and eighteen months later, a daughter, Marie.

When John Rutledge was recalled from Congress to defend his home, Thomas was elected to the Continental Congress as his replacement. At first, he humbly pled youth and inexperience, and declined, but was eventually persuaded. He was twenty-nine. He was present for the August 2 signing of the Declaration, as well as at the vote for independence in July.

At home, misfortune followed Thomas. His daughter Marie died at only nine months of age, a month and a half after he signed the Declaration. Four subsequent children died in infancy. Elizabeth traveled to Philadelphia for the birth of the last child, in hopes that attendance by a registered physician would aid the child’s survival. This was a deadly choice – frequently physicians were less scrupulous about cleanliness than midwives. Elizabeth died in Philadelphia shortly after the birth of her son. Thomas placed an ad in the Philadelphia newspaper the same day for a wetnurse, but the child only lived for two months.

By 1778, he returned to Carolina and was appointed a judge. British assaults in South Carolina came in 1776, 1779, and 1780. Heyward, like his fellow signer, Edward Rutledge, accepted a commission in the South Carolina Militia and served as a Captain of Artillery. He received a gunshot wound in the 1779 battle where General Moultrie defeated the British at Beaufort, and this scarred him for life.  In the 1780 assault, Thomas led a battalion of infantry against the British and was captured. As a prisoner of war, and one of the signers, he was treated worse than his fellows. The prisoners were shipped to a Florida prison. His slaves were confiscated – many were shipped to the Jamaican plantations of the British, to die and never return. His house was looted, his crops destroyed. He spent almost three years in prison.

When he was released and put on a ship to Philadelphia, he had the misfortune to hit some bad weather. He was sitting on the deck, on top of a chicken coop, and fell overboard. A tragic end was avoided when he grabbed the rudder of the ship and held on until the crew recovered him.

Back in Carolina, Thomas recovered from grief and married Elizabeth Savage. Elizabeth’s age at marriage is given variously as twenty-eight or thirty-five. Whichever it was, she was a certified spinster at that point and lacked the physical charm of his first wife. The couple produced three children, and all survived childhood, including a long-awaited Thomas Heyward III. One descendant was Dubose Heyward, whose 1920’s novel and later stage play “Porgy”, portrayed blacks without condescension, and was transformed by George Gershwin into the popular opera “Porgy and Bess”, an American musical masterpiece.

Thomas resumed his legal practice and judgeship. He built a beautiful plantation mansion, White Hall following the war, and had two houses in Charleston. Whitehall burned to the ground in the late 1800s, and no photographs survive. Thomas was friendly with George Washington, and when the first president toured the colonies, he stopped with Thomas and Elizabeth for a time, using their house as headquarters – this house is still standing in Charleston, and is known as the Heyward-Washington house.

Tomb and bust of Thomas Heyward Jr.

Thomas Heyward, Jr., died on April 17, 1809, at age 63, and was buried next to his father in the family cemetery at Old House, his father’s property near White Hall on the same marshy creek. This cemetery is now a state-designated historic site on S.C. Route 336 in Jasper County, the entrance to which is identified by a roadside historical marker. The state of South Carolina has also marked his grave with a memorial stone and a bust of the Signer.

2 Responses

  1. Thomas G Heyward Jr

    Not sure where you got the information about Elizabeth Savage Heyward, but she was only 16 when she married 46 year old Thomas, and was described by none other than George Washington as the “Queen of Love and Beauty”.

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