Legislator, signer of the Declaration of Independence. Middleton was born on June 26, 1742, at Middleton Place on the Ashley River in St. Andrew’s Parish. He was the son of Henry Middleton and Mary Williams. At age twelve, he was sent to England to complete his education, attending Hackney Academy, Westminster School, and St. John’s College (Cambridge) before entering the Middle Temple in London for legal training in 1757. He returned to South Carolina in December 1763. On August 19, 1764, Middleton married the wealthy heiress Mary Izard, daughter of Walter Izard, Jr. The marriage produced nine children.
Possessing financial independence and a civic spirit, Middleton pursued public office. In October 1765 he won a seat in the Commons House of Assembly, where he represented St. Helena’s Parish until May 1768. That year he and his wife left for Europe to spend the next three years traveling throughout the Continent studying literature and the fine arts. When Middleton returned to South Carolina in 1771, he avoided political service to oversee his expanding lowcountry rice plantations and his stable of thoroughbreds. However, as the Anglo-American conflict reached the critical stage in 1775, his strong devotion to American rights motivated him to serve in the assembly and on many revolutionary committees.
Middleton soon emerged as a leader within the extreme faction of the local “patriot party” by organizing and leading raids on the royal armories, raising money for the American cause, planning for the defense of Charleston, encouraging attacks against vocal Loyalists, and proposing the confiscation of property belonging to those who had fled the province. Middleton’s enthusiasm earned him a position on the panel drafting South Carolina’s first constitution in February 1776 and election as a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. There, Middleton, fearful of a British attack on his home state, reluctantly signed the Declaration of Independence. During the next two years Middleton helped frame the Articles of Confederation and desperately tried to get greater military assistance from Congress for the lower South. His failure in this latter goal and the counterproductive dissension in the national assembly encouraged Middleton to return to South Carolina, where he felt he could better serve the American cause.
In March 1778 the General Assembly elected Middleton governor under the state’s new constitution. However, Middleton refused the honor, partly because he objected to the democratic trends of the 1778 charter and partly because he hoped for some reconciliation with Great Britain given the lack of concern demonstrated by Congress for southern military needs. Still, Middleton provided valuable assistance in the General Assembly until the siege of Charleston in 1780, when he joined the state militia to help defend the capital. When the city fell to the British on May 12, Middleton was captured and sent to St. Augustine as a prisoner of war. In July 1781 he was exchanged and returned to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Continental Congress, where he promoted South Carolina’s commercial interests and pushed for the execution of British general Lord Cornwallis.
After his return to South Carolina in 1783, Middleton devoted his energies to repairing his war-ravaged estate. He returned to the General Assembly in 1785 as a representative from St. George’s Dorchester Parish and also served as a trustee of the College of Charleston. Middleton died from an unknown fever on January 1, 1787, and was buried in the family mausoleum at Middleton Place.
Edgar, Walter, and N. Louise Bailey, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives. Vol. 2, The Commons House of Assembly, 1692–1775. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1977.
Horne, Paul A., Jr. “Forgotten Leaders: South Carolina’s Delegation to the Continental Congress, 1774–1789.” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 1988.
Lane, George W. “The Middletons of Eighteenth-Century South Carolina: A Colonial Dynasty, 1678–1787.” Ph.D. diss., Emory University, 1990.