He devoted most of his energy while governor toward the establishment of South Carolina College in Columbia to advance public learning and to help unify the state. Following his term as governor, he again served as warden of Charleston and was one of its representatives in the Senate until 1808, when he again won election as governor.
Governor, jurist, author. Born on June 22, 1766, a son of the revolutionary leader William Henry Drayton and Dorothy Golightly, John Drayton received his early education at the Charleston Grammar School. At age ten he accompanied his father to York, Pennsylvania, where William Henry served as a delegate to the Continental Congress. John Drayton attended Nassau Grammar School in New Jersey until the unexpected death of his father in September 1779 forced his return to South Carolina. A year later his mother died of unknown causes, leaving Drayton an orphan. For several years he lived with various relatives and family friends until deciding to study law in the office of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. In 1788 he was admitted to the Charleston Bar and soon opened a legal practice. Steering him toward the legal profession was his desire to overturn his grandfather John Drayton’s last will and testament, which disinherited his father, William Henry. It galled him that his uncle Charles inherited the patriarch’s magnificent Georgian plantation home Drayton Hall, which he considered to be his father’s and, therefore, his own birthright. Although his suit filed against Charles Drayton in 1793 failed to award him Drayton Hall, John Drayton still received a large financial award, money which allowed him the independence to become active in public affairs.
John Drayton’s interest in civic affairs was encouraged at an early age by his father, who John claimed, “Brought him forward by gradual advances for a knowledge of public affairs; fondly hoping, that one day, he might be useful to his country.” John’s political achievements equaled and perhaps surpassed those of his distinguished father. While still in his twenties and early thirties, John Drayton served as warden of Charleston in 1789, a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1792 to 1798, and lieutenant governor from 1798 to 1800. On the death of Governor Edward Rutledge on January 23, 1800, thirty-three-year-old John Drayton became governor of South Carolina on an interim basis until his election to a full two-year term in December 1800. He devoted most of his energy while governor toward the establishment of South Carolina College in Columbia to advance public learning and to help unify the state. Following his term as governor, he again served as warden of Charleston and was one of its representatives in the Senate until 1808, when he again won election as governor. In 1812 President James Madison appointed him federal judge of the U.S. District Court in South Carolina, a post he held for the remainder of his life.
Although Drayton had a long and illustrious career as a politician and jurist, he is perhaps most remembered for his achievements as a writer and botanist. In 1794 he published his Letters Written during a Tour through the Northern and Eastern States of America, a work which lauded the educational system in Massachusetts as superior to that in South Carolina. He used the findings to justify the need for an institution of higher learning in his state. Even more influential was his 1802 publication, A View of South Carolina, as Respecting Her Natural and Civil Concerns, a work perhaps inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia. In it, Drayton demonstrated both his extensive knowledge of botany and his skill as an artist. The book was translated into several languages and was favorably reviewed throughout Europe. Indeed, the recognition received from A View of South Carolina earned him membership in the Royal Society of Sciences in Germany in 1804. Drayton spent much of the last years of his life compiling and editing his father’s papers, which he published in 1821 in two volumes under the title Memoirs of the American Revolution, from Its Commencement to the Year 1776, Inclusive; As Relating to the State of South Carolina and Occasionally Referring to the States of North Carolina and Georgia. This compilation, which contains a lengthy biographical sketch of William Henry Drayton, is as much a history of the Revolution in South Carolina as it is a lasting tribute to his father’s contributions.
On November 6, 1794, John Drayton married Hester Rose Tidyman, the daughter of Philip Tidyman and Hester Rose. They had seven children before her death in 1816. John Drayton died on November 22, 1822.
Griffin, Dorothy Gail. “The Eighteenth Century Draytons of Drayton Hall.” Ph.D. diss., Emory University, 1985.
Krawczynski, Keith. William Henry Drayton: South Carolina Revolutionary Patriot. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.