He won a seat in the Provincial Congress in January 1775 and soon after sat on all important revolutionary committees. Drayton used his extensive powers to lead raids against the city’s royal post office and armories, thereby obtaining both crucial information regarding the intentions of the British Ministry and arms for the patriot forces.
Revolutionary leader, planter. Drayton was born in September 1742 at Drayton Hall in St. Andrew’s Parish, the son of John Drayton, a wealthy planter and member of the Provincial Council, and Charlotta Bull, daughter of Lieutenant Governor William Bull. At the age of ten William Henry went to England to complete his education, but he returned home at the behest of his father in 1763 before he could finish his degree at Balliol College, Oxford. A year later Drayton married Dorothy Golightly, one of the wealthiest heiresses in the colony. Their union produced four children, of whom only Mary and John survived childhood.
Financially secure and politically well connected, William Henry sought public office. He won a seat in the South Carolina Royal Assembly in 1765 but lost it in the following election because of indifferent service. Nevertheless, Drayton found himself at the center of political affairs. In July 1769 he wrote a polemic in the South-Carolina Gazette opposing the popular extralegal nonimportation association (established in defiance to the recently enacted Townshend Duties) as “a base, illegal decree” designed to “ruin and overthrow our happy constitution.” The letter started a caustic five-month public debate with nonimportation leaders that changed few minds and resulted in Drayton’s being ostracized politically, socially, and economically in South Carolina. In January 1770 he sailed for England, where he hoped his views would find greater acceptance.
In England, Drayton was introduced at court as a supporter of the crown’s prerogative. To further display his loyalty, Drayton published in 1771 The Letters of Freeman, a compilation of his newspaper articles on the nonimportation debate. His allegiance earned him a position on the Provincial Council in Charleston. However, Drayton’s aspiration for additional posts was frustrated when the Ministry appointed Englishmen to numerous offices that Drayton sought for himself. Increasing his frustration was Parliament’s passage in 1774 of the Coercive Acts, measures which convinced Drayton that the “liberty and property of the American [were] at the pleasure of a despotic power.” In August of that year Drayton vented his personal and intellectual frustration with the crown and Parliament in A Letter from Freeman, a pamphlet addressed to the First Continental Congress in which he outlined American rights and proposed a blueprint for the reform of the British Empire that denied Parliament’s jurisdiction over the colonies. Drayton further antagonized crown officers both in London and in Charleston when on his tour of the circuit courts in November 1774 he urged grand jurymen to select “freedom over slavery” and defy British authority. Drayton’s Freeman essay and judicial charges prompted a disappointed William Bull to suspend his nephew from the Provincial Council in early 1775.
However, Drayton’s outspoken views made him one of the most popular Whigs in the colony. He won a seat in the Provincial Congress in January 1775 and soon after sat on all important revolutionary committees. Drayton used his extensive powers to lead raids against the city’s royal post office and armories, thereby obtaining both crucial information regarding the intentions of the British Ministry and arms for the patriot forces. During the summer of 1775, Drayton led a five-man commission on a six-week tour of the backcountry to suppress the large number of Loyalists in the region. In the face of great odds, Drayton managed to procure a treaty of neutrality from Loyalist leaders at a conference in the town of Ninety Six.
Whig leaders in Charleston rewarded Drayton for his achievement by electing him president of the Provincial Congress. In this role he encouraged the creation of a navy, raising and training troops and erecting fortifications. Speaking to the Provincial Congress on February 6, 1776, Drayton became the first prominent Carolinian to openly call for the establishment of a new government and separation from Great Britain. The next month that body drafted a constitution replacing the royal charter. Drayton went on to play a leading role in creating the new state constitution adopted in 1778. In January of that year Drayton also proposed numerous amendments to the recently published Articles of Confederation. Attached to his proposal was an alternative plan of confederation augmenting the power of the individual states and protecting southern interests.
Drayton’s essay on America’s first federal charter perhaps explains his election to the Continental Congress in 1778. A tireless worker, Drayton served on nearly ninety ad hoc and five standing committees during his seventeen months in Congress. As one of America’s most effective polemicists, Drayton focused on opposing British attempts at reconciliation. His last months in Congress, however, were spent in various bitter quarrels in that politically charged body. In his spare time Drayton compiled documents for a history of the Revolution, an undertaking left unfinished when he died of typhus in Philadelphia on September 3, 1779.
Dabney, William M., and Marion Dargan. William Henry Drayton and the American Revolution. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1962.
Drayton, John. Memoirs of the American Revolution as Relating to the State of South Carolina. 2 vols. 1821. Reprint, New York: New York Times, 1969. Gibbes, Robert W. Documentary History of the American Revolution. 3 vols.
1853–1857. Reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1972. Krawczynski, Keith. William Henry Drayton: South Carolina Revolutionary
Patriot. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.