Like many proprietary governors, Robert Johnson struggled to balance proprietary demands with political realities in South Carolina.
Governor. Born in England, Johnson was the son of Sir Nathaniel Johnson and Joanna Overton. Young Johnson spent part of his youth in the Leeward Islands, where his father served as governor from 1686 to 1689. The elder Johnson acquired large landholdings in South Carolina and moved there to develop his property and later served as governor of the province from 1703 until 1709. Due in part to his father’s success, Robert was asked by the Lords Proprietors to become governor in 1717.
Like many proprietary governors, Robert Johnson struggled to balance proprietary demands with political realities in South Carolina. In his opening gubernatorial address, Johnson chided those who had shown “disrespectful behaviour” by appealing to England against the Lords Proprietors. In his first year in office, Johnson lobbied the Commons House of Assembly in support of a proprietary plan to raise land prices. When the assembly balked, Johnson countered by blocking an appointment for the position of powder receiver. He eventually acquiesced but rebuked the assemblymen for not submitting to the Lords Proprietors as their “masters.”
By the summer of 1718, Johnson began to find common ground with provincials and other elected representatives. He sympathized with provincial concerns that the proprietors neglected the colony. This was most evident in the proprietors’ inattention to pirate attacks on the coast. From the time Johnson arrived as governor, sea bandits had periodically taken advantage of Charleston’s well-known vulnerability. With no assistance forthcoming from the proprietors, Johnson took matters into his own hands. In late 1718, Johnson personally led a fleet of vessels against two pirate ships blockading Charleston harbor. By the time the offensive ended, notorious buccaneers such as Stede Bonnet and Richard Worley and over forty of their crew were captured and hanged in Charleston. This resolve virtually ended the pirate menace and went far in endearing Johnson to the Carolinians.
The lack of proprietary protection, however, drove local leaders further toward revolt. Johnson had the unenviable task of trying to squelch growing rebellion against the Lords Proprietors, even though he was principally in agreement with the malcontents. In 1718 Johnson resisted proprietary orders to dissolve the assembly. But in July 1719, he complied with their demands and called for new elections. The new assembly, however, was no more in favor of the status quo than its predecessor. In December they refused to recognize the newly formed council and asked Johnson to support the revolution by being the first royal governor of the colony. Citing “my honor as being Intrusted by their Lordships,” Johnson refused the offer and was replaced by James Moore, Jr.
Back in England by 1724, Johnson spent much time in London seeking a commission for a royal governorship. In 1727 the Carolina proprietors expressed their intention to sell the colony. Johnson, who enjoyed the confidence of both the proprietors and the English government, was a logical choice to negotiate the transaction. In December 1729, largely due to his successful role in this negotiation, the Privy Council approved his appointment as royal governor of South Carolina.
As royal governor Johnson left an indelible mark on South Carolina history. In addition to his role in the development of Georgia as a buffer to Spanish Florida, Johnson implemented his visionary township system of settlement in South Carolina. Approved by royal officials in 1730, Johnson claimed his township plan would enhance colonial defenses against Indian attacks and stabilize the local economy by encouraging poor European Protestants to settle in the Carolina interior. Also, Johnson argued, the ten proposed townships would provide a much-needed racial balance in light of the growing slave population. “Nothing is so much wanted in Carolina,” he said, “as white Inhabitants.” With support from British officials and the assembly, Johnson’s township system was by all standards a resounding success. By 1735 nine townships had been surveyed and hundreds of Irish, Swiss, German, and Welsh settlers had immigrated into six of them.
Possibly Johnson’s greatest overall contribution was his success in restoring social and political harmony during a volatile period in South Carolina’s history. Economic setbacks and political infighting reached a fevered pitch by 1728, as local leaders and factions clashed over their differing views of how best to solve their problems. By the next year, government entered a near state of anarchy. The assembly stopped meeting, taxes went uncollected, and courts were at a standstill. Although much of the tension had subsided by the time Johnson assumed his office in 1730, his leadership maintained a delicate consensus that kept the colony from repeating its tumultuous plight. In cases where the colony’s welfare would be compromised by a strict interpretation of his instructions, Johnson often opted for the spirit over the letter. For example, in November 1731, he used funds earmarked for township development to reduce colonial debts. The act was clearly outside the confines of his authority, but it greatly reduced the public debt without resorting to tax increases that might have crippled the economy. He was also adept at finding common ground between the council and assembly. During his tenure as royal governor Johnson clashed only twice with the assembly, and in neither case was his overall esteem and effectiveness with that body lessened.
The ability to bring opposing factions together both by his visionary agenda of land reform and his willingness to compromise for the greater good made Johnson, as the historian Eugene Sirmans wrote, “the most remarkable politician in the colonial history of South Carolina.” On his death in Charleston on May 3, 1735, the South-Carolina Gazette noted that “the Interest of the Province lay principally at his Heart.” The people of South Carolina knew him simply as the “good Governor Robert Johnson.”
Sherman, Richard P. Robert Johnson: Proprietary & Royal Governor of South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1966.
Sirmans, M. Eugene. Colonial South Carolina: A Political History, 1663–1763. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966. Webber, Mabel L. “Sir Nathaniel Johnson and His Son Robert, Governors of
South Carolina.” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 38 (October 1937): 109–15.