As a friend of the government, Johnson’s career became embroiled in the hothouse politics of late-seventeenth-century England and his actions rarely escaped suspicions of ulterior motives.
Governor. Born in Durham County, England, Nathaniel Johnson was the son of William Johnson and Margaret Sherwood. He was also the father of Robert Johnson, governor of South Carolina (1717–1719, 1730–1735). Nathaniel became a merchant in the Baltic trade out of Newcastle, representing that city in Parliament. His political views and his service as translator at the sensational murder trial of Count Konigsmark brought him the governorship of the Leeward Islands in 1686. He became a cassique of South Carolina that same year.
As a friend of the government, Johnson’s career became embroiled in the hothouse politics of late-seventeenth-century England and his actions rarely escaped suspicions of ulterior motives. In 1689, when William and Mary came to the English throne, Johnson resigned his post and moved to his Carolina plantation, Silk Hope. Some Leeward Island planters, though, claimed that he had conspired with the governor of Martinique to betray the English colony to the French on behalf of James II, the recently deposed English king.
In Carolina, Maurice Mathews recruited Johnson for the Goose Creek Men, persuading Johnson through blackmail over the Martinique scandal and the Konigsmark trial, as well as their common dislike of the Colleton family. Johnson used his position in the Commons House of Assembly to support attacks against Governor James Colleton and the overthrow of his administration by Seth Sothell in 1690. In the meantime, Silk Hope became the scene of experiments in silk production. Although these attempts failed, Johnson later became one of the first lowcountry planters to successfully cultivate rice, the crop that came to be synonymous with South Carolina.
In 1701 Sir Nathaniel swore obedience to Queen Anne, which enabled him to hold governmental office, while John, Lord Granville, became palatine of South Carolina. Granville belonged to the “High Tory” party that advocated a policy of limiting the political rights of dissenters from the Church of England. His attitude enabled the Goose Creek Men to attack their dissenting enemies who had been attracted to South Carolina by the proprietary policy of religious toleration. Granville’s appointment of Johnson as governor in June 1702 set the stage for this change in proprietary policy. Johnson assumed office in March 1703.
Under Johnson’s auspices, the colony passed two acts in 1704, popularly known as the Exclusion Act and the Church Act. The first permitted only communicants of the Church of England to hold office or serve in the Commons House of Assembly, while the second established the Church of England in South Carolina, set out parishes to institute church authority, and appointed a board of lay overseers with the power to investigate and resolve religious disputes. The acts plunged South Carolina into turmoil. Johnson’s opponents took their case to London where they fired a barrage of pamphlets that warned of threats to English liberty and prosperity presented by the new South Carolina government. They also petitioned the House of Lords and the Privy Council to overturn the laws. With Granville’s enemies controlling the House of Lords, that body threw the legislation out and the crown directed the proprietors to disallow the acts, calling them “arbitrary oppressions.” Undaunted, Johnson and his allies enacted a less rigid Establishment Act in 1706, which formed the basis of South Carolina’s ecclesiastical and local government until 1778.
Johnson also generated outrage through his handling of the Indian trade. The governor’s opponents objected to the continued lack of regulation of this trade, as well as the tendency of Johnson and his friends to derive the most benefit from it. Over Johnson’s opposition, in 1707 the Commons House passed South Carolina’s first act for regulating the Indian trade. However, when Thomas Nairne, the newly appointed Indian agent and vocal opponent of Johnson, attempted to enforce the new regulations, Johnson had him arrested and charged with treason. Nairne eventually gained his liberty, but meaningful regulation of the Indian trade was subsequently doomed.
Even though Johnson led South Carolina’s successful defense against a combined French and Spanish invasion force in 1706, the death of Granville that same year increased the influence of Johnson’s opponents. In 1709 the proprietors named Edward Tynte to replace Johnson with instructions to restore order to the colony’s politics and to bring the Indian trade under control. Meanwhile, Johnson had contracted dysentery. Upon Tynte’s arrival in Charleston, Johnson retired to his plantation, where he died in 1712.
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.