Leigh, Sir Egerton
Leigh gave earnest and unquestioned support to the British government’s colonial policies.
Lawyer, jurist, councillor. In 1753, at about the age of twenty, Egerton Leigh immigrated to South Carolina with his father, Peter Leigh (who left his position as high bailiff of Westminster under charges of improper conduct to succeed Charles Pinckney as the colony’s chief justice). With his father’s political connections and a dearth of educated men in the colony, Leigh quickly procured some of the most lucrative and treasured offices in the colony–clerk of the court of common pleas, surveyor general, judge of the vice-admiralty court, judge of the court of chancery, and attorney general–within eight years after arriving in the province. Leigh also served as a justice of the peace, vestryman of St. Philip’s, and assemblyman until his appointment to the Royal Council in 1759. Income from some of these offices, along with a lucrative law practice and marriage to the heiress Martha Bremar on January 15, 1756, made Leigh one of the wealthiest men in South Carolina and vaulted him into membership in the local elite. Through ability, hard work, and an “unblemished reputation,” Leigh cultivated a promising career and demonstrated himself as one of the most able crown servants in South Carolina prior to the Revolutionary War.
But Leigh’s meteoric rise was followed by an even quicker downfall. Openly admitting that “I am a downright Placeman . . . and that I owe more to the Royal Favor, than any merit I possess can justly claim,” Leigh gave earnest and unquestioned support to the British government’s colonial policies. To that end, he was the only member of the Charleston Bar to oppose reopening the courts during the Stamp Act crisis without the offensive stamped paper, an action which endeared him to the crown but severely damaged his local reputation and law practice. While serving as judge of the vice-admiralty court, Leigh aggressively enforced imperial trade regulations in four highly publicized court cases; in doing so, he offended several wealthy merchants, including his friend Henry Laurens, with whom he became involved in an acerbic public imbroglio that further damaged Leigh’s already-declining reputation. Desperate to regain respect in Carolina society, Leigh sailed for England in 1771 in hopes of obtaining a peerage. His pleadings with the king’s advisers earned him a baronetcy but not a peerage. Whatever added esteem Leigh received with this royal benefaction he quickly destroyed in 1772 by entering into a scandalous affair with his wife’s young sister, who became pregnant.
In 1773 Leigh further alienated himself from the local elite by using his authority as president of the Royal Council to convince the other councillors, nearly all foreign-born placemen, not to approve a much-needed tax bill until the Commons House rescinded the £1,500 given to the English polemicist and crown critic John Wilkes in 1769. When fellow councillors William Henry Drayton and his father, John, objected vehemently in the local press to the council’s stonewalling on this important legislation, Leigh ordered the printer Thomas Powell arrested. In response the younger Drayton repeatedly called Leigh a “damn fool” in the council; later Edward Rutledge, Powell’s attorney, denounced Leigh unmercifully in open court. Leigh publicly defended his conduct, but this only reinforced his reputation as an arrogant and obsequious placeman who put loyalty to the crown before the colony’s welfare. A pariah in Carolina society, Leigh left for England, where he made an unsuccessful attempt to gain a post in one of the northern provinces. After the conquest of Charleston in 1780, Leigh returned to South Carolina, where he became a member of the military commandant’s advisory board, the board of police, and an intendant (mayor) of the capital. He recommended to the ministry that it order civil government restored to the conquered province and that, because of his vast political experience there, it appoint him governor. The ministry did neither. Leigh died in Charleston shortly thereafter, on September 15, 1781, from an unknown illness.
Bellot, H. Hale. “The Leighs in South Carolina.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th ser., 6 (1956): 161–87.
Calhoon, Robert M., and Robert M. Weir. “The Scandalous History of Sir Egerton Leigh.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 26 (January 1969): 47–74.
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.
Greene, Jack P., ed. The Nature of Colony Constitutions: Two Pamphlets on the Wilkes Fund Controversy in South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1970.