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This Day in History: A Signer of the Declaration, in prison

On this day in 1809, a signer of the Declaration of Independence passes away.  The patriotic song “God Save our Thirteen States” is sometimes attributed to Thomas Heyward, Jr.


If he did write it, then he penned the words as he sat in a British prison.

Heyward was born into a prosperous planting family. They grew rice! Not exactly what you would expect at that date and in that location? Heyward’s family was able to afford a good education for him, so he eventually traveled to England to complete his legal education.


Ironically, his time abroad ended up contributing to his support of the Patriot cause.


He noticed (and was apparently irritated by) the fact that British citizens in England did not view the British citizens in America as equals. He was also unimpressed by the opulence and materialism that he viewed abroad and much preferred the more straightforward American work ethic that he remembered from home.


When he finally returned to the states, he dove into local politics. He served in the Provincial Congress, the General Assembly,  the local Council of Safety, and the South Carolina militia. He was elected to the Second Continental Congress, where he voted for independence.


His support of independence did not come without cost. In February 1779, Heyward fought and was wounded in the Battle of Port Royal Island. Undeterred, he returned to the battlefield and was captured in 1780 when Charleston was surrendered to the British. He was subsequently imprisoned at a British prison camp in St. Augustine, Florida. While there, he may have penned the words to “God Save the Thirteen States.” As the story goes, Heyward and his fellow prisoners celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence with the song. They stood on bunks and belted out the tune, even as British guards were trying to silence them. The song became popular and was sung throughout the colonies in the years to follow.


The song has been attributed to others as well.


Heyward was finally freed in a prisoner exchange, but he almost didn’t make it home! He was traveling aboard a ship to Philadelphia when he reportedly fell overboard. He survived only because he clung to the rudder until he was rescued.


After the war, Heyward resumed his life as a judge and planter. He served in the state convention that ratified the Constitution, and he was a delegate to the state constitutional convention as well. He passed away in March 1809. He was the last signer from South Carolina then still living.


Another forgotten hero who deserves to be remembered.

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