by Carl Watner
From Issue 128 – 1st Quarter, 2006
At the conclusion of my article on voluntaryism and the American Revolution, I wrote that a consistent voluntaryist would have been inclined to take a position of strict neutrality with respect to both the American and British sides, and would have refused to obey the edicts of either. “One would have to say, ‘A plague on both your houses’.” In his book, PARTISANS AND REDCOATS: THE SOUTHERN CONFLICT THAT TURNED THE TIDE OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION (New York: William Morrow, 2001) Professor Walter Edgar explains that the Revolution in South Carolina represented “nothing less than the first American civil war—when neighbor battled neighbor, Tory fought Rebel, and families were sundered from within.” [Book flap]
Discussing the social and political conditions on the Carolina frontier, Edgar notes that “[a]fter 1771, for all practical purposes, royal government ceased in South Carolina.” [p. xv] A number of extralegal organizations, which originated in the political capitol of the colony, eventually evolved into “the independent government of South Carolina.” However, before that occurred, Edgar points out that the sentiments of the large majority of backcountry inhabitants were simply those of wanting “to be left alone.” [p. 32] “When forced to make a choice [about whether to support the Rebels or the Tories], backcountry folk did, albeit reluctantly in many cases. If they had had their druthers, they would just like to have been left alone.” [p. 30]
Edgar adds that “The public apathy was unsettling. Not many citizens took the trouble to exercise their right to vote. In the fall of 1776, elections for the Second General Assembly (1776-78) were held within a short time after the arrival of the news of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Despite this momentous news… the voter turnout was abysmal. [S.C.] President Rawlins Lowndes bemoaned the fact that some members of the Second General Assembly received only two or three votes; in some districts the only ballot casts were by the local polling officials. … Thus, the important work [undertaken by the Second General Assembly] of creating a permanent state constitution fell to men who could hardly claim to be representing the people. And on a number of occasions when the assembly met, there were not enough representatives present to make up a quorum and conduct business.” [pp. 40-41]
The Second Assembly also passed a law requiring “former royal officials and others of dubious loyalty to swear an oath of allegiance to” the newly created government. This “law was ignored,” and so, too, was another law (passed on March 28,1778) which demanded that “every free male inhabitant of the state to renounce support of the king and Parliament and to swear true allegiance to South Carolina.” Those who refused would be prevented from voting, holding office, suing in the courts, and even owning land, “or practic[ing] his profession. If a man left the state to avoid taking the oath, he would be considered a traitor and executed if he returned to South Carolina. As the deadline approached for registering the oath, government officials discovered to their dismay that the overwhelming majority of the people simply could not be bothered…. The deadline for compliance was extended several times, but not even avowed patriots bothered to take the [test] oath.” [pp. 41-42, emphasis added]
As the fighting progressed in South Carolina, the British took the attitude “that those who are not with us, are against us.” [paraphrase from pp. 123-124] This eventually created a backlash among the country folk who “had just wanted to be left alone to plow their fields and raise their families.” [p. 44] The British imposed their own test oath after their successful invasion of Charleston. British atrocities, ill-treatment of civilians, and the pillage, burning, and confiscation of their homes, barns, and personal property eventually roused the ire of these frontier people. By early 1780 there “was no civil government in South Carolina.” The governor “was in exile in North Carolina,” Charleston had fallen to the British, and only “[a] few military men, such as Francis Marion …,” had escaped to the coastal swamps, [p. 67] “In the absence of established authority, these backcountry soldiers decided to select their own leaders. They could not be concerned about official commissions from the Continental Congress or from Governor Rutledge [in North Carolina]. Their families were threatened and they needed to act….” [p. 68] This led to the formation of guerrilla bands that fought and harassed the British regulars, until the British were forced to retreat after their defeats at King’s Mountain, North Carolina in October 1780, and at Cowpens, South Carolina in January 1781.
Dr. Edgar’s remarks are some evidence that voluntaryist sentiments actually existed at the time of the .American Revolution. Politicians, elected officials, and those who look to government to provide their livelihood, all, naturally support one State or another. However, those who support themselves and their families, and who do not desire to use State aggression to their advantage, would much rather just “be left alone.” When civil war breaks out between two States claiming the same land, at least some of the inhabitants will intuitively exclaim “a plague on both your houses!”