On this date in 1781, South Carolina patriot Isaac Hayne was hanged for breaking his conditional British parole and re-enlisting in the American Revolution.
Though Hayne is not, to us, the most famous revolutionary executed by the British, he might have been considered by his contemporaries as the most prominent individual to go to the scaffold for the cause.
These prisoners were required to swear an oath of allegiance to the crown in exchange for their parole, which Hayne reluctantly agreed to do because his family had been hit with smallpox.
He declared to a friend that,
as they [the British] allow no other alternative than submission, or confinement in the capital, at a distance from my wife and family, at a time when they are in the most pressing need of my presence and support, I must, for the present, yield to the demands of the conquerors. I request you to bear in mind, that previous to my taking this step, I declare that it is contrary to my inclination, and forced on me by hard necessity. I will never bear arms against my country … I do not mean to desert the cause of America.
But as the British southern campaign foundered over the year ahead, the mother country eventually attempted to call him up to do just that: bear arms against his country.
Hayne thought his parole terms protected him from ever having to serve against the colonies, so he simply got back into the fight on the revolutionary side instead. He was captured in that capacity.
The British commander Francis Rawdon handled his relapsed prisoner with uncommon severity, putting him to a drumhead military tribunal with a preordained outcome and refusing the many public pleas for leniency.
The irregular and vengeful nature of these proceedings, and Hayne’s seemingly honorable conduct, raised hackles on both sides of the Atlantic; shortly after hanging Hayne, Rawdon returned to the British Isles to find a good deal of pointed criticism of his behavior. (Parliament quashed any damaging official inquiry, and Lord Rawdon actually extracted an apology from the peer who had the temerity to motion the investigation — an intolerable impeachment on Rawdon’s honor.)
The Hayne incident was widely understood to have been conditioned by British frustration at its failing fortunes in the war. By the time of the execution, the redcoats held nothing of South Carolina save Charleston itself. General Cornwallis had recently marched north from the Palmetto State; in a few weeks’ time, he would surrender his sword and the British cause alike after the decisive British defeat at Yorktown, Virginia.
And though the commandants at Charleston scarcely anticipated that stunning reversal, they had only a few months before suffered the upsetting (but more legally tenable) hanging of the honorable British Major John Andre as a result of the Benedict Arnold affair. British forces were reputedly on the lookout for any opportunity to trade tit for tat.
It was during this exchange of Senatorial disquisitions that Webster delivered one of the noted orations of the antebellum era, the aptly-named Second Reply to Hayne:
I have not allowed myself, Sir, to look beyond the Union, to see what might lie hidden in the dark recess behind. I have not coolly weighed the chances of preserving liberty when the bonds that unite us together shall be broken asunder. I have not accustomed myself to hang over the precipice of disunion, to see whether, with my short sight, I can fathom the depth of the abyss below; nor could I regard him as a safe counselor in the affairs of this government, whose thoughts should be mainly bent on considering, not how the Union may be best preserved, but how tolerable might be the condition of the people when it should be broken up and destroyed. While the Union lasts, we have high, exciting, gratifying prospects spread out before us and our children. Beyond that I seek not to penetrate the veil. God grant that in my day, at least, that curtain may not rise! God grant that on my vision never may be opened what lies behind! When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shine on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union; on States dissevered, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood! Let their last feeble and lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous ensign of the republic, now known and honored throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms and trophies streaming in their original lustre, not a stripe erased or polluted, not a single star obscured, bearing for its motto, no such miserable interrogatory as “What is all this worth?” nor those other words of delusion and folly, “Liberty first and Union afterwards”; but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all it sample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land, and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart, – Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseperable!
When not being rhetorically posterized by New England gasbags, Robert Hayne made time to pen a justification for his famous forebear’s conduct for the Southern Review in 1828 — comparing the British behavior of executing rather than detaining a prisoner who broke parole to the massacre at Jaffa Napoleon notoriously ordered in 1799.
(Actually, Isaac Hayne’s old nemesis Francis Rawdon had only died in 1826; Robert Hayne wrote his piece to confute a vindication of himself that Lord Rawdon — also recognized by his subsequent titles, Earl of Moira and Marquess of Hastings — had authored, decades after the fact, of his conduct in the Hayne matter.)
Though this 37-page slog of Robert Hayne’s is obviously in the public domain by now, it appears it is not yet freely available online. However, it’s the source of the otherwise unattributed quotes in this article.
Part of the Themed Set: The Empire Strikes Back.