Thomas Sumter's Law: Slavery in the Southern Backcountry During the American Revolution

Justin Stuart Liles, University of South Carolina


This dissertation examines the entrenchment of slavery in the South Carolina backcountry during the era of the American Revolution by focusing on events surrounding Thomas Sumter's Law, a recruiting plan that offered slaves and other Loyalist property, taken by the troops during the campaign, as an enlistment bounty granted to men willing to serve for a period of ten months in the state forces beginning in April, 1781. The idea of offering a slave bounty succeeded as a lure for Revolutionary Era backcountry yeomen. The vast majority of privates recruited by Sumter showed no prior long term service, and individuals traveled from North Carolina and even Virginia to enlist for ten months in the South Carolina State Troops. Thomas Sumter successfully raised a sizable brigade of State Troops by appealing to self interest, but drew these men into a war created and sustained in large part by political and military elite whose stated beliefs in the importance of disinterested public virtue placed Sumter in a precarious position between the ideologically motivated leadership of the rebellion and back country men who manifested a disinterest in such ideology. Although Revolutionary leaders initially approved the slave bounty plan, once they observed that the actions of the State Troops amounted to a serious threat to private property and a catalyst in the increasingly violent civil war their tacit approval devolved into open contempt, and various efforts to contain the perceived radicalism of the plan. Sumter then worked assiduously in the post war period to reshape the memory of the war in his favor, in large part to further his political aspirations.