“Sothel enters Charles Town,” from an 1890 illustrated history, New York Public Library

It was 330 years ago this fall that the people of North Carolina removed a proprietor governor from office to save our colonial democracy.

“A gentleman of considerable estate,” Seth Sothel seemed a likely prospect to help calm the discord among North Carolina citizens that gave rise to Culpeper’s Rebellion in 1675. But in experience, the would-be “fixer” proved to be one of the most corrupt, contentious and disliked chief executives ever.

Sothel started toward Carolina in 1678 but eventually arrived in Albemarle, the northern part of the Carolina colony, in 1682. He was captured en route by Algerian pirates who enslaved him. Two Englishmen living in Algiers secured his release, but an apparently ungrateful Sothel refused to repay the bond. Thus, the freed captive languished in an English debtor’s prison for some time.

Before arriving in Albemarle, Sothel had purchased his own proprietorship from Henry, earl of Clarendon. Thus, under provisions of the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, Sothel made himself governor. He ignored the other proprietors’ entreating him to govern more equitably and with regard for their collective financial interests; he most certainly ignored the interests of the citizens. Instead, Sothel sought to enrich himself, trading with and protecting pirates, seizing land and enslaved people, accepting bribes and dominating the courts he was required to establish under the Fundamental Constitutions. Sothel ruled with a heavy hand, filling his council with enemies of government. He imprisoned one of his prominent opponents on the pretext of libel, expropriating that leader’s land in reprisal. He jailed another opponent for threatening to blow the whistle on Sothel’s behavior to the other Lords Proprietors.

Responding to the numerous complaints that did make their way to England, the concerned proprietors wrote to Sothel. They demanded an accounting of his official receipts and what happened to the money. Ignoring the requests, Sothel busied himself acquiring copious wealth while lacking any speck of scruples. He cheated a 4,000-acre plantation from the widow of a fellow proprietor, treated legitimate traders as pirates so he could confiscate their goods and forced an orphaned boy to sign over to him a deed for the lad’s inherited land. Everything Gov. Sothel did seemed driven by greed and avarice, which he visited upon the powerful and the helpless in like measure.

Tired of Sothel’s roguery, Albemarle citizens rose up and imprisoned the governor in 1689. After a December trial, the council banished him from the colony for a year and barred him from holding public office. But Sothel would not repent his ways. He simply moved south in the Carolina colony to Charles Town where he continued his malfeasance and misdemeanors.

With the help of the Fundamental Constitutions and men who liked his brash style, Sothel soon took over the governorship of South Carolina. In the fall of 1690, he banished the existing governor and banned four other key officers from holding office. By force, he took control of the official seal and records, imprisoning the secretary duly appointed by the Lords Proprietors. He replaced experienced government appointees and council members with his loyal supporters. In short, Sothel overthrew and remade the South Carolina government.

The Lords Proprietors protested Sothel’s behavior vehemently in writing to him on two occasions. Eventually they sent a new governor after they suspended the Fundamental Constitutions under which Sothel claimed his right as governor. Even then, Sothel contested the new governor for more than a year. But in summer 1693, Sothel disappeared from the official records. He may have visited for a time in Albemarle, but he died in Virginia between late 1693 and early 1694. He left in his broad and destructive wake a legacy of meanspiritedness and egregious behavior.

Seth Sothel’s public life serves as a warning to any democratic society. Democracies can only exist when everyone attends to the accepted law and unrelentingly calls out the bad behavior of those who would do harm to the principles of liberty, equal justice and self-governance.

Regardless of anyone’s disreputable behavior, however, we probably serve ourselves as a society better by asking of them with compassion not “What’s wrong with you?” but rather “What happened to you?” A good deal happened to Seth Sothel that might explain his skewed thinking and his offensive behaviors. We should all want and encourage the recovery and rehabilitation of bad actors in our society. But while they are healing, we just need them to get off the stage so they can concentrate on becoming humane again.

Disappearing also works.

Randell Jones serves as an invited member of the Road Scholars Speakers Bureau sponsored by the NC Humanities Council. He lives in Winston-Salem.

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