A Rebel Among Rebels
South Carolina may be a small state, but it has produced more than its
share of colorful personalities. One of the most distinctive was a
conservative dissenter named James Petigru.
In the three decades
before the Civil War, James Louis Petigru became one of the nations
leading lawyers and jurists, the dean of the South Carolina legal
profession and Charlestons leading exponent of the constitutional
conservatism that placed federal union above state rights.
1861, as most of South Carolina was clamoring for secession and for
civil war, Petigru fought to maintain the Union. He was a rebel among
Born in 1789 on a hardscrabble farm near the upcountry
village of Abbeville, James Louis Petigru was a quiet, studious youth,
notorious for his love of reading, his stutter and his precocious
maturity. Although his family lived on the edge of poverty, relatives
were able to send young James to a boarding academy in the tiny village
of Willington, six miles away.
One student later described
Willington as my notion of what a boys school ought to be. Plain
dressing, plain eating, hard working, close studying, close supervision,
and, when needed, a good whipping the best school in the United
Petigru graduated first in his class at Willington in
1806 and then enrolled at the new South Carolina College in Columbia,
which would become USC. There were then only 80 students at the young
Three years later Petigru again graduated first in his
class and then went on to clerk with a judge in Beaufort. In 1819, the
27-year-old Petigru married Amelia Postell, six years his junior, the
daughter of a successful Beaufort planter. Soon after their first child,
a son, was born, they moved to Charleston, and Petigru joined a
prominent law firm located on St. Michaels Alley.
Petigru was a
large man, tall and big of frame, with a broad forehead and high
cheekbones. Friends commented on his hearty personality. He could be
witty but also hot-tempered. He became a celebrated attorney, renowned
for his command of legal theory and logic.
In 1822 Petigru was
named the states attorney general. He soon emerged as one of the
leading figures in Charleston social life, a member at St. Michaels
Episcopal Church and a prominent participant in civic affairs. A few
years later he was appointed a trustee of South Carolina College and the
College of Charleston.
Meanwhile, national politics began to
excite passions in South Carolina, and Petigru soon became embroiled in
volatile issues and events. In 1828 Congress enacted a new tariff that
Southerners felt discriminated against their region. By 1830 the dispute
over the abominable tariff had divided South Carolina into two
The so-called Nullifiers wanted to call a special state
convention to nullify the federal tariff. Their opponents, the
Unionists, argued that the best interests of the state would be served
by working within the federal system to change the tariff over time. The
dispute divided families, alienated friends and strained business and
Petigru emerged as one of the
Unionist leaders, along with Benjamin Perry of Greenville and Hugh
Legare of Charleston. Petigru believed that nullification was a
revolutionary challenge to legitimate authority, an assault on orderly
government, an abandonment of constitutional principle. But many South
Carolinians had become convinced that their states survival depended on
their willingness to defy federal authority.
1832 was fierce. Both sides hurled insults, and mobs assaulted
candidates. Benjamin Perry killed a Nullifier in a duel. Bribery and
fraud compromised the elections. The results were a landslide for the
Nullifiers they captured 80 percent of the House seats and 75 percent
in the Senate.
Soon thereafter, a special state convention
declared the federal tariff null and void. President Andrew Jackson
surprised his fellow Southerners by threatening South Carolina with
overwhelming federal force if the state did not rescind its
The crisis finally ended in March 1833
when South Carolina rescinded the nullification proclamation, but the
states political landscape was permanently altered. The Nullifiers
determined thereafter to crush their Unionist opponents.
years passed and the sectional crisis deepened, Petigru found himself
increasingly in the minority. The election of Abraham Lincoln in early
November 1860 was the last straw for those worried about Northern
efforts to end slavery. On Dec. 20, South Carolina seceded from the
Petigru was disconsolate. He said that he had seen the
last happy day of his life. He saw in the secession vote an awful
foreboding of what is to come when the passions of the mob are let
loose. His beloved South Carolina, he sighed, was too small to be an
(independent) republic and too large to be an insane asylum.
war erupted, the Petigru family was torn asunder. Petigrus daughter,
Caroline, was the only child who shared her fathers Unionist
sentiments. In June 1861, she and her family left South Carolina for
good. Her father remained in Charleston, isolated and alone.
the months passed, several of his relatives were killed in battle and
his house burned down in a fire that swept through much of the city. He
told a relative that we must not parade our grief. On March 9, 1863,
just two months before his 74th birthday, James Petigru died in
Two days later a long funeral procession made its way
to St. Michaels Church. It was a testimonial to Petigrus stature and
integrity that all of the Confederate military officers in the city
participated in the service, as did the states former governors. The
man who rebelled against rebellion died with his honor intact.