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A Salute to James Louis Petigru - An Address at the Confederate Home

March 10, 2011

What a great honor and privilege it is for me to be invited to address you this evening. In the spirit of true confession, however, I must admit to feeling a bit intimidated by the task. First of all, I am not a historian, and while I have done a little digging in various archives, that hardly qualifies me as someone who can speak with authority on a figure of historical interest.

Equally important is the fact that we are rapidly approaching the sesquicentennial of the dawn of the Civil War. For me to speak in this hallowed location at this particular moment in time about one of the most famous South Carolina Unionists may seem like treason to you. Before anybody takes aim at me, however, please know that I was asked to speak on this topic and I agreed to do so out of a conviction that we can all learn something both about him and from him.

To characterize James Louis Petigru as a forgotten man may be a slight exaggeration, but it is not without some justification. Just consider for a moment the wonderful magnum opus written by Professor Walter Edgar entitled South Carolina: A History. That book, heralded as the first comprehensive history of our state published in the past half century, is 716 pages long. In that entire volume, James Louis Petigru is mentioned just three times, and in each instance, his name appears in a list of other individuals, never once singled out for his personal achievements.

If you think that you will learn a lot more about Petigru from that ever-expanding warehouse of questionable, but often-cited information, Wikipedia, guess again. The entry for Petigru begins with his birth, ends with his death, and stuffs the substance of his life into four short paragraphs.

There is, of course, some serious scholarly work devoted to Petigru. The best of which, in my humble opinion, is the book written by husband and wife historians, William and Jane Pease. Their book, James Louis Petigru: Southern Conservative, Southern Dissenter was published about fifteen years ago, and although out of print, those searching for a copy can easily locate one on the internet.

I was pleased to invite the Peases to Charleston a couple of years ago and they were kind enough to give a talk that was hosted at the Charleston College of Law. I can only imagine that the Peases would shudder to think that a sequel lecture here on Petigru is being delivered by yours truly.

Although I may be a poor substitute for actual Petigru scholars, hopefully by the end of this talk, you will agree with me that Petigru deserves far more scholarly attention.

So, let’s start where it all began. As with many good stories, this one begins with a happy coincidence of timing. Petigru was born May 10, 1789 just two months after the government of the United States began operating under its newly ratified Constitution. Petigru drew his first breaths just two weeks after George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States. If an identity could be framed by the moment of one’s birth, Petigru was in every sense of the expression ‘a son of the United States.’

His father, William, of Scots –Irish descent, fought in the Revolutionary War. His mother, Louise, was not only of Huguenot stock, but the daughter of the Reverend Jean Louis Gibert, the founder and spiritual leader of the New Bordeaux colony. So, Petigru was the product of two distinct cultures and traditions. He was raised in the back woods of the Upstate near what today is still pretty rural McCormick County.

Through the double indemnity of drinking and gambling, William Petigru lost the money and property that he had inherited. When James was only 11 years old, the family was forced to sell their home. His Uncle Joseph Gibert took in the destitute family at Badwell, the Gibert family farm. Still in his pre-teens, James became the manager of the farm - shouldering the responsibility for supporting the family.

With his youth stolen from him, Petigru’s first lessons in life were born out of this hardship. He grew to disdain his father’s irresponsibility, treasure the support provided to him by others, and ultimately rely upon his own industry and talents. It is no surprise, therefore, that he valued hard work, independence and self-sufficiency, and his entire adult life was nothing if not a tribute to these values. Over the years, on occasions too numerous to count, he stepped in to help others in need, whether they were family members, or friends, or virtual strangers.

As was typical of most Upcountry boys of that period, especially those of modest circumstances, Petigru had little formal schooling. That changed, however, when at the age of 15 Petigru was discovered by Reverend Moses Waddel who ran the nearby Willington Academy. With his tuition bill paid by Uncle Joseph, Petigru was enrolled at what was one of the premier preparatory schools in the South. The list of regional and national leaders educated at the Willington Academy reads like a virtual Who’s Who of the day, including numerous Governors, Congressmen, college presidents, ministers, doctors and lawyers.

Reverend Waddel was a strict Calvinist – a firm disciplinarian who cultivated in his young charges a strong moral code. In describing his former mentor, Petigru wrote much later that Waddel was: “Devoted to learning, but still more devoted to virtue – he trained his pupils to place the pride of intellect far below the value of moral responsibility.” Waddel was strict with his pupils, but they responded to his methods, and more importantly, to his devotion to them. Petigru was no exception and he received the ultimate honor from his mentor when Waddel offered him a post as an assistant teacher upon graduation.

It must have been difficult to decline this offer, both because of the personal attachment and for the income that it would have been provided. Nevertheless, Petigru secured Waddel’s recommendation for further study at the newly founded South Carolina College, which later was to become the University of South Carolina. His tuition and fees were paid once again by Uncle Joseph, with the additional help of a neighbor, and further income that James earned as a teacher at the Columbia Academy. Altogether, these resources were barely enough to cover his expenses, and he survived on a single meal each day. What he lacked in material resources, he more than made up for in natural talent and hard work, finishing with first honors in the fourth graduating class.

Petigru was prepared to return to the farm to work, but his mother convinced him that he would be wasting his education if he did so. Instead, Petigru headed east to Beaufort where he took a teaching position. He might have stayed in academics, but when he did not secure the position of president of a local college, he decided to pursue a career in law. As was the custom of the day, he read law under the supervision of a local practitioner, in this case, William Robinson. He was admitted to the Bar in 1812, at the age of 23.

His first few years in practice were a struggle, but business picked up after he was appointed Solicitor for the Beaufort District. Even in these lean years, he repaid his educational debts and also sent money home to help support the family. His fortunes would change in 1819, however, when James Hamilton, a prominent lawyer in Charleston, invited Petigru to join him as a junior partner.

With Petigru on board to run the legal practice, Hamilton was free to pursue his political interests, first as mayor of Charleston, then as a United States representative, and ultimately as Governor. In an interesting game of musical chairs, when Hamilton went to Congress, Robert Hayne was elected to the Senate, vacating his position of Attorney General of South Carolina. The legislature then elected Petigru to succeed Hayne as Attorney General.

Petigru served for eight years as Attorney General and during that time, he developed a reputation for fighting the abuses of power, whether wielded by elected officials or private citizens. He was seen, more often than not, as a friend to the disadvantaged, which included representing slaves against owners who mistreated them. It might be tempting for a present-day Petigru enthusiast to conclude from these legal cases that Petigru was opposed to slavery. The most compelling evidence to the contrary is the fact that he acquired slaves through his marriage, and later operated a plantation with as many as 125 slaves.

On this subject, Petigru wrote that he had “never given the least encouragement to any doubts concerning the propriety and necessity of maintaining the relations that exist between the two races bond and free.” A literal reading of this statement certainly supports the notion that Petigru accepted slavery as a fact of life. It is curious, however, that he would choose to express this belief with the tepid phase “never given the least encouragement to any doubts.” Perhaps he was just employing the rhetorical fashion of the day, but if he truly had no qualms about slavery, why didn’t he just say so in a more definitive way? I have asked him this question many times over the past few years, but for some inexplicable reason, he remains silent on the subject.

When the man wanted to be definitive, he spoke with absolute clarity and conviction. This became evident in the period of 1830-33, with the great debate over the principle of nullification. As you may recall, nullification was proposed by John C. Calhoun in response to a series of protectionist tariffs that had been levied by the federal government. Nullification would have allowed individual states to exempt themselves from any federal law that they found to be unacceptable, including and in particular, tax assessments.

Those who opposed nullification were referred to as Unionists; although it is probably fair to assume that they were called a few other things by the Nullifiers. At any rate, Petigru was one of the leaders of the Unionist movement. In his own words:

“We agree on every side that the tariff should be resisted by all constitutional means. So far there is no difference of opinion; but we are divided as to the character of the means that should be employed, and resistance by nullification is the fatal source of bitterness and discord . . . The theory renders the Constitution a dead letter – and the practical enforcement of the doctrine is the beginning of the Revolution . . . The great end and aim of the Constitution is to preserve the union of the States, and by that means the harmony and prosperity of the country . . . It is monstrous to contend that the framers of the Constitution did not invest the general Government with powers to execute their own laws, or that without such power a union can exist.”

You have to admit, it is pretty clear where the man stood on this issue. It was also clear by his actions – he resigned the position of Attorney General in 1830 so that he could run for the state Senate and participate in the nullification debate. While he lost the race in a very close contest, the game of musical political chairs continued. House member Hugh Legare, Petigru’s close friend and fellow Unionist, was appointed to succeed him as Attorney General, thereby vacating a seat in the state House. Petigru ran for that seat and this time won the office.

The fun was just beginning, however. Additional federal tariffs were passed in 1832, which fueled more passion in the nullification movement. Petigru and most of his fellow Unionists lost their bids for re-election. James Hamilton, still Petigru’s law partner and now Governor, called for a convention in which an ordinance of nullification was passed, and all officers and jurors were required to take an oath of principal allegiance to the State.

As you might imagine, President Andrew Jackson, although a southerner himself, did not take too kindly to the rejection of federal authority. He dispatched troops to Charleston. Not to be outdone, the new Governor of South Carolina, Robert Hayne, assembled a state militia, and guess who was appointed Brigadier General – former Governor and Petigru law partner, James Hamilton.

Fortunately, cool heads prevailed, and Henry Clay worked out a compromise by which the tariffs were gradually reduced, and the Carolinians repealed the nullification ordinance. The oath of allegiance to the state was not repealed, leading to a judicial challenge. In the State’s Court of Appeals, the test oath was overturned on the strength of Petigru’s arguments against it. As satisfying as this victory must have been for Petigru, he could see the hand-writing on the wall, as he wrote to his friend Legare: “Nullification has done its work; it has prepared the minds of men for a separation of the States, and when the question is mooted again it will be distinctly union or disunion.” Bear in mind that this prediction was written a full three decades before the Civil War erupted. It is one of the great tragedies of his day that this prediction turned out to be so accurate.

As persuasive as he was in court, Petigru could not convince his fellow Carolinians that the path to separation would lead them to a precipice from which there was no return. He and his fellow Unionists became a smaller and smaller minority, and that removed any chance of his election to public office. As his good friend George Bryan would later state: “It is a grave error that he (Petigru) was, as has been supposed, indifferent to opinion, and careless of office . . . No one loved his countrymen and fellowmen with a fonder affection, and craved their recognition and sympathy with more passionate longing; no one more than he could feel denial, postponement, exclusion, suppression . . . His own individual greatness sufficed to sustain him. But he suffered; and, suffering, he was willing to suffer in the cause of truth and justice. For them, he was prepared to suffer all things.”

Excluded from public office, Petigru devoted his energies to his legal practice, and in the process, he became the unofficial dean of the Charleston Bar. In the words of one of his legal colleagues, Richard Yeadon, Petigru “stood during his long and brilliant career as a lawyer, at the head of the profession, undoubtedly so in this State; and perhaps, also, both in the Old Union and in the New Southern Confederacy . . . Well do many of us, his contemporaries, remember the numerous triumphs, before court and jury, which at once asserted and crowned his professional pre-eminence.”

The capstone to his legal career was his appointment in 1859 by the General Assembly to codify the laws of South Carolina. Despite the fact that the State was about to declare Secession from the Union, and Petigru was one of the few remaining opposing voices, he still was respected universally for his mastery of the law. Again, quoting Yeadon: “Nothing could prove more decisively his legal pre-eminence than his selection by the State Legislature, notwithstanding his unpopular politics and opinions, to reduce to a code the statute laws of the State; a highly honorable and responsible task, which he barely lived to complete.” He undertook this task at the age of 70 and in declining health, but it became the motivating force for his remaining years.

When the Civil War broke out, Petigru, a fierce opponent of the conflict, remained in Charleston – a decision that was interpreted by his fellow Carolinians as the ultimate expression of his loyalty to them. He died on March 9, 1863, while the city was under siege, and his people in turn expressed their loyalty to him. The city was shut down on the day of his funeral, and every Confederate officer, including the commanding general, came to pay their respects to him.

At a memorial service conducted by the Charleston Bar, Petigru’s friend and colleague, George Bryan, asserted that most lawyers, even those at the head of their profession, do not leave an enduring legacy. In his words: “Though he may be useful, may be honored, may have troops of friends, may live in an atmosphere of gratitude, yet his name scarcely survives the day of his death, and, at best, lives only in the remembrance of the generation he served.” To read contemporary history books, one might reach that conclusion about Petigru. Yet, here we are, a century and a half after he departed this life, talking about the man. What is it that preserves Petigru in the minds of those of us who choose not to forget?

I can speak only for myself, and we established early on that I am not the most objective observer on this topic. For what it is worth, however, let me try to explain my own admiration of Petigru. First and foremost, he stands out as one of the greatest examples in our state’s, and perhaps in our nation’s, history of a person who was guided solely and completely by his principles. What a sharp contrast to our elected officials today who map out their every move by public opinion surveys. For them, re-election is the motivating force. For Petigru, it was inconceivable to compromise his personal beliefs to win the support of voters.

Even those who opposed him respected him for the steadfastness of his convictions, however. Robert Barnwell Rhett, who studied law under Petigru and later became one of the most vocal Nullifers and Secessionists, memorialized Petigru with these words: “Certainly no man has lived in our day who possessed so much moral and so little official authority. “ Rhett went on to say that: “It is only the strong man – strong in conscious rectitude, strong in the convictions of truth, strong in the never-failing and eternal vindications of time – who can put aside the temptations of present power.” These same sentiments were echoed by then Attorney General Hayne when he declared that: “The most distinguishing feature of Mr. Petigru’s character was his moral courage.”

On these grounds alone, Petigru warrants our admiration. What makes him even more unique, however, is the fact that he could adhere so uncompromisingly to these principles without engendering the animosity of those who opposed him. In today’s political climate, civil discourse has been clubbed to death like a baby seal. We live in a time when disagreements on public policy quickly mutate into personal attacks and character assassinations. On the right and on the left, serious policy matters are reduced to sound bites and fear-mongering.

Petigru restores my faith in the idea, perhaps charmingly naïve, that one can disagree without becoming disagreeable. In his eulogy to Petigru, Robert Barnwell Rhett noted that in all of their “angry public contests and differences of more than thirty years, (Petigru never was) induced to say . . . an unkind word or do an unkind deed.” On the contrary, as a measure of their friendship, Rhett cited Petigru’s quiet offer to lend him credit in the aftermath of the cotton price collapse of 1837, in spite of the fact that Petigru himself was facing financial disaster.

It is clear that Petigru was a personal friend to many, but really more to the point, he was a man of the people. Nearly a half century after Petigru’s death, his former pupil and then first dean of the law school at the University of South Carolina, Joseph Daniel Pope, recalled that: “Men and women, old and young, rich and poor, white and black, so loved him (Petigru). He did not stand upon a pedestal so high that humble folk could not touch the hem of his garment.”

Petigru rose from poverty to the highest ranks of the legal profession, but he never forgot his modest beginnings. He also never forgot the helping hands from family and friends that carried him along the way. He repaid debts to these individuals, but perhaps even more importantly, he reached out to help others. His philosophy in this regard is perhaps best captured in his address to the Charleston Library Society in 1848 when he said that: “It is not to the extraordinary services, or to great occasions, that the sum of human happiness belongs. All real improvements must commence in private life, and those who cultivate the moral sentiments of individuals, and within the sphere of their influence, promote humanity . . . are benefactors of the country.”

James Louis Petigru was memorialized by the previously mentioned first law school dean at USC as “the greatest private citizen that the South has ever produced.” That is high praise indeed and nearly a century and a half after his death, we can still find inspiration in his moral compass and his passion to defend what he saw as right.

James Louis Petigru lives today through those who dedicate themselves to justice. His humanity can be seen in those who advocate for fair treatment of all citizens, without regard to station or rank. His generosity can be felt among those who support our civic institutions. His character can be demonstrated by those who engage in civil discourse.

May we reflect together on the attributes that Alfred Huger, fellow Unionist, saw in Petigru: “the highest aspirations as to duty or honor . . . the boldness of his thinking . . . the brightness of his genius . . . the grasp of his intellect . . . the purity of his friendship . . . (and) the unselfishness of his nature.” If the essence of Petigru’s life could be condensed into a few words, perhaps it can be found in Huger’s characterization that Petigru: “Loved to help others . . . and doing good without restraint, he was the living, moving, acting principle of those qualities which carried to his grave the profoundest reverence of the rich, and the heart-stricken lamentations of the poor.”

This evening, those qualities are carried beyond Petigru’s grave in St. Michael’s churchyard. Right now, I see his spirit very much alive among you and it does my heart good. Thank you very much.