Welcome to the the Office of the President
Willington Academy and the Making of James Louis Petigru: Willington-on-the-Way
July 28, 2007
Looking out at this audience, one can only imagine that individually and collectively, you are serious risk takers. What else could explain why you have shown up to hear a physician deliver a talk about a lawyer who has been dead for nearly a century and a half? Admittedly, it is a rare event for a physician to pay tribute to a member of the bar, dead or alive. While some might suggest that lawyers are easier to admire in the past tense, to the best of my knowledge, there is only circumstantial evidence to that effect. Personally, I subscribe to the opinion expressed by Dick Guindon that “whatever their other contributions to our society, lawyers could be an important source of protein."
Please forgive me for resorting to cheap lawyer jokes so early in my talk. We are, after all, just getting to know each other. Normally, I would reserve lawyer jokes for much later in the talk, when things are getting a little more desperate.
Speaking of desperation, one is inclined to believe that the organizers of this symposium were feeling a little of it when they made their speaker selections. After all, what could possibly qualify me to deliver a tribute to a dead lawyer? Being neither a legal scholar nor a historian, my credentials for the task are, in a word, minimalist. In all likelihood, there are individuals in this audience who have a better working knowledge of the subject than I do. There is some comfort, therefore, in the observation that history buffs generally are well behaved folks. If they heckle at all, they do so very politely.
Polite hecklers or not, your very presence here today establishes that you are willing to take a chance on a talk with uncertain prospects. Of course, there may be other factors involved. There is the distinct possibility, for example, that some of you, particularly the male attendees, may be here primarily to escape weekend chores. In theory, it is also possible that the number of alternative entertainment options in Abbeville this morning is, shall we say, finite. I, for one, prefer to think of Abbeville as a happening place and that you all have declined many other social events in order to be here this morning. At any rate, it would be so kind if you would allow me to indulge in that belief.
So, how is it that I ended up here? The truth of the matter is that I was introduced to our subject by John C. Calhoun. To be clear, Calhoun was a somewhat passive participant, as he was a little indisposed at the time. His role was more along the lines of creating the opportunity for Petigru to come into my life.
It all began two years ago, when I was invited to deliver a Calhoun lecture at Clemson University. Before you get too impressed by that, it should be pointed out that one of the previous speakers in that series was Bobby Bowden, the head football coach at Florida State University. My guess is that delivering a Calhoun lecture may be the only thing that Bobby Bowden and I have in common – at least, Coach Bowden hopes so.
Having never seen a copy of Coach Bowden's address, it is unfair for me to speculate on its contents. Nevertheless, it is difficult to suppress a mental image of him delivering it wearing his game face and his cap, and periodically punctuating his remarks by yelling at the officials. For the record, my remarks were not accompanied by any yelling and I don't recall being penalized for any infractions. One can only wonder what Calhoun would have made of it all.
So, there I was with the hot breath of Bobby Bowden on my neck and Calhoun peering over my shoulder. It was more than a little unnerving. I needed to cut the tension with a little topical humor, so I began the talk with one of my favorite quotes about the Palmetto State: “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum."
As it did here, that quote never fails to get a chuckle from an audience, even though it is about a century and a half old. When you stop to think about it, how many quips from 150 years ago are still remembered today, and if they are remembered, how many of them do people still find to be funny? Not many would be my guess.
Humor that survives across that many generations has to be speaking to something pretty fundamental and enduring about us. What could be more fundamental and enduring about South Carolinians than our mental instability? There is every reason to believe that our tendency toward psychiatric illness results, at least in part, from years of careful in-breeding. I have always thought of South Carolina as the world's largest genetics experiment - but that is a subject for another day. Perhaps Roger Stevenson from the Greenwood Genetics Center can address that topic next year.
Returning to the old joke du jour, and at the risk of dissecting it a little too much, one has to marvel at how much it says about us in so few words. One can clearly identify the not-so-veiled allusion to our pride, our independence, our irrationality and our love of institutions. These same attributes are more definitively documented in the recently published South Carolina Encyclopedia – it just takes more than 1,000 pages to do it there. For those of us with short attention spans, the 15 word summary has a lot of curb appeal.
The flip side of this quote is what it implies about the individual who first uttered it. Without knowing anything more about him, you sense that he has a genuine affection for his people, even if he may not be enthralled with their behavior. He appears to have a full tank of both wit and wisdom, and there is a definite dash of feistiness in him.
Since my talk is about James Louis Petigru, you have probably put two and two together and figured out that he is the humorist in question. On several previous occasions, I had, shall we say, ‘borrowed' his line without giving a second thought to Petigru himself. But for whatever reason, and a case can be made that the ghost of John C. Calhoun was involved, that night would be different. I was determined to learn more about Petigru and how it was that he came to have such insight about his fellow Carolinians. The more that I read about him, the more my curiosity began to give way to admiration – some might even suggest infatuation. In the throes of my passion for the man, I began to wonder why nobody else seemed to pay him much notice.
For example, in his 700 page magnum opus South Carolina: A History, Walter Edgar mentions Petigru exactly three times, always buried in a list of names and not once singled out for his individual achievements. In contrast, John C. Calhoun has more than a dozen pages devoted to his singular life's work. Now, it is not my intent to criticize Walter Edgar – without question he has done more to promote interest in South Carolina's history than any other modern writer. I admire his work and have learned much from reading it.
Neither am I trying to equate Petigru with Calhoun – it would be unfair to both of them to do so. Yet, I do reside in a city over which a bronzed image of Mr. Calhoun towers 80 feet over the common folk who walk or drive beneath him on a street named after him. Where I live, it is hard to ignore Mr. Calhoun, standing as he does so high above the rest of us. In contrast, it was said of Petigru by his former student Joseph Daniel Pope, who rose to become the first dean of the Law School at the University of South Carolina, 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."
Indeed, the admiration for Petigru in his day was wide and deep. Over time, however, his legacy has slipped from our collective memories. Those who know of him today are likely to either work in a rare book room or be legal scholars – not exactly the basis for a rollicking fan club. It cannot be said that such a fate was unexpected. Petigru's friend and professional colleague, George Bryan, predicted as much at the time of Petigru's death. Bryan observed that for a practicing lawyer, even one such as Petigru who was at the head of his profession: “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."
With that in mind, for the past two years, I have taken it upon myself to become James Louis Petigru's press agent. While the man never consented to my services, he definitely warrants greater visibility than he has been receiving lately. To my chagrin, the phone has not been ringing off the hook for speaking engagements about him. All of which helps to explain why I was so surprised and delighted to discover that there was a group actually interested in hearing about Petigru.
While I may be his most ardent admirer alive today, as already suggested, I am actually fairly late to the game. More than a hundred years ago, the previously mentioned Law School Dean enshrined Petigru as “the greatest private citizen that the South has ever produced." That's a pretty heady claim, and while others may take issue with it, the assertion was not unreasonable then, and a pretty good case can be made for it today.
So, where and how did such a remarkable life begin? The answer, appropriately enough, is not far from here. His father's farm, Flat Woods, was located on the Little River near present day Mt. Carmel in northern McCormick County. That's the Mapquest location of his origin. In order to really understand where he came from, however, one needs to consider more than geography. First, he was born on May 10, 1789, two months after the government of the United States started operation under its newly ratified Constitution and just two weeks after George Washington took office as its first President. Petigru was literally born alongside the fledgling nation. Twinned from birth to the United States, the country could be said to be an essential part of his being. It is not difficult to imagine how this might have contributed to his later passion to preserve the Union.
Equally important, Petigru was the first child born into what might be described as a ‘mixed marriage.' His father, William was of Scots-Irish descent and his mother, the former Louise Guy Gibert, was of Huguenot stock. In fact, Louise's father, the Reverend Jean Louis Gibert, was the spiritual and civic leader of the New Bordeaux colony when it was established in 1764 on the Little River. While there was a fairly rapid assimilation of the Huguenots into the much larger surrounding Scots-Irish population, there were cultural and social traditions that survived at least a generation or two.
Young Petigru identified to a greater extent with his maternal influences – no doubt in part a consequence of his father's drinking and gambling that brought the family to the brink of financial disaster. Dr. Freud would have loved the Petigru family – it is an understatement to describe the dynamics as a classic Oedipal Complex. Petigru was a boy of only 11 years when effectively he became the head of his household. It was then that Flat Woods was lost to his father's debts and the family moved to nearby Badwell, the Gibert family farm. While Badwell was then owned by his uncle Joseph, in short order, James was managing the farm. The yoke of responsibility for caring for his family was borne by him from a very young age. These early experiences shaped much of his character, including the lifelong emphasis that he placed on acting responsibly, working tirelessly, and showing compassion for those in need.
A third, and related, aspect of growing up in these parts was that it was still a frontier land at the time. Income was derived principally from farming and it was subject to crop failures, such as those that occurred twice in the five year period leading up to Petigru's birth. Housing was basic - typically a one-room log cabin with a dirt floor – Flat Woods, with two rooms, would have been a Better Homes and Gardens model for the day. Despite considerable population growth, public education was virtually nonexistent. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Upcountry society into which Petigru was born placed high value on hard work, independence and self-sufficiency and that he manifested all of these attributes himself.
One is tempted to speculate on what would have become of Petigru had he grown up under less difficult circumstances. For example, what would he have become if his father was more responsible, or if the family had more resources? It is impossible, of course, to know. Surely, one cannot explain Petigru's subsequent brilliant career entirely on the basis of these early hardships, for there were many other Upcountry boys whose lives started with just as much adversity, yet did not rise to such great heights. As John Gardner once wrote: “For every talent that poverty has stimulated it has blighted a hundred." My guess is that Petigru's success resulted from the combination of his inherent talents with an environment that called them into quick action. This concludes the amateur psychology portion of the talk.
Without question, the great turning point in Petigru's life was his matriculation into the school at Willington at the age of 15. I say that with some reservation here, not wanting to appear to be pandering to this audience. You needn't really take my word for it; however, as Petigru pretty much said it himself towards the end of his life. In a letter to his daughter Caroline, on October 14, 1862, he wrote: “This day my dear Carey, marks an important epoch in my life . . . 58 years ago I was well received into the school at Willington . . . where a Latin grammar, as a substitute for the plough, was placed in my hands."
The school was only 10 miles away from his home at Badwell, but with the family's financial predicament, the distance seemed much further. In fact, it is unlikely that Petigru would have ended up there at all had it not been for the recruitment efforts of Dr. Moses Waddel, the founder and master of the school. Although it may be an apocryphal story, it is said that Dr. Waddel first encountered Petigru at a meeting near Badwell. The boy impressed the Doctor by the organized and articulate manner in which he related a newspaper article. Perhaps that was the 19th century equivalent of a standardized admissions test. At any rate, Waddel wanted the boy at his school and the problem of finances was overcome when his uncle Joseph offered to pay the fees.
By all accounts, Petigru's entry into the school was not an easy one. On the day of his matriculation, Petigru wrote in his diary: “This day I am to go to Willington; with joy and fear I view the vast design." Apparently, much of what he had to fear was the cool reception that he would be given by his fellow students. Even though the school was in his backyard, he was a foreigner in the midst of the other students, many of whom came from wealthy Lowcountry families. He was teased about his modest clothing, and his shyness and awkwardness did not ease the transition.
His relationship with Dr. Waddell also started out on a bit of a shaky note. The master was a firm disciplinarian and on at least one occasion, Petigru felt that he received an unfair punishment at the hands of the master. From his retelling of this story later in life, it was clear that the incident made a lasting impression on Petigru. That Waddel developed great respect for Petigru was evident when he offered the young man a post as an assistant teacher when he graduated from Willington after two years. Petigru declined the offer, and secured Waddel's recommendation to continue his studies at the South Carolina College, which later became the University of South Carolina.
It is equally apparent that Waddel left a very favorable impression on Petigru. When Petigru married a decade later, he chose Reverend Waddel to officiate at the ceremony. Petigru returned regularly to Willington to serve as an examiner of students, and when Waddel died, Petigru delivered one of the eulogies. Late in his own life, Petigru gave an address at the University of Georgia, in which he said the following about Waddel: “It is not without emotion that I reflect that my venerable master long presided over this institution; and my mind delights to recall him as he was in days long past, the example of a conscientious laborer in the cause of truth and education. The civilization of his age and country may be said, in some degree, to be indebted to him, for he carried the lamp of learning to a distance from the crowded seats of men, and exerted an influence in favor of education that was widely felt . . . 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."
I will return to say a bit more about Dr. Waddel and Willington later, but we have left Petigru waiting at the doorstep of the South Carolina College. Again, the patronage of his uncle Joseph was essential, and additional support came from a neighbor, named Collier. Even with these supplemental funds, Petigru had to work as a teacher at the Columbia Academy in order to make ends meet. He had only sufficient money for one meal each day, and he could barely afford his books and clothing – alas, there were no Life or Palmetto Scholarships at the time. In spite of his impoverished circumstances, Petigru finished with first honors in the class of 1809, the fourth to graduate from the College.
Petigru returned to Badwell, but discovered no prospects there other than returning to farm work, and his mother convinced him that he could do the family greater good elsewhere. Petigru went to Beaufort for a teaching position at St. Luke's school and simultaneously read law under the supervision of William Robertson. From the wages that he earned, he repaid the loans for his education, actually repaid it twice as the first mailing was lost. When a new college was started in Beaufort, Petigru joined the faculty and served briefly as interim president. He was not selected for the permanent presidency, however, sealing his decision to complete his legal education rather than to pursue a career in academics.
He was admitted to the Bar in 1812 and began legal practice in the Beaufort district. Business was slow at first, in part because commerce was impeded by the War of 1812. As the war came to an end and business picked up, he was appointed solicitor for the Beaufort District. His improving finances enabled him to send money to tear down the old farmhouse at Badwell and build a new family home there. In so doing, he validated his mother's conviction that he could do more for the family from afar, and he also reconfirmed that in spite of living and working elsewhere, he felt a strong connection to Badwell. Throughout his life, Petigru would go back to the family homestead in order to refresh and renew himself.
When it came to courtship, Petigru was not a smashing success. He pursued two young women unsuccessfully. It is unclear whether he was romantically inept or whether his prospects were viewed as too risky for girls of means. Having struck out twice, his third attempt at bat was more successful, and in 1816, Petigru wed the former Jane Amelia Postell, six years his junior and the beautiful daughter of a successful Lowcountry planter. Their early years together were happy, but considerable strain developed over the course of their lives. It seems that when it came to love, the third time proved not to be a charm for Petigru in the long run.
Meanwhile, his professional life took a quantum leap forward in 1819 when he was offered the opportunity to join James Hamilton as the junior partner in his Charleston law practice. It was a good match because they had complementary interests - Hamilton was looking for the freedom to pursue his political ambitions, whereas Petigru was focused on the practice of law. The well-connected Hamilton held a succession of public offices. He began his political career as the mayor of Charleston, followed by seven years in the U.S. House of Representatives, and ultimately, two years as the Governor of South Carolina.
When Hamilton went to Congress in 1822, Robert Hayne was elected to the United States Senate vacating the office of South Carolina Attorney General. Petigru was elected by the legislature to succeed Hayne as Attorney General. His selection can be credited to his growing reputation as a lawyer, as well as to the clout that was provided by Hamilton's recommendation on his behalf.
During the eight years that Petigru served as Attorney General, he dealt successfully with a wide range of both criminal and civil cases. While it is difficult to discern a clear pattern across these cases, he developed a reputation for standing up against abuses by powerful public officials. He was a friend to the disadvantaged, including on occasion representing the interests of slaves against abusive owners, as well as the rights of freed slaves.
Petigru's professional representation of the interests of current or former slaves raises the interesting question of his personal views on the institution of slavery. The fact that he owned slaves himself would seem to give a pretty clear answer. He first acquired slaves through his marriage to Jane Amelia and he later purchased a rice plantation on the Savannah River, which at its peak had a workforce of 125 slaves. Of his slave ownership, he wrote that: “the only thing to flatter my vanity as a proprietor is the evidence and striking improvement in the moral and physical condition of the negroes since they have been under my administration."
On the issue of abolition, Petigru said 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." It seems noteworthy that he should qualify the statement with the preface “never given the least encouragement to any doubts," rather than declaring without equivocation that he possessed no doubts whatsoever. Admittedly, parsing his remarks a century and a half later may be stretching unreasonably beyond the grave for hidden meaning. Nevertheless, Petigru was a man who chose his words carefully and it is hard to imagine that he would not distinguish between one who does not encourage doubts and one who does not actually have those doubts. Alas, he has remained silent on the question for quite some time now. No matter how much fun it may be to speculate on Petigru's internal conflicts about slavery, his external behavior was not ambiguous in the least. He accepted the legal basis and economic justification for human bondage, and he derived personal gain from it.
If slavery did not exactly try Petigru's soul, the same cannot be said for the political turmoil of the day. The years 1830 through 1833 saw the rise in South Carolina of firebrands, rabble rousers, and hotheads. Well, maybe it's more accurate to say that these folks, who have always been lurking in our genetic pool, swam ashore for awhile then. The Darwinian battle for survival that ensued was to be fought over the principle of nullification. As you may recall, nullification was the brainchild of John C. Calhoun and was conceived in response to protectionist tariffs passed by the federal government. Southerners saw these tariffs as a direct threat to their agriculturally-based economy, since exported crops would become more expensive, and therefore, less competitive in the marketplace. Nullification would have allowed individual states to reject any federal law that it found objectionable, such as the tariffs.
Those who opposed nullification, the so-called Unionists (although they were called many less flattering things) saw it as undermining the authority of the federal government, which was still struggling to hold its self-interested states together. The argument against nullification was perhaps most succinctly stated by Petigru, who passionately opposed it:
“ 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 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 power to execute their own laws, or that without such power a union can exist."
Petigru resigned as Attorney General in 1830 in order to run for the State Senate where he could directly participate in the debate over nullification. He lost in a closely contested election, but politics is a strange business, especially in South Carolina. In a game of musical chairs, House member Hugh Legare, Petigru's close friend and fellow Unionist, was appointed to fill the position of Attorney General vacated by Petigru. Petigru, in turn, ran successfully to fill Legare's open House seat. The music stopped, the seats were changed, but the players remained the same.
Following the passage of additional federal tariffs in 1832, the next election was not so kind to Petigru or to the Unionists more generally. Three out of four members of the newly elected General Assembly were in the nullification camp. Petigru's law partner, then Governor James Hamilton, called for a convention during which an ordinance of nullification was passed, along with a requirement for officers and jurors to take oaths of principal allegiance to the state.
The reaction of the federal government was swift and uncompromising. President Andrew Jackson sent the following message to South Carolina: “Fellow citizens of my native state, let me not only admonish you as the first magistrate of our common country not to incur the penalty of its laws . . . let me tell you, my countrymen, you are deluded by men who are deceived themselves or wish to deceive you." Jackson dispatched troops to Charleston, and the Carolinians now under the leadership of Governor Robert Hayne, responded by garrisoning their own militia. Hayne appointed his predecessor in office, none other than Petigru's law partner James Hamilton, to serve as Brigadier General.
While the guns were being loaded in Charleston, there was not much appetite for conflict elsewhere in the South. A wag in Tennessee is reported to have said that at the call of President Jackson, volunteers in the Saluda mountains could relieve themselves sufficiently to “float the whole nullifying crew of South Carolina into the Atlantic Ocean." One can only surmise that there must have been a lot of full bladders in the hills of Tennessee.
Before the flood waters were released, a compromise was worked out by Henry Clay with Calhoun's endorsement. The legislation authorized a progressive reduction in the tariffs over time. The Carolinians repealed the nullification ordinance and their guns were unloaded. With Petigru arguing against it, the previously enacted test oath was found to be unconstitutional in a two-to-one vote by the State's Court of Appeals. As the hyperventilating subsided, Petigru could see that the regional conflicts would recur. He wrote to his friend Hugh Legare that: “Nullification has done it 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." If only the weather next week could be predicted with the accuracy that Petigru predicted the Civil War almost three decades before the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter.
One of the great ironies of the nullification conflict was that two of its principal antagonists, Petigru and Hamilton, were friends who shared not only a legal practice, but also business interests. Somehow the men were able to sustain their friendship despite the hand-to-hand combat of their political disagreements. If only our leaders today could learn from such examples! There is an even greater irony in the fact that the rabid Nullifer Robert Hayne is buried head-to-toe with Unionist Petigru in Saint Michael's cemetery in Charleston. It is hard to imagine that those two men could be described as resting in peace.
To be sure, the years of the nullification fight and later the Civil War were marked by a surge of testosterone on both sides. Even without the pervasive rants of today's ‘shock jocks' and attack ads, it was an era of political turmoil. As the tide of public opinion in South Carolina turned decidedly toward secession, Petigru's Unionist views isolated him from the vast majority of his fellow Carolinians and indeed from all of his family members, save his daughter Caroline. It kept him from any real chance of securing further elected office. As George Bryan, his friend and colleague pointed out in a memorial address: “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 fellow-men with a fonder affection, and craved their recognition and sympathy with a 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."
It was Petigru's willingness to sacrifice his own personal gain in favor of his principles that elevated him in the esteem of even those who opposed his politics most adamantly. Consider the example of Robert Barnwell Rhett, who studied law under Petigru and later became one of the most ardent advocates for nullification and secession. In a eulogy address, Rhett said of Petigru: “It is only the strong man – strong in conscious rectitude, strong in convictions of truth, strong in the never-failing and eternal vindications of time – who can put aside the temptations of present power." These two political foes could disagree on ideology and yet not become disagreeable with each other. Rhett observed that during all of their “angry public contests and differences of more than thirty years, (Petigru never was) induced to say . . . an unkind word or to do an unkind deed." When cotton prices collapsed in 1837 and Rhett faced financial ruin, Petigru offered to lend him credit even though his own funds were depleted at the time. At Petigru's death, Rhett mourned the loss of “one of the bravest and truest of friends."
For those who seek to find lessons in Petigru's life, there is no better place to start than the observation that it is possible to hold unpopular opinions without becoming an unpopular person. In the words of I. W. Hayne, Attorney General during the Civil War: “All respected his (Petigru's) motives, and admired his boldness and independence, while they lamented what they believed to be his errors of opinion." Petigru's decision to remain in Charleston despite his opposition to the war was seen as an act of loyalty by his fellow Carolinians. He died in Charleston on March 9, 1863, during the height of the siege, yet virtually every Confederate officer in the city, including the commanding general, attended his funeral.
It was not only Petigru's spirit of independence that won the respect of his fellow citizens. A legal colleague, Richard Yeadon, memorialized Petigru saying that: “he 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 of Petigru's legal career was his appointment in 1859, twice renewed, to codify the laws of South Carolina. Of this assignment, Yeadon declared that: “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." It was indeed a massive undertaking and Petigru was 70 years old and in declining health when it began. Old, infirm, and politically isolated, it would have been understandable if Petigru was not chosen for the task, but the respect of his peers trumped all of those concerns.
Petigru's contributions to his community were not limited to his professional pursuits. He was a popular choice for leadership roles in a broad range of charitable, educational and arts organizations. He served as a Trustee to both the South Carolina College and the College of Charleston. Petigru was a founding member and first President of the South Carolina Historical Society. He served as President of the Society for the Relief of Orphans and Widows of the Clergy of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Petigru was a founder of the South Carolina Society for the Advancement of Learning and he was active in the Charleston Literary and Philosophical Society. He served as Vice President of the Saint Cecilia Society and he was a supporter of the New Charleston Theater. Is it any wonder that a man so engaged in the life of his community would have earned the respect and admiration of all its citizens?
Petigru's views on public service were expressed eloquently in an 1848 address to the Charleston Library Society, where he said that: “It is not 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 their country." Measured by such a standard, Petigru was a benefactor of the highest order.
For those of us who know Petigru only through his speeches, letters and the recollections of others, it is still possible to learn from his example. One of the transcendent messages of his life is that moral leadership is not the sole province of those in high office. Robert Coles, in his book Lives of Moral Leadership wrote that: “a range of individuals can bring us up morally, can become part of a nation's moral fiber – a child, an adult, a person in politics, or one quietly trying to get through a seemingly quite ordinary life. Suddenly and surprisingly we can become an example to others – or those others to us; they hand us along, become a source of moral encouragement to us, arouse us and stir us, move us to do things when we might otherwise not be provoked, and they have the will to act in pursuit of purposes we have come to regard as important." Could there be a better summation of the influence that Petigru exercised over his fellow Carolinians?
Removed from the seats of power, Petigru was nevertheless an example to others. In the words of Robert Barnwell Rhett: “Certainly no man has lived in our day who possessed so much moral and so little official authority." Attorney General Hayne echoed that same sentiment when he noted that: “the most distinguishing feature of Mr. Petigru's character was his moral courage." This theme, repeated again and again by Petigru's eulogists, leaves no question that he displayed considerable virtue in his personal, professional and civic life. What were these virtues?
The portrait most often painted of Petigru is of a man who was kind, generous, loyal to family, friends, and country, pursued justice, defended the weak, preserved peace, repaid debts, and obeyed authority. Doubtless, one could add many more attributes to this list, but another one, humility, would have inclined him to prefer an abbreviated inventory. I will not embarrass him further here by listing other virtues. For those of us who wish to learn from his example, however, an obvious question arises: were these characteristics innate or were they cultivated in him?
It is, of course, impossible for us to know the answer for certain. If Petigru ever considered the question himself, he left no record of it. Although it may be stretching the case, I believe that some clues to his opinion may be found in a talk that he delivered not far from here. In 1856, Petigru spoke at the Commencement exercises of Erskine College and said the following: “The schoolmaster is the benefactor of the individual, but he is also the civilizer of mankind . . . The cultivation of the intellect gives power, but that power may be used for evil as well as for good, and education is very defective if it stops short of improving the heart as well as the understanding. However desirable it may be to develop the full force of the intellect, it is of still greater consequence that the moral sentiments should be strengthened and improved."
Is there a coincidence that Petigru spoke these words almost to the day a half century after his graduation from Willington Academy? One cannot help but see the hand of the old master, Reverend Waddel, in the life of his former pupil. In his wonderful book, The Great Doctor Waddel – Pronounced Waddle, Dr. James MacLeod writes that: “Waddel also taught values" and “for the raw frontier boys, the moral emphasis was a refining experience. The transmutation of values requires not just a sermon in class but some sort of primary relationship . . . Given his view of human nature, moral vigilance was necessary, and character building was a must."
The graduates of Willington Academy attested to the role that Dr. Waddel played in cultivating their sense of ethical behavior. Judge and college President A. B. Longstreet, for example, praised Waddel's “sleepless vigilance over morals and conduct." Longstreet saw this intense focus as transformative for Waddel's charges, declaring: “One would suppose the moral reforms hastily produced could not last, but we have living cases to prove they have lasted for fifty-three years, and are still fresh and vigorous."
At the same time, it would be presumptuous to contend that the moral character of James Louis Petigru was shaped entirely, or even primarily, in his two years at Willington. Although Waddel produced an unparalleled honor role of graduates, including United States Cabinet Members, Representatives and Senators, Governors, college presidents, judges, and numerous other leaders, not every graduate was a beacon of virtue. Clearly, Petigru brought to the school a core set of values and characteristics that set him apart, even from those who went on to their own great acclaim.
We shall never know for certain what would have become of Petigru if Dr. Waddel had not come into his life. Petigru might still have become the great moral exemplar of his age even if he had never set foot on the grounds of Willington. We do know, however, that looking back from the waning years of his life, Petigru saw Willington and Reverend Waddel as agents of change. Under their influence, a frontier farm boy was launched on a journey that would help to shape his state and his nation. May he be remembered always as he was memorialized by his former student, David Ramsey, who said: “Even when we are gone, all we loved and honored forgotten, our laws and customs questions of antiquity, his last great defense will still survive. I stand among those who shall see the dawn of another age, in which his recollection will endure as long as gratitude and affection; even afterwards, I know that there is an unfading memory for those whose words, in unison with the sublime harmony of eternal Right, rose above the transient discords of Time."
Thank you very much.