Petigru graduated from South Carolina College in 1809. He was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1812. In 1816, he was elected as the solicitor of Abbeville County, South Carolina. He became the Attorney General of South Carolina in 1822. In 1830, after having lost a bid for a seat in the South Carolina Senate, he was elected to fill a vacant seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives. He was the leader of the anti-nullificationists in that body.
He also acted as lead attorney in the case of M'Cready v. Hunt, focusing on test oaths and States Rights, which was brought before the South Carolina Court of Appeals in 1834. The case involved a "test oath" passed by the South Carolina legislature in November 1832, requiring members of the state militia to pledge "faithful and true allegiance" to the State of South Carolina. The law was vague on the underlying and contentious issue of sovereignty, and did not specifically state whether allegiance to the state was superior to allegiance to the federal government. Given tensions of the times, dispute over interpretation of the oath immediately erupted. The "Nullifier" faction asserted that allegiance to the state had precedence over allegiance to the federal government, while "Unionists" asserted that the federal government had primacy over all states.
Eventually, a legal case on the validity of the test oath reached the state Court of Appeals in Columbia. Attorney Robert Barnwell Rhett, of Beaufort, argued for the test oath with the support of state Governor Robert Y. Hayne. In opposition, the Unionist Petigru was joined by business attorney Abram Blanding of Columbia, and Thomas Smith Grimké of Charleston. The June 2nd, 1834 decision from the three judges fell 2 to 1 for the Unionists. "Nullifiers" immediately called for the impeachment of the two jurists. "Nullifier" legislators responded to the decision by calling for a constitutional amendment to legalize the test oath and assert the primacy of allegiance to South Carolina. (Ford, pp. 148–149)
After South Carolina seceded in 1860, Petigru famously remarked, "South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum." This quote is still used to describe contemporary South Carolinian politics. Petigru opposed the Confederacy, although he did not believe that South Carolina would return to the Union.
He had been entrusted, in 1859, with the codification of the laws of South Carolina; he completed the task in December 1862. His code was rejected by the unreconstructed legislature of 1865, but formed the basis for the codification of 1872.
Petigru died in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1863. He is buried in St. Michael's Churchyard.
The Petigrus were an elite family of planters, politicians, businessmen, socialites and artists in 19th-century Charleston, South Carolina. While James Petigru's Unionist leanings made him the most nationally famous of the Petigrus, his extended family includes Governor Robert Allston, novelist Susan Petigru King, and painter Jane Caroline Carson. The Petigrus’ rise towards economic, political and social success, along with their eventual fall from power, speaks to larger issues of class, race, identity and culture in Antebellum Charleston.
The oldest of nine children, James L. Petigru was born in 1789 to William Pettigrew, a rural Scotch-Irish farmer, and Louise Guy Gibert, a French Huguenot descendant from nearby Badwell Plantation at their ethnic settlement of New Bordeaux near McCormick, SC. She was the daughter of its leader, Rev. Jean Louis Gibert. The family lived on a farm in Flatwoods, South Carolina, where William Pettigrew drank, gambled, and managed his agricultural and financial affairs poorly. Louise provided an education for young James, sending him first to Moses Wadel’s nearby academy, and later to study law at South Carolina College, precursor to the University of South Carolina. Because of Charleston’s post-Revolutionary War economic decline, South Carolina College was explicitly designed to train promising young upcountry men to become members of the low country’s (i.e., Charleston’s) elite ruling class. Three years after graduating, Pettigrew completed law studies and was admitted to the state bar in 1812. At this point, James changed his last name from Pettigrew to Petigru to emphasize his Huguenot heritage, an action repeated by each of his younger brothers and sisters. (The name had early French origins, perhaps as petit cru, and was found in various forms in East Anglia, Scotland and northern Ireland.)
Mentored by U.S. Senator Daniel Elliott Huger, Petigru rose quickly through Charleston’s political and social realms, becoming state attorney general in 1822; the same year he took over the law practice of future U.S. Congressman and South Carolina Governor James Hamilton, Jr.. Following his successes, James’ brothers and sisters took extended visits to his home on Broad Street, during which he introduced them to privileged Charleston society and encouraged them to marry above their class. Of James’s eight siblings, four made matches and married James’ friends and business associates.
James Petigru married in 1816 to Jane Amelia Postell, a Southern belle and planter’s daughter. Together they had four children: Albert Porcher, Jane Caroline, Daniel Elliot Huger, and Susan Dupont. Albert died in 1826 at the age of eight, the result of a fall from a third-story bannister in the Petigru home. This tragedy, coupled with the birth of four children over six years and the permanent move of James’s three youngest sisters into their home, served as an emotional breaking point for Jane Amelia. She slowly declined into a life of addiction, seclusion, illness both real and feigned, compulsive spending and erratic behavior. Petigru was away on business about four months of the year and entirely preoccupied with work; he left their children to be raised primarily by his wife and their domestic slaves. As a result, three surviving children suffered from these conditions. As adults they struggled with addiction, financial mismanagement, erratic behavior, and dysfunctional relationships.
The second son and black sheep of the Petigru family, Jack spent thirty years of his adult life in the West, where he drank and gambled, failing at agriculture, much like his father William, who was also alcoholic. In 1854 after the death of his only slave, Jack and his wife Tempe moved back to South Carolina to live with his younger sisters Jane North and Mary Petigru. Tempe came from a poor, rural family. The Petigru sisters provided her with suitable dresses and attempted to present her favorably at private gatherings, but they were generally ashamed of their lower-class sister-in-law.
Jack and Tempe lived on his sister’s plantation for just over fifteen years, until Jack died of a stroke in 1869. Tempe died a year later. They lived longer than Jane, who died of cancer in 1863. Their last years after the Civil War were spent enfeebled, incontinent, and isolated among Mary and her domestic staff of former slaves.
An undistinguished lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, Thomas Petigru had a military career that provided an entree for James and their siblings into the social and political communities of Washington, D.C. In 1829, he married Mary Ann LaBruce, a planter’s daughter, who came with a dowry of two plantations and 111 slaves. They had two children together: Martha and James Louis Petigru II.
Like his father William and brother Jack, Thomas was a troubled alcoholic. When he was court-martialed in 1850 for misuse of government property, the trial revealed “implications of lewdness, violence to subordinates, and repeated drunkenness on duty.”
Thomas had similar problems at home. These were exacerbated by the long separations due to his voyages at sea. When he was home, he kept his slave concubine Linda at close hand. She was a “ready lighted firebrand” between husband and wife. When his brother Jack’s only son drowned in 1853, Mary Ann wrote about the shame of presenting her “first passion of grief” for her nephew in front of her husband’s domestic concubine. Their daughter died suddenly two years later, and Thomas died two years after that.
The eldest daughter, Jane married John Gough North in 1827. He was a former law student of James, and had become a successful lawyer and planter. By 1830 he owned a rice plantation near Georgetown with sixty-seven slaves. Together he and Jane had four children: three daughters, and a son, Albert, who died at age four. The Norths were devastated by the loss of their only male heir. Three years later, John died of congestive heart failure.
The widowed Jane, after realizing her husband’s declining health had ruined their financial situation, returned to live in her childhood home along with her sister Mary and her ailing father. Responsible to oversee thirty-two slaves, Jane at first hired a series of white male overseers to manage her property. When none of them proved productive, Jane took over management of her parents’ farm, struggling with scant resources and a meager workforce. Tensions were produced by the frequent visits from other family members, who used up resources. James refused to address Jane’s lack of slaves and supplies. He focused his money and energy on developing an avenue of oak trees (an allée) along the approach to the estate.
Jane was determined to raise her daughters up well despite their finances; she scrimped to pay for piano lessons for her eldest, Carey. She also paid for her daughter to attend a fine Charleston finishing school, and buy the high quality of dresses to suit her image, in order to attract the best suitors. Carey was a beautiful young woman, well-educated and socially outgoing, and her eventual coming-out into Charleston’s social scene was a success. Jane North hoped that her daughters would marry well, into money, but she also felt love was important. In search of love, Carey socialized with, and rejected, a number of potential suitors, to the point at which her name was attracting scandal. Jane took her daughter on vacation across the Northeast to get her out of Charleston. During this period, she met more beaus, including her cousin James Johnston Pettigrew. She eventually married his brother, Charles Lockhart Pettigrew.
Working as an overseer exposed Jane to South Carolina’s harsh summer climate, as well as a series of workplace accidents. During the 1850s her health steadily declined. She was beset by a number of ailments, but died in 1863 from a cancerous tumor in her stomach.
Mary Petigru never married; she had not frequently visited James’ Charleston residence and been in his society. Instead she remained on her parents’ farm, managing their affairs and caring for her father. In this isolation Mary developed conflicting, intense emotional attachments to her slaves. She was harshly critical towards them, and frequently wracked with anxiety over their ability to follow her instructions. Yet she also encouraged two of her female slaves to relocate to the new American colony of Liberia in West Africa. After the death of Rose, a slave she “loved better than any human being,” she went into mourning. The other Petigrus were critical of her management; one niece hoped that “Aunt M’s negroes would be disposed of for the wear & tear of temper & comfort to all concerned is tremendous.” In her later years, Mary became increasingly bitter toward both her white neighbors and the freedmen who sharecropped her land. As she withdrew from this small circle, her farm’s production declined precipitously. Mary Petigru died in 1872, at the age of sixty-nine.
At West Point, Charles Petigru's classmates in the Class of 1829 had included such future notables as Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston. With the onset of the Second Seminole War, Lieutenant Charles Petigru was sent to Florida, where he was assigned to the construction of Apalachicola Arsenal (located on the site of what is now Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee). During the performance of this duty, he succumbed to yellow fever and died on September 6, 1835.
His burial vault, in an abandoned hospital cemetery now overgrown by weeds and woods, is topped by a high-quality marble-slab cover attesting to his affluent family background. Signed by the inscribing sculptor, the faintly legible inscription on the fractured slab reads:“TO THE MEMORY of CHARLES PETIGRU
Lieut. Fourth Regiment of Artillery
Born in Abbeville South Carolina
Died in Chattahoochee The 6th September 1835
A memorial of fraternal affection”
In 1829, Louise, “no beauty and never a popular belle”, married Philip Johnston Porcher, another cousin of James’s wife Jane Amelia. A former doctor, Philip had recently quit his practice to devote himself to the maintenance of his 1,200-acre plantation, and the management of his sixty-seven slaves. Louise bore Philip eight children, six of which survived past infancy. Philip’s alcoholism and penchant for brothels placed a constant strain on both the family’s finances and his relationship with Louise. The death of their beloved socialite daughter, Janey, was a catalyst to discussion of Philip’s struggles but the planter continued to drink. He had a brief conversion to his evangelical wife’s Episcopalian church.
After the end of the war, the slaves abandoned his plantation; Philip converted his house to accept boarders. The end of the Civil War saw Philip’s plantation abandoned by its slaves and converted into a boarding house. His partnership in a brokerage firm, which relied on the health of the slave trade, also collapsed. The Porchers fell into poverty, forced to take aid from Northern beneficent societies. Philip descended into even more severe alcoholism and depression. He had violent outbursts and suffered delirium tremens to such an extent that the Petigru family considered sending him to an asylum. His sole male heir Charles Petigru followed a similar path of wantonness, financial mismanagement, and self-destruction. Louise, plagued by chronic malaria and constant illness, died in 1869 at age 55. Philip followed her two years later.
Adeline Theresa Pettigrew, known as Adèle, was the most physically attractive of James’ sisters. He wrote that Adèle “loved with such an enduring affection,” and that he “never loved any one more, never received from anyone more proofs of affection.” She was courted by and later married to Robert Allston, a wealthy planter and politician who, at twenty-seven, owned 126 slaves and served in the South Carolina House of Representatives. Over twenty years, their marriage produced nine children, although only five survived childhood.
Robert was a severe and taxing husband, unaccustomed to failure in business, politics, and marriage. For the long periods in which Robert left their home on the Chicora Woods plantation to attend his work, he wrote frequent letters dictating, in strict and specific instructions, how Adèle should care for their children, clean their home, manage their slaves, ration their stores and supplies, and compose herself both alone and among guests. Adèle found herself wracked with anxiety over following her husband’s instructions, and silently protested by writing him less often.
In 1833, Robert was elected to the South Carolina Senate. In 1850, he was elected senate president, and six years later he was elected as the state Governor. In response to this snowballing success, Robert borrowed over $250,000 during the 1850s to purchase more land, slaves, and what was then considered the finest mansion in Charleston. By 1860, Robert had amassed five plantations and over 600 slaves. Four years later, he died of congestive heart failure. Although a sizeable portion of his wealth was divided between his sons, his widow Adèle faced managing Robert’s complicated financial affairs, and a large number of slaves across three plantations. The impending victory of the Union against the Confederates had led these slaves to rise up, and despite President Abraham Lincoln’s promise to protect all Petigru lands (a nod to James’s Unionist views), food stores and farming implements were looted. Eventually Adèle regained full ownership of her lands, and although they slowly dwindled in size and production, she remained financially independent until her death in 1896.
The youngest of the Petigru children, Harriette married Henry Deas Lesesne in 1836. Already an accountant, by 1840 Henry was a partner in James’ successful law firm. Considered a lax disciplinarian by her sisters, Harriette managed a household with six children that was considered one of the more functional families of the Petigru clan. Following their eldest son Henry’s death in the Civil War, three weeks before its end, both Harriette and Henry fell into a deep depression which lasted their adult lives.
Henry, like many Southerners, had invested heavily in Confederate bonds which were now worthless. He had served as a state senator during the Civil War and as a chancellor in the Court of Equity for three years after, but the rise of Radical Republicanism in the South severed his political connections permanently. The Lesesnes, along with Thomas Petigru’s wife Mary Ann, moved into the Porchers’ converted boarding house for shelter, but the less-than spacious conditions and old family conflicts proved impossible to stand.
Henry’s economic fall was coupled with an increase in manic-depressive episodes and heavy drinking; these alienated him from his surrounding family. He was unwilling to seek treatment for his wife’s declining health, and Harriette Lesesne died of congestive heart failure in 1877. Sons Thomas and Charles died in 1881 and 1882, respectively. Henry became estranged from his surviving son James. Leila married and lived at a distance; unable to juggle all this, Henry suffered increasing alcoholism. He sold most of his possessions to maintain his addiction. When he died in 1888, he had only a $500 annual allowance to pass to his daughter Leila’s family.
From Jane H. & William H. Pease's A Family of Women: The Carolina Petigrus in Peace and War (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 1999):
Petigru women shared the racial attitudes common in both the North and the South. Racial stereotypes that justified slavery were only part – although a major part – of their stereotypical thinking. When Louise Porcher disapproved of Adèle Allston’s hiring an Italian nursery governess, she elaborated on inherent deficiencies common to persons whose inferior European origins she deplored. “It is not the niggers only,” she asserted, “who ‘the less they have to do, the less they want to do.’” Not only Italians demonstrated such deficiencies. When, in 1850, Mary O’Shea, who had been the Allstons’ nursery governess for several years, gave notice, Louise concluded that she must have done so because she was “tired of her quiet & celebat-state." Obviously it was “vain to expect to attach an irisher to one. They are a light & fickle people, whose feelings are evanescent but far more abiding & faithful to anger than kindness.”
Mary Petigru referred to ethnic immigrants in a derogatory way. Learning of a series of suspected arsons in Charleston, she wrote a proposal “to send off or emprison all the idle disorderly foreigners Irish & German.” Caroline Carson described her fellow passengers aboard a ship to England in 1861 as “a collection of dirty S. Am[eric]an Spaniards with parrot like voices, long cigars, and quizzy little children who like monkeys with their tails tucked into their trousers.” Jews too were subjects of scornful ethnic modeling. When as a belle she visited the Virginia springs, Carey North felt uncomfortable in the company of Mr. Thom, who figeted constantly and looked "like a Jew." Three years later, a Mr. Levin made her even more ill at ease because he was a "conceited, forward Jew, who pushes himself upon every one." And when the Allston girls boarded at Madame Togno's school in Charleston, they were withdrawn from a dancing assembly when "common" Jews began to attend.
The Petigrus had various attitudes towards and relationships with their domestic slaves, some of which were sexual in nature. Domestic slaves were common gifts among family members as both wedding presents to young couples, and as baptismal gifts to young children. Petigru women participated in sending slaves' communications between plantations, typically through letters, yet they also relied on the communication networks between slaves to obtain news and gossip about family and friends. As domestic overseers, these women were put in the position of deciding which slaves were allowed to marry - generally the decision was based on who owned the female slave and, by law, her future offspring.
The build-up to the Civil War marked a period of deep paranoia in the Petigrus' female slaveholders. Sleepless nights, rumors of planned rebellions (both real and false), and the desire to learn basic marksmanship were common among these women. As Mary Petigru described it, the women lived in fear that "the negroes expect something" beyond slavery. As the Union Army advanced South, most of the Petigrus evacuated their homes and, upon the Confederate defeat, found their plantations ransacked and their lands claimed by former slaves. Over time, however, they regained control, and those Petigrus that could shifted into a smaller (and less profitable) form of sharecropping.
Petigru's elder daughter, Jane Caroline (Petigru) Carson (1820–1892), a noted portrait artist and watercolorist, fled Charleston at the start of the Civil War. She lived in New York City for several years before moving to Rome. There she lived among other American expatriates and died in 1892. His younger daughter, Sue DuPont Petigru, married twice and was known as Susan DuPont King Bowen. She became known as a novelist in the mid-19th century. In the early 21st century, her work is gaining renewed critical attention. Her novels included the following: Busy Moments of an Idle Woman (New York: Appleton, 1854); Crimes Which the Law Does Not Reach (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1859); Gerald Gray's Wife (New York: Stockton & Co., 1864); Lily (New York: Harper, 1855); and Sylvia's World (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1859) are her most significant works.