George McDuffie, the Mad Governor

Many of the streets in Anderson, South Carolina, were named for famous locals: Whitner, Benson, Orr, and Murray to name a few. One prominent street, however, was named for a man who never lived in Anderson, although he did visit on occasion. He was born dirt poor, grew wealthy in business, fought in a duel,

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George McDuffie (Library of Congress)

held numerous public offices, had racial views that were extreme even for his time, and died insane. His name was George McDuffie, and this is his story.

George McDuffie was born in Columbia County, Georgia, August 10, 1790. Unlike many politicians of his day, McDuffie was not born into a well-to-do family. He was one of at least nine children born to parents who had emigrated from Scotland. It was his intellect set him apart from everyone in his family.

McDuffie took his first job at the age of twelve at a country store owned by a man named Hayes. From there he secured a position with the mercantile establishment of Wilson & Calhoun in Augusta, Georgia. James Calhoun, a brother of John C. Calhoun, was one of the owners. In 1807, the business failed and William Calhoun, another brother, came to help settle the affairs. He noticed the young McDuffie and offered him room and board as long as he was in school. McDuffie was so poor, that all of his belongings, including clothing, fit into a small blue box. While he did not realize it, his life of poverty would soon be behind him. Calhoun sponsored his education at Moses Waddel’s famous Willington Academy, where many of South Carolina’s political leaders, such as John C. Calhoun, received their education. McDuffie soon came under the influence of John C. Calhoun, and he looked to him as a mentor.

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Site of the law building used by Simkins and McDuffie, located in Edgefield, South Carolina. The marker lists the names of men who practiced law at the site: Eldred Simkins (congressman and lieut. governor), George McDuffie (congressman, governor, U.S. senator), Francis W. Pickens (congressman, governor, minister to Russia), Francis H. Wardlaw author of ordinance of secession), John C. Sheppard lieut. governor, governor), and James O. Sheppard (lieut. governor). (Author’s collection)

McDuffie excelled at the academy and developed an outstanding reputation among his peers. His graduation speech was entitled “Permanence of the Union,” and it was printed at the request of the students. He later attended South Carolina College, graduating in 1813. He was admitted to the bar in 1814 and entered a partnership with Colonel Eldred Simkins in Edgefield, South Carolina. Simkins introduced him to the cream of Edgefield society and it was not long before McDuffie began his rise.

His political career began in 1818, when he was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives from the Edgefield District. He was also named a Trustee of the South Carolina College in the same year. In 1821, McDuffie published a pamphlet which denounced a strict states’ rights approach. Within ten years, McDuffie would become transformed into one of the great “nullifiers” of the 19th century, largely by the influence of Calhoun. He held this seat for one term, ending on November 27, 1830.

McDuffie was next elected to the United States House of Representatives from two districts. He first represented the 6th District from March 4, 1821 to March 3, 1823. A year into his term, McDuffie, still not a supporter of nullification, got into a very public argument with Colonel William Cumming over the issue. Cumming was a veteran of the War of 1812, was well known nationally, and supported nullification. In short, nullification is the political theory that holds that individual states can nullify acts of Congress by declaring them to be null and void within their boundaries. While nullification is not the same as secession, the former can lead to the latter.

The argument between McDuffie and Cumming escalated into a feud, and the two first met June 2, 1822, near the Savannah River in Georgia. Traditional dueling pistols were the selected weapons. McDuffie fired his shot into the ground; Cumming fired at McDuffie and hit him in the rib cage. The ball lodged itself near his spine. Physicians determined that it would be too dangerous to remove it, so the ball remained for the rest of his life. This caused damage to McDuffie’s spine, and he walked with a limp the rest of his life. A second duel was fought in late November, and this time McDuffie’s arm was broken by a shot from Cumming. Both men declared themselves satisfied.

The 6th Congressional District was renamed the 5th Congressional District in 1823, and McDuffie represented it from March 4, 1823 to 1834. McDuffie had originally been a supporter of Andrew Jackson, but in 1824, he delivered a twenty-four page speech on the floor of the House against Jackson and his banking policies. More importantly, McDuffie threw his support behind nullification.

In 1829, he married Mary Rebecca Singleton, daughter of Colonel Richard Singleton, but the marriage was short lived. The new Mrs. McDuffie died less than a year later, shortly after giving birth to a daughter, Mary Rebecca. Later in life, she married Wade Hampton III and was the First Lady of South Carolina. McDuffie sent his only the child to her grandparents who raised her. He would never remarry and threw himself into his political career.

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1832 South Carolina Nullification Convention Document (Author’s collection)

McDuffie was a leader of the 1832 South Carolina Nullification Convention and wrote its official address to the citizens of the United States. The convention was one part of South Carolina’s response to the Nullification Crisis which took place from 1832 to 1837, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. The crisis was brought about by the Tariff of 1828, known as the “Tariff of Abominations” by its detractors. Enacted during the administration of John Quincy Adams, it was roundly detested in the South, and for good reasons. The South imported much of their goods, and the tariff set a 62% tax on 92% of the goods the South imported. Of the sixty-eight House members from Southern states, sixty-four voted against the tariff. It was up to Adams’ successor, Andrew Jackson, to deal with the fallout, and many expected him to lower the tariff. When he failed to do so, his vice president, John C. Calhoun, resigned on July 14, 1832. Calhoun ran for a senate seat and began to fight for nullification through legislative means.

As a compromise, Jackson signed into law the Tariff of 1832 which restored the tariff levels to pre-1828 levels. South Carolina, which had borne the brunt of the harm from the 1828 tariff, was still not pleased. At a convention held on November 24, 1832, an Ordinance of Nullification was adopted, declaring the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 unconstitutional and unenforceable in South Carolina, effective February 1, 1833. Congress responded by passing two bills on March 1: the Force Act which authorized the president to use military forces against South Carolina, and the Compromise Tariff of 1833 which was agreeable to South Carolina, and the nullification ordinance was repealed two weeks later.

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Monument erected in honor of George McDuffie, located in Edgefield, South Carolina, on the Ten Governors Rail Trail. The monument emphasizes McDuffie’s importance in the Nullification Movement. (Author’s Collection)

In 1834, McDuffie was elected the 55th Governor of South Carolina and made a major general of the South Carolina Militia. The chief executive of the state was not popularly elected, but selected by the South Carolina Senate until the election of James Lawrence Orr in 1865. The position was usually given to one of the Assembly members for a term of two years. On some occasions members would serve two terms. McDuffie served as governor from December 9, 1834 to December 10, 1836. As governor, McDuffie was de facto President of the Board of Trustees of South Carolina College. In 1835, he completed a total reorganization and modernization of the college which had been struggling for several years.

Regarding the question of slavery, in a message to the General Assembly in 1835, McDuffie had this to say:

“No human institution, in my opinion, is more manifestly consistent with the will of God, than domestic slavery…That the African negro is destined by Providence to occupy this condition of servile dependence…is marked on the face, stamped on the skin, and envinced by the intellectual inferiority and natural improvidence of this race.”

McDuffie’s racial views were demonstrated in the new laws passed by the General Assembly.

  • The legal rights of free blacks were restricted
  • Any free black returning to South Carolina to be sold back into slavery
  • Port officials were to arrest any free blacks serving aboard vessels docked in South Carolina harbors
  • Slaves from north of the Mason-Dixon Line were barred from entering the state

McDuffie resigned from the governor’s office at the end of his term, ostensibly for his health. For six years, he was not politically active, but he answered his state’s call and represented South Carolina in the United States Senate from December 23, 1842 to August 17, 1846, upon the resignation of his predecessor William C. Preston. McDuffie was the junior senator to his longtime mentor, John C. Calhoun.

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George McDuffie in his later years

Despite only being in the Senate for three years, he had several leadership roles. He was instrumental in drafting the legislation outlining the annexation of Texas; however, he strongly opposed the annexation of Oregon. It was said that his reason for not supporting Oregon was that he did not believe that the territory could be effectively governed from 3,000 miles away. He was had a key role in the passage of the Tariff of 1846.

McDuffie resigned at the close of the session and was seldom seen outside of his home Cherry Hill in Willington. The plantation was begun by the Noble family but after a fire destroyed the main house, the property was bought by McDuffie. He build a grand two-story home and enlarged the plantation to over five thousand acres. Today, the only remain of Cherry Hill is the Noble family cemetery. The plantation overlooked the Savannah River and was run using the labor of over two hundred slaves. A historical marker is located near the site.

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Cherry Hill Marker, Willington, South Carolina (Author’s collection)

McDuffie’s health had begun to worsen during his years as governor. The old bullet wound caused his health to rapidly deteriorate. and McDuffie fell into a deep depression which eventually drove him insane. He died at his home March 11, 1851. He was buried in the Singleton Family Cemetery, Wedgefield, South Carolina.

Due to his prominence in state and national affairs, the leaders of Anderson felt it was appropriate to honor him and so McDuffie Street was born. Originally known as East Boundary Street, it is one of Anderson’s original streets. From its earliest days, the street was dedicated to grand residences and was a jewel for young town. Many of the older homes on the street once belonged to business leaders who helped build Anderson. Sadly, only a handful of these remain.

The date on which the street was named McDuffie is not known, but it took place prior to 1860. The Anderson Intelligencer noted the improvements being made to the street and the Methodist church on September 18, 1860, which indicates that the street had been so named for some time. The Intelligencer described McDuffie Street in glowing terms, saying, “[that] there is no street within our corporate limits better adapted by nature for handsome display of art.” Early residents on McDuffie were the Wilhites, the Brocks, and the three sons of Samuel Brown: John Peter Brown, E.W. Brown, and Samuel Brown, Jr.

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Historical Marker at McDuffie’s Birthplace

In addition to McDuffie Street in Anderson, George McDuffie was also honored by his home state when McDuffie County, Georgia, was created on October 18, 1870. A historical marker stands at his birthplace.

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