Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 798
This is the grave of Francis Pickens.
Born in 1807 (though some claim 1805) in Togadoo, South Carolina, Pickens grew up at the pinnacle of the South Carolina elite slaveholding class. His father was governor of South Carolina and his grandfather an important officer in the American Revolution. The entire South Carolina elite was basically inbred and so everyone was related to everyone else. For example, his mother was John C. Calhoun’s cousin, etc. Pickens went to Franklin College in Athens, Georgia, which was later merged with the University of Georgia and then at what later became the University of South Carolina. He never graduated though, having left college after some big ruckus over compulsory mess attendance. He was admitted to the bar in 1829 and constructed a big mansion in the town of Edgewood that same year. He was ready to take his place in the elite governing structure.
To say that Pickens was just a regular slaveholder would be a major understatement. By 1860, he owned 276 slaves and had large real estate holdings not only in South Carolina, but in Alabama and Mississippi as well. This was common. Lots of the southern elites from the east coast invested heavily in western cotton plantations and thus tore up the families on their home plantations to send them to the cotton lands.
Pickens was one of the real foundational figures in the movement toward South Carolina secession. He entered into the state politics right at the time when the state was revolting over tariffs as a proxy fight for its fear that its slavery system might be challenged. Even while in college, he wrote letters to newspapers attacking the idea that Congress had the right to pass such tariffs. He was a huge supporter of nullification. He entered the state legislature where he submitted a report with the risible claim that Congress had no rights over states whatsoever. In 1834, this extremism got him sent to Washington to be in Congress. He served four terms. He was Calhoun’s closest ally in the House, though the relationship became strained later because there was so much infighting among the South Carolina delegation over who would get to be Calhoun’s most hackish proxy. In fact, Pickens’ attempt to become Speaker of the House in 1839 was thwarted by his own South Carolina rivals, which is what led him to give up on the House entirely.
As a Calhoun ally, Pickens was a big favorite of the pro-southern extremists who governed the nation in these years and they wanted to pay him off. John Tyler offered him the position of Minister to France and James Polk Minister to England, but he did not evidently have an interest in diplomacy or didn’t want to travel at this time and he turned both down. He had no real capability or skill for such jobs. He was just a pro-slavery extremist who pro-slavery extremist presidents wanted to reward.
Pickens decided to return to South Carolina in 1844. He did serve a term in the state senate but largely paid attention to his slave empire. In 1850, he was part of the Nashville Convention, where southerners decided if they wanted to secede if the lands stolen from Mexico to expand slavery were not allowed to have slaves. Pickens of course was on the extreme edge of these debates, but the moderates won out. In 1858, having been out of Washington for a long time, he finally accepted a high-end diplomatic post, when James Buchanan named him Minister to Russia. Again, his only qualification was being a slaveholding elite, but that was enough.
In 1860, Pickens returned from St. Petersburg and became governor of South Carolina. This was the very moment when the state’s elite were ready to secede from the union. Now, we need to step back a minute. In the 1830s, the South Carolina elite were already at this point but the rest of the South was not. Over the next 30 years, that changed. But South Carolina was still an outlier. During those decades, that elite had rejected the transformation of American culture from the 1820s-40s that had led to white male democracy. Instead, these elites, Pickens very much included, saw themselves as a real aristocracy where not only did slaves or women not have any rights, but poor whites shouldn’t either. Instead, they should see their elites as the natural leaders of the state and listen to them. What this meant in practicality is that while in most of the southern states, there was at least a very real debate over secession, in South Carolina there was not, as it was just rammed through the legislature with effectively no debate at all. Why debate something that the people had no right to decide? Pickens was a complete supporter of this and the secession of the state.
Pickens thus was governor when Lincoln decided to send supplies to the soldiers at Fort Sumter and ordered the firing upon the fort. For this, he should have been shot after the war. Alas, he was not. He was not an effective governor. The state was completely inept in terms of raising a military and figuring out what it was doing. This was a big problem throughout the South–you declare secession and…then what. The Union was able to take most of the Sea Islands early on. Then there was a big fire in Charleston. By the end of his term, Pickens did not have much real power left, as a five-person council was named to run the state. Pickens was on that council, but there was just massive infighting. As soon as Pickens left office at the end of 1862, the council disbanded. He also spent a lot of time writing angry letters to Jefferson Davis about generals who gave up land owned by whites rather than fighting to the last man, attempting to argue that these generals actually cared about slaves not dying and how silly was that. Nice guy.
Just because he wasn’t govenror anymore doesn’t mean he wasn’t as strong a supporter for treason in defense of slavery as before. In 1865 though, Pickens introduced the necessary legislation to repeal the Ordinance of Secession as a way to move the state to the new state of resistance that would reinforce white supremacy within the union, albeit without slavery.
Pickens died in 1869 at his home in Edgefield. He was probably 61 years old.
Francis Pickens is buried in Edgefield Village Cemetery, Edgefield, South Carolina.
This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader donations. This is the first of the South Carolina graves from my recent trip and oh aren’t they a special bunch. If you would like this series to visit other treasonous governors, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Matthew Perry is in Micanopy, Florida and John Letcher is in Lexington, Virginia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.