Portrait of William Harper, circa 1830

Slavery at South Carolina College, 1801–1865:

The Foundations of the University of South Carolina


William Harper (1790–1847), Class of 1808

Portrait of William Harper, circa 1830
William Harper, ca. 1830, LOC

Harper became the first student at South Carolina College in 1805 and graduated three years later. He was admitted to the bar in 1813, the same year he became a trustee of the college, and was elected to the state’s General Assembly in 1816. Harper served as a reporter for the South Carolina Supreme Court and filled a vacant U.S. Senate seat for eight months. In 1832, Harper was elected as a delegate to the convention that nullified what many South Carolinians believed to be an unconstitutional federal tariff. He quickly became a leading voice in the debate, authoring the convention’s Ordinance of Nullification, which declared the tariff null and void and further explained that South Carolinians would “not submit to the application on the part of the federal government, to reduce this State to obedience.” In 1837, Harper presented his “Memoir on Slavery” to the Society for the Advancement of Learning in South Carolina. Critiquing the Declaration of Independence, Harper argued that surely no two men had ever been created equal, and the “natural inferiority of the negro race” and slavery had led to the advancement of civilization throughout the centuries.

James Louis Petigru (1789–1863), Class of 1809

Portrait of James L. Petigru
James L. Petigru, McKissick Museum

Petigru graduated from South Carolina College in 1809 and passed the bar in 1812. First as the state attorney general and later as a state representative, Petigru consistently placed federal law before state powers in his cases and positions. A leading Unionist during the nullification crisis of the 1830s, he won state court cases and helped broker legislative compromises that placed allegiance to the federal constitution over state loyalty. His defense of free blacks in the 1850s solidified his reputation as a protector of minority rights. Petigru scorned the Confederate government and described the attack on Fort Sumter as having set “a blazing torch to the temple of constitutional liberty,” but deplored the violent deaths of young southerners. The first building on the University of South Carolina’s campus to honor Petigru (now Currell College) was dedicated in 1919; when the university built a new law building in 1950 (now home to the registrar’s and bursar’s offices), it chose Petigru, one of the state’s best-known attorneys and vocal critics of secession, as the building’s namesake.

William Campbell Preston (1794–1860), Sixth President, Professor of Belles Lettres and Criticism (1845–1851), Class of 1812

Bust of William C. Preston
William C. Preston, SCL

Preston, a Virginia native, graduated from South Carolina College in 1812 and returned home to study law. His wife’s family soon drew him back to Columbia, and he began a law partnership with William Harper and gained a seat in the state House of Representatives. As a proponent of states’ rights and nullification, Preston took his oratorical skills to the U.S. Senate in 1833, where he began to identify with Whigs. His criticism of President Martin Van Buren put him at political odds with fellow senator John C. Calhoun, though, and the latter’s influence in the state ended Preston’s political career. He remained personally popular with many South Carolinians, despite unpopular political stands, and this sentiment led to his appointment as president and professor of belles lettres at South Carolina College in 1845. The first alumnus to return as president, Preston was hailed as a “good choice” by many who felt the college’s reputation would benefit from a unifying presence. Preston did not disappoint, presiding over what historian Daniel Hollis termed “the brightest era of the Golden Age of South Carolina College.” He advocated improvements to the college, including obtaining university status, and oversaw construction of two new buildings and record enrollments that would not be equaled until 1905. Though he retired after a stroke in 1851, Preston remained on the board of trustees until 1857 and was honored with the naming of a residence hall, Preston College, in 1939.

Hugh Swinton Legare (1797–1843), Class of 1814

Portrait of Hugh S. Legare, circa 1830
Hugh S. Legare, ca. 1830, LOC

Legare graduated as valedictorian of the South Carolina College class of 1814 before studying abroad in Paris and Edinburgh. A successful private attorney in Charleston, plantation manager, and member of the state General Assembly, Legare also served as state and U.S. attorney general and was elected to Congress as a Union Democrat in 1836. Legare took moderate political stances—for states’ rights but against nullification—but his true interests lay in the Charleston magazine he founded in 1828 with Stephen Elliott. The Southern Review helped set the tone of southern conservative political thought for the next three decades on topics from states’ rights to slavery, though the publication itself lasted only four years. It also permitted Legare, who provided much of the content, to express his classical literary taste. Legare College was later named in his honor.

James Marion Sims (1813–1883), Class of 1832

Bust of James Marion Sims
James M. Sims, SC State House

Sims earned a degree from South Carolina College in 1832 before graduating from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1835. He then moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where he developed a revolutionary gynecological surgery. Operating in his backyard hospital, Sims tested his “peculiar method of operation” on female slaves, performing repeated operations (as many as thirty on one woman) without anesthesia, which had recently become available. He later moved to New York City, where he established a charity hospital for women. After his death in 1883, Sims was honored as the “Father of Gynecology” with monuments at New York’s Central Park (1894) and the South Carolina State House (1929), as well as a residence hall, Sims College, at the University of South Carolina (1939). Long hailed as a friend to the poor, Sims’s methods only came under scrutiny in the 1970s, when new interest in African-American and women’s history cast his surgeries in a more critical light.