Governor. Born on March 15, 1812, in Richland District, Adams was the son of Henry Walker Adams, a prominent cotton planter, and Mary Howell Hart Goodwyn. He attended Minervaville Academy in Richland before being sent to Partridge Military Academy in Middleton, Connecticut, in 1826. Graduating from Yale in 1831, Adams returned to South Carolina and took possession of his sizable inheritance, including Live Oak Plantation in lower Richland District. On April 10, 1832, he married Jane Margaret Scott. They had nine children. A successful cotton planter, Adams owned 192 slaves and $80,000 in real estate by 1860.
In 1834 Adams was elected to represent Richland District in the S.C. House of Representatives. He served three more terms in the House (1836–1838, 1840–1841, 1848–1849) and two in the S.C. Senate (1850–1851, 1852–1853). On December 11, 1854, the General Assembly elected Adams governor. Adams assumed office during a lull in sectional hostilities. South Carolina repudiated secession during the crisis over the Compromise of 1850. That same year, the death of John C. Calhoun created a void in South Carolina’s political leadership that left factions competing for power. Adams belonged to a faction favoring immediate secession, a move calculated to force southern states to choose between joining South Carolina in creating a southern republic or staying in the Union.
Seeking an issue to unify southerners and accelerate the division of North and South, Governor Adams addressed the General Assembly in 1856 and called for the reopening of the international slave trade. His message appealed to logic, asserting that if the slave trade was wrong then so was the institution of slavery. He also hoped to attract nonslaveholders, asking, “Is it wise, is it safe on the part of those who own slaves, to desire to keep their price up to a point that must forever exclude the laboring white man from owning them?” By importing more Africans, Adams believed that prices would fall and allow more southerners to buy slaves. As a result, support for slavery would expand by increasing the number of persons with an economic stake in the institution. The movement to reopen the slave trade had some support but was opposed by most southerners as too radical.
After leaving office in 1856, Adams was a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1858, but he lost to the more moderate James Chesnut. In 1860 Richland District selected Adams as a delegate to the Secession Convention, where he advocated immediate secession. After South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860, Adams was one of three commissioners sent to Washington to negotiate the conveyance of federal property to the state. He later voted against the Confederate Constitution, arguing that it retained the same language as the U.S. Constitution, which made the slave trade illegal and failed to guarantee that all Confederate states would allow slavery within its borders. Despite the protest of Adams and others, the constitution was adopted. Adams died shortly thereafter on July 13, 1861, and was buried in the cemetery of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Congaree.
Bailey, N. Louise, Mary L. Morgan, and Carolyn R. Taylor, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina Senate, 1776–1985. 3 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.
Takaki, Ronald T. A Pro-slavery Crusade: The Agitation to Reopen the African Slave Trade. New York: Free Press, 1971.