Governor, congressman. Born in Charleston on January 28, 1806, Aiken was the son of William Aiken, a prominent Charleston merchant and planter, and Henrietta Wyatt. Aiken received his early education from private schools in Charleston and was graduated from South Carolina College in 1825. An extremely wealthy planter, Aiken made a fortune raising cotton and rice and was equally successful in his investments in railroads and other businesses. According to 1850 slave schedules, he possessed 878 slaves in Charleston and Colleton Districts. By 1860 census takers valued his real and personal estates at $290,600 and $72,000, respectively. On February 3, 1831, Aiken married Harriet Lowndes, a union that produced one daughter, Henrietta.
Aiken entered public service in 1838 as a member of the S.C. House of Representatives from St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s Parishes. Returned to the House by the voters of Charleston in 1840, Aiken was elected to the S.C. Senate in 1842, where he served the next two years. On December 7, 1844, Aiken was elected governor by the General Assembly. As a Unionist, Aiken opposed the radical views of Robert Barnwell Rhett and members of the so-called “Bluffton Movement,” which called for secession if Texas was not annexed to the United States as a slave state. Focusing instead on economic development in South Carolina, Governor Aiken placed particular emphasis on railroad expansion throughout the state. In 1845 he called on legislators to convert the state’s surplus revenue fund into a revolving fund to supply capital to private railroad companies. Furthermore, Aiken asked the legislature to purchase stock in railroad companies chartered in South Carolina. The General Assembly proved unwilling to support the ambitious plan during Aiken’s tenure, but approved a similar plan a year after Aiken left office.
On December 8, 1846, Aiken completed his term and retired to his plantation, but he remained politically active. In 1848 he supported John C. Calhoun’s efforts to establish a newspaper in Washington that would represent among other things, “Southern views on the subject of slavery.” This was accomplished in 1850 with the short lived Southern Press. That year, Aiken was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served the Charleston congressional district from 1851 until 1857. In 1856 he was a reluctant candidate for Speaker of the House in a highly contested election. After 133 ballots, Aiken lost to Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts by a vote of 103 to 100.
Although opposed to both nullification and secession, Aiken gave financial support to the Confederacy during the Civil War. On the defeat of the Confederacy, he was arrested and briefly detained in Washington. Aiken was again elected to the Congress. But on presenting his credentials in February 1867, he was denied his seat by northern members. William Aiken, Jr., died on September 6, 1887, in Flat Rock, North Carolina, and was buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston.
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.