Legislator, governor, rice planter. Born on April 21, 1801, on Waccamaw Neck in Georgetown District, Allston was the fifth child of Benjamin Allston, Jr., and his wife Charlotte Anne, and was presumably named for two brothers, Robert and Francis Withers, who had assisted Benjamin in a particularly difficult debt transaction in 1800. Until 1809 he resided at Waverly, one of two family plantations on the Pee Dee, but he moved to Georgetown following his father’s death in 1809. He attended the free school at Winyah Indigo Society (1809–1812) and John Waldo’s classical school (1812–1817).
After four years at the U.S. Military Academy (1817–1821), Allston worked briefly for the Topographical Service. He resigned to return home and assist his mother with the management of the family lands, taking full responsibility for them in 1827. To supplement the family income, in 1823 he secured election by the General Assembly to a four-year term as surveyor-general of South Carolina. In 1828, pressured by friends, he launched his formal political career and won election to the S.C. House of Representatives, where he represented Prince George Winyah Parish from 1828 to 1831. He was subsequently involved in several disputed elections involving the Prince George Winyah S.C. Senate seat for the Twenty-ninth, Thirtieth, and Thirty-first General Assemblies, in large part because of his staunch support of nullification. His political position would best be described in 1838, when he claimed that his views were “based on the principles of Thomas Jefferson, as express’d during the discussion in Virginia in 1798 . . . [and consist of ] the belief that a plain, honest, common sense reading of the Constitution is the only true one and that in legislating for the government of the United States, nothing—absolutely nothing of authority—should be allowed to precedent as such.”
The political stress of this period was offset by his marriage without a dowry on April 5, 1832, to Adele Petigru, daughter of William Pettigrew and Louise Gilbert and the sister of Allston’s attorney and friend, James L. Petigru. They had at least nine children, five of whom lived to maturity.
After the nullification controversy had passed, Allston was reelected to his Prince George Winyah Senate seat from the Thirty-second (1836–1838) to the Forty-second (1856–1857) General Assemblies. He served on numerous committees and was elected president of the Senate from 1850 to 1856. His political career was capped by his election as governor in December 1856. A lifetime advocate of higher education, serving as a trustee of South Carolina College (1840–1864), Allston called for the transformation of the college into a university and pushed hard for educational reform throughout the state. Following the expiration of his term in December 1858, he served as a Confederate presidential elector (1861) and in a handful of other minor political roles.
Allston spent the last few years of his life trying to save his vast landholdings throughout the Pee Dee region, primarily in Georgetown District. An accomplished planter and agricultural innovator, he had authored several works on rice planting, including the well-regarded Memoir of the Introduction and Planting of Rice in South-Carolina (1843) and Essay on Sea Coast Crops (1854). In addition to the family plantations at Matanza (name changed to Chicora Wood in 1853) and Waverly, Allston came to control Waties Point and Friendfield (inherited from his aunt in 1840, with Friendfield sold shortly thereafter), Exchange, Nightingale Hall, Waterford, Rose Bank (or Ditchford), Breakwater, Guendalos, Retreat, Holly Hill, and Pipe Down. In addition to these 4,000 acres, Allston owned at least 9,500 acres of pasture and timber lands. In 1863 he added another 1,900 acres with his purchase of Morven plantation in North Carolina. His slaveholdings totaled at least 690 in 1864. Debt and the Civil War greatly reduced the value of his estate. Allston died from pneumonia (with accompanying heart disease) on April 7, 1864, at Chicora Wood. Initially buried at the Prince Frederick, Pee Dee, Chapel, he was later interred in the cemetery at Prince George Winyah Church. Devereux, Anthony Q. The Life and Times of Robert F. W. Allston. Georgetown, S.C.: Waccamaw Press, 1976.
Dusinberre, William. Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Easterby, J. H., ed. The South Carolina Rice Plantation as Revealed in the Papers of Robert F. W. Allston. 1945. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.