Governor. Bennett was born on August 14, 1781, the son of the architect Thomas Bennett and Anna Hayes Warnock. He married Mary Lightbourn Stone on February 19, 1801. The couple eventually had seven children. Beginning as his father’s partner, Bennett built a lucrative lumber and rice mill business in Charleston. His rice mills, known as Cannonsborough Mills, included a twenty-two-pestle mill driven by steam power and a fourteen-pestle mill driven by tide power from an eighty-seven-acre pond. A prominent lowcountry entrepreneur, Bennett held business positions that included director of the South Carolina Homespun Company (1808), incorporator of the Planters and Merchants Bank (1810), director of Bank of the State of South Carolina (1811–1814, 1826–1827), and director of the Louisville, Cincinnati and Charleston Railroad (1836–1837). He was also active in the Charleston Chamber of Commerce and held local political offices, including intendant (mayor) of Charleston from 1812 to 1813. Through his second marriage, to Jane Burgess Gordon, on March 5, 1840, Bennett obtained three lowcountry plantations. By 1850 he owned 260 slaves, and ten years later his Charleston estate was valued at $275,800.
In 1804 Bennett was elected by St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s Parishes to the South Carolina General Assembly, where he served six terms in the House of Representatives by 1817 and sat as Speaker of the House from 1814 to 1817. Victorious in a special election for the S.C. Senate in 1819, he resigned on December 7, 1820, upon being elected governor. During his tenure (1820–1822), Bennett opposed the slave trade, advocated increased leniency in the criminal and slave codes, and promoted internal improvements. Bennett also presided over the state during the thwarted Denmark Vesey slave insurrection, in the aftermath of which dozens of accused participants were hanged or exiled, including three of Bennett’s trusted house slaves.
It was Bennett’s response to the Vesey crisis for which he is best remembered. In a message to the General Assembly on November 22, 1822, the governor chastised Charleston authorities for the mass execution of alleged conspirators. Bennett criticized courts for accepting without question testimony that was “the offspring of treachery or revenge,” offered by witnesses who were obviously attempting to save their own lives. While Bennett agreed that some type of plot was afoot, he refused to accept the hysterical response of city residents, who, “in a pitch of excitement,” turned scattered rumors into a slave conspiracy involving hundreds or even thousands of participants. Part of Bennett’s opinion was based on racial stereotypes. He simply doubted the capability of African slaves to mount such an uprising and trusted implicitly in the “habitual respect” slaves held for their masters. Despite such doubts, Bennett nevertheless cooperated with Charleston officials during the crisis. “Thus,” the historian Richard Wade surmised, “Charleston stumbled into tragedy.”
Bennett supported the Unionists in the nullification crisis of 1832 and briefly represented the city parishes again in the S.C. Senate from 1837 to 1839. He died on January 30, 1865, and was buried in Magnolia Cemetery.
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.
Lofton, John. Insurrection in South Carolina: The Turbulent World of Denmark Vesey. Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch, 1964.
Wade, Richard C. “The Vesey Plot: A Reconsideration.” Journal of Southern History 30 (May 1964): 143–61.