Lawyer, congressman. Burt was born in Edgefield District on November 13, 1802, the oldest of nine children of Francis Burt, a Revolutionary War veteran from Virginia, and Katherine Miles of Beaufort District. In 1807 the family moved to Pendleton District, where Burt attended Pendleton Academy before preparing for a career in law. He was admitted to the bar in 1823.
In 1828 Burt married Martha Catherine Calhoun of Abbeville District, the daughter of John C. Calhoun’s older brother William. The couple moved to Abbeville, where Burt built his law practice. Burt first knew his wife’s famous uncle as a Pendleton neighbor and eventually became his confidant and protégé. He supported Calhoun’s opposition to the 1828 “Tariff of Abominations” and was appointed secretary of the 1832 state convention, which passed the Ordinance of Nullification, which declared the federal tariff null and void in South Carolina.
Burt represented Abbeville District in the General Assembly for three terms (1834–1835, 1838–1839, 1840–1841). He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1842 and took his seat in Congress in March 1843. He sat in Congress for ten years, serving on the Judiciary Committee and as chair of the Military Affairs Committee from 1849 to 1853. Burt was an accepted spokesman in the House for Calhoun’s prosouthern policy, particularly preserving states’ rights, reducing tariffs, and maintaining the balance between slave and free states as the country expanded into the Western territories. He helped care for Calhoun during his last illness in 1850.
In 1853 Burt left Congress and returned to Abbeville District to supervise Orange Hill, his thriving plantation near the Savannah River. He also participated in local politics, voicing a moderate approach to secession. He urged that South Carolina should act only in cooperation with other southern states. In 1858 Burt moved to the town of Abbeville to focus on his law practice. During the Civil War he supervised enlistments and was custodian for the property and affairs of local soldiers.
In April 1865 Confederate First Lady Varina Howell Davis and her family stayed in the Burt home for twelve days after they fled Richmond. They left Abbeville two days before Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge, and the Confederacy’s senior military advisers arrived. On May 2, 1865, at Burt’s house, the leaders held their final council of war. On advice from his advisers, Davis agreed that further resistance was impossible and that the Confederate cause was lost.
After the war Burt was selected to draft the state’s “Black Codes,” which white South Carolinians used to regulate the labor and movements of former slaves. During Reconstruction he continued his Abbeville law practice while participating in the movement to discredit and remove the state’s Republican leadership. In 1868 Burt served as president of the first Convention of South Carolina Democratic Clubs and the state Democratic Convention, as well as a delegate to the national Democratic Convention. Burt participated in the Taxpayers’ Conventions of 1871 and 1874, preparing reports detailing corruption within state government. He also supported Wade Hampton’s 1876 campaign for governor. Burt died in his law office on October 30, 1883. He was buried in Trinity Episcopal Cemetery in Abbeville.
Burt, Armistead. Papers. Manuscript Department, William R. Perkins Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
Burts, Robert M. “The Life of Armistead Burt.” Master’s thesis, Duke University, 1945.