Legislator, congressman, bank president. Cheves was born at Bull Town Fort in Abbeville District on September 17, 1776, the son of Alexander and Mary Langdon Cheves. His initial schooling took place at private academies in Abbeville District and Charleston. But much of his education was acquired through intensive personal study. He married Mary Elizabeth Dulles on May 6, 1806. The marriage produced fourteen children, including the noted author and essayist Louisa Cheves McCord.
Cheves read law in Charleston and was admitted to the bar by 1797. Within a decade his law practice was statewide. Although most of his close legal colleagues were Federalists, Cheves remained a Jeffersonian Republican throughout his active political career. He was outspoken in his political convictions to such a degree that opponents referred to him as the “political Jesuit.”
In 1802 the voters of Charleston elected Cheves to the S.C. House of Representatives. He held this seat until 1809, when he became state attorney general. In 1810 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming part of a notable quartet of South Carolina lawmakers that included John C. Calhoun, William Lowndes, and David R. Williams. All were active “War Hawks,” a faction of Republican congressmen seeking war against Great Britain.
In 1812 Cheves was a key leader in the successful effort to retain Henry Clay of Kentucky as Speaker of the House. In return, Clay rewarded him with the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee. As an influential member of the Naval Affairs Committee, Cheves framed many crucial military appropriation measures during the War of 1812. He succeeded Clay as Speaker of the House in January 1814, after Clay was named to the peace commission that would negotiate an end to the war in December 1814.
Cheves declined an offer to join President James Madison’s cabinet as secretary of the treasury, and he retired from Congress in 1815. He returned to Charleston, accepting a seat on the S.C. Court of Appeals in 1816 and resuming his lucrative private law practice.
In 1819 President James Monroe appointed Cheves president of the Second National Bank of the United States. Claiming that his predecessor’s mismanagement had left that institution “prostrate,” Cheves instituted a strict retrenchment program of fewer loans, higher interest rates, and a sharp reduction of bank notes in circulation. His actions enraged many, and may have exacerbated the depression following the Panic of 1819, but the bank regained its financial footing. He resigned from this position in 1822. Monroe subsequently appointed Cheves chief commissioner of war claims as stipulated under the Treaty of Ghent. He remained in this post until all of the outstanding international war claims were adjusted successfully. Throughout these years Cheves resided in Philadelphia and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he actively practiced law.
Cheves returned to South Carolina in 1829. His long absence prohibited a direct role in state politics, and he instead quietly became a political power broker. Although he sided with the Unionists during the nullification crisis, Cheves later called for a more vigorous defense of southern rights. In 1850 he was chosen as a delegate to the southern states convention held at Nashville. Responding to the Compromise of 1850, Cheves declared, “The Rubicon is passed—the Union is already dissolved.” He urged southerners to “unite and your slave property will be protected.” Like a growing number of southern radicals, Cheves came to the conclusion that secession was the only palatable answer to the sectional crisis in America.
During the last two decades of his life Cheves was a successful lawyer and rice planter, dividing his time between his country mansion, the Delta, near Savannah, Georgia, and a summer retreat in Pendleton. He died in Columbia on June 26, 1857, and was buried in Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston.
Huff, Archie Vernon. Langdon Cheves of South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1977.
Perkins, Edward J. “Langdon Cheves and the Panic of 1819: A Reassessment.” Journal of Economic History 44 (June 1983): 455–61.