Lawyer, jurist, statesman. DeSaussure was born on August 16, 1763, at Pocotaligo, Beaufort District, the son of the merchant Daniel DeSaussure and Mary McPherson. While still in his teens, DeSaussure participated in the defense of Charleston during the Revolutionary War and was taken prisoner by the British in May 1780, but he was later released and exiled to Philadelphia. It was in Philadelphia that DeSaussure entered the career that would define his public life by studying law under Jared Ingersoll. DeSaussure was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar in 1784. The following year he returned to South Carolina, married Elizabeth Ford, and opened a legal practice with his brother-in-law Timothy Ford.
DeSaussure quickly became a prominent voice in lowcountry politics, aligning himself with the Federalist Party (in which he served as a presidential elector in 1796) and holding civic posts in Charleston throughout his career. He also served as a member of the 1790 convention in Columbia that drafted a new state constitution. Elected to the South Carolina General Assembly in 1791 from St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s Parishes, he served in that body throughout the 1790s, the only interruption occurring with his appointment as director of the U.S. Mint in 1795 (though he only occupied the post for four months).
In the legislature, DeSaussure quickly became an advocate for lowcountry interests and the legal profession that he represented. He served his profession by participating actively in the 1791 reorganization of South Carolina’s circuit court system and defended the political power of the lowcountry by opposing upcountry demands for reapportionment of the state legislature. According to DeSaussure, though the upcountry’s population was growing rapidly, there were few from that region with the necessary intellectual refinement to serve in higher political office. DeSaussure and many of his fellow lowcountrymen feared that upcountry growth would overwhelm their interests, especially the protections given to both plantation and slave holdings. Regarding the increasingly egalitarian rhetoric of upcountry leaders and their yeomen constituents with “dread,” he warned of the “ultimate effects of a degrading, calumnating democracy.”
Reelected to the General Assembly in 1800, DeSaussure was instrumental in the incorporation of South Carolina College (later the University of South Carolina). He saw the institution as a way in which the future leadership of South Carolina could be imbued with the qualities necessary for political leadership. Despite his opposition to earlier reapportionment schemes, by 1800 DeSaussure recognized that the upcountry would soon provide the bulk of South Carolina’s leaders. “We of the lower country well knew that the power of the State was thence forward to be in the upper country,” he later recalled, “and we desired our future rulers to be educated men.” Returning to the General Assembly in 1808, this time from St. Paul’s Parish, DeSaussure saw his prophecy realized. The Compromise of 1808 brought legislative reapportionment based on both population and wealth and gave the upcountry an equal voice with coastal parishes in state politics.
Though elected to another term in 1808, DeSaussure resigned his seat in December to become a judge of the South Carolina Court of Equity. He held this office until the court’s reorganization in 1824, when he became chancellor of the Court of Appeals in Equity. DeSaussure was an active jurist, writing over half of the court’s decisions throughout his tenure. In addition, he compiled and published Reports of the Court of Chancery and Court of Equity in South Carolina from the Revolution till 1813 (1817–1819), which further enhanced his legal reputation. Politically, DeSaussure retained sympathy for the Federalist viewpoint, even as both the party and its remaining members disappeared from the public sphere. He remained a Unionist during the nullification crisis of the early 1830s, although he vehemently opposed the use of protective tariffs by the federal government and argued that the continuation of such a sectionally motivated policy would guarantee “the separation of the Union which I pray God I may not live to see.”
DeSaussure did not live to see the escalation of the sectional crisis, however. Failing health caused him to retire from the bench in 1837, and he succumbed to a prolonged illness on March 26, 1839, while visiting Charleston. DeSaussure was buried in his family churchyard in Columbia.
DeSaussure, Henry William. Papers. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
DeSaussure Family. Papers. South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston. Harper, William. Memoir of the Life, Character, and Public Services of the Late Hon. Henry Wm. DeSaussure. Charleston, S.C.: Riley, 1841.