U.S. senator. Earle was born in Greenville on April 30, 1847, the youngest child of Elias Earle and Susan Haynsworth. Orphaned at five, Earle was raised in Sumter District by his maternal aunt and her husband. He left a Sumter academy in 1864 to enlist in the Confederate army. After the Civil War, he attended Furman University from 1866 to 1868 but left without obtaining a degree. On May 19, 1869, he married his cousin Anna M. Earle of Anderson. The couple had nine children. Admitted to the bar in 1870, Earle began a law practice in Anderson. He moved his practice to Sumter in the mid-1870s and then to Greenville in 1891.
In 1878 Earle was elected to the state House of Representatives from Sumter County, serving until 1880. He served in the state Senate from 1882 to 1885 and as attorney general of South Carolina from 1886 to 1890. Conservative Democrats put forth Earle as a candidate for governor in 1890, but his moderate demeanor was no match for the popular bombast of the eventual winner, Benjamin R. Tillman. In 1892, in the spirit of party unity, Earle declined another nomination for governor. An appreciative Tillmanite majority in the legislature rewarded Earle by electing him as a circuit judge in 1894, and he served in that capacity until January 1897.
In 1896 Earle defeated the unpopular John Gary Evans for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate in the state’s first direct primary. Earle’s victory was an initial step toward healing the extreme factionalism that had dominated South Carolina politics for most of the previous decade. Unfortunately, Earle’s tenure as senator lasted only weeks, ending when he died suddenly on May 20, 1897, of Bright’s disease (a kidney disorder). He was buried at Christ Church Cemetery in Greenville.
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.
Simkins, Francis Butler. Pitchfork Ben Tillman: South Carolinian. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1944.