U.S. senator. John Gaillard was born on September 5, 1765, in St. Stephen’s Parish, the son of John Gaillard and Judith Peyre. In 1782 his father took British protection and moved his family to England where he enrolled Gaillard in legal studies at London’s Middle Temple. Gaillard’s ambition, however, lay in areas other than the law. Returning to South Carolina, he married Mary Lord on November 22, 1792. The couple had three children: Edwin, Theodore Samuel, and Anna. Gaillard became a prominent member of lowcountry society and a successful planter with extensive landholdings in St. Stephen’s and St. James Santee Parishes. It was in politics, however, that Gaillard achieved his fame, forging a reputation as a statesman respected by members of factions otherwise at odds. Gaillard’s political career began in 1794, when he was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives to represent St. Stephen’s Parish. After serving in the Eleventh General Assembly (1794–1795), he became a state senator in 1796, again from St. Stephen’s. Reelected several times by his constituents, Gaillard also served as Senate president from 1803 to 1804.
On December 6, 1804, Gaillard resigned his state Senate seat following his election by the General Assembly to complete the remainder of Pierce Butler’s term in the U.S. Senate. Taking his seat in the Eighth Congress on January 31, 1805, Gaillard would serve as a U.S. senator until his death in 1826. Politically he was a Democratic-Republican and a supporter of President Thomas Jefferson. He also supported the James Madison administration and joined his South Carolina colleagues in Congress in voting for war with Great Britain in 1812. After the war, Gaillard followed other Carolinians in retreating toward a more states’-rights-oriented position. Along with his fellow senator William Smith, Gaillard opposed measures calling for a protective tariff, the rechartering of the Bank of the United States, and federal aid for internal improvements.
Gaillard’s reputation, however, derived not from the stands he took on partisan issues, but from his role as a statesman in the Senate. Gaillard was elected president pro tempore of the Senate (presiding officer in the absence of the vice president—which was often) on ten different occasions during his tenure. Other symbols of his colleagues’ respect were also bestowed on him as he was chosen to be one of South Carolina’s presidential electors (pledged to Jefferson) in 1804, and was designated by the U.S. Senate as the “teller” (official counter) of the electoral college votes in the 1812 election. Gaillard’s reputation and the respect devolved upon him were perhaps aided by the fact that he was never a controversial figure. In a period of often contentious debates in Congress, over issues such as the extension of slavery into the Louisiana Purchase during the Missouri crisis, Gaillard did not enter the fray. Most probably, as the Senate’s presiding officer, Gaillard felt that taking sides would be a breach of both decorum and the duties of his office. In an era of controversy, Gaillard was one of the few national political figures that appeared to his colleagues to be above the fray. As described by Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Gaillard preserved order in the Senate “not by authority of rules, but by the graces of deportment . . . There was probably not an instance of disorder or a disagreeable scene in the chamber, during his long continued presidency.”
Gaillard’s wife died in a drowning accident in May 1799. Taken with illness in early 1826, Gaillard died in Washington, D.C., on February 26 and was buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington.
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.