Politician, planter, poet, essayist. Grayson was born in Beaufort District on November 12, 1788, the son of William John Grayson and Susannah Greene. He spent much of his youth on Parris Island, the inspiration for his later pastoral verse. An avid reader, Grayson attended boarding schools in the North and graduated at the top of his class in 1809 from South Carolina College. He married Sarah Matilda Somarsall of Charleston in 1814 and amassed a fortune as the owner of two Wando River plantations and 170 slaves. Throughout his life he held numerous public offices, serving terms in the S.C. House of Representatives (1813–1815 and 1822–1826); the S.C. Senate (1826–1831); the U.S. House of Representatives (1833–1837); and as Charleston’s customs collector (1841–1853).
While editor of the Beaufort Gazette, Grayson promoted nullification, winning his Congressional seat in 1832 on the states’ rights ticket. He experienced a change of heart after his return to South Carolina and joined the Whig Party, fearful that the South’s dependence on cotton would lead to economic disaster. The stridency of Robert Barnwell Rhett and other “fire-eaters” also appears to have chastened Grayson’s earlier flirtation with radical political theory. He despaired over the high emotion in American public life and particularly the debates about slavery. As a devoted classicist, Grayson believed that Romanticism’s celebration of “human folly and madness” portended cultural decline, a theme he frequented in his late-antebellum essays for Russell’s Magazine. On the eve of disunion, Grayson’s defense of classicism, “What is Poetry?” (1859), articulated his view that in all human endeavor, reason and order must guide behavior and expression.
Grayson is best remembered for his proslavery verse, The Hireling and the Slave (1854), a rejoinder (structured in heroic couplets) to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s depiction of slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Like George Fitzhugh, Grayson found abhorrent the wage labor systems of England and the North, characterizing them as an even greater injustice than slavery. But Grayson was also a Unionist, and vigorously defended the principles of America’s founding throughout the sectional crises of the 1850s. In a pamphlet (1850) addressed to Governor Whitemarsh B. Seabrook, Grayson prophesied, “Union is the source of peace, prosperity, and power to the Nation.” Secession would herald the victory of abolitionism, the triumph of anarchy. Only the “imprudence” of the southern people and “the rashness” of their leaders, warned Grayson, could make manifest such a catastrophe. For this and his satirical essay, The Letters of Curtius (1851), in which he ridiculed the South’s material inability to wage war with the federal government, Grayson was removed from the office of customs collector in 1853.
In his Autobiography, written during the early years of the Civil War, Grayson mourned the destruction of the United States, whose repair he could not foresee. “I witnessed the death of the great Republic with sorrow. I was born with it and I survive it. It seemed to me an unnatural event for an individual to be longer lived than a powerful State.” Grayson also prepared biographies of his friends William Lowndes (the manuscript is believed to have been destroyed in the Charleston fire of 1861), and fellow Unionist James Louis Petigru. His attenuated war diary (May–November 1862) captures the emotional tautness of Charleston during the Union Army’s first sustained attempt to capture the city.
Grayson died at his daughter’s home in Newberry on October 4, 1863, and was buried in Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery.
Calhoun, Richard J., ed. Witness to Sorrow: The Antebellum Autobiography of William J. Grayson. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. Hubbell, Jay B. The South in American Literature, 1607–1900. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1954.