Legislator, U.S. attorney general, writer, intellectual. Legaré was born in Charleston on January 2, 1797, of Scots and Huguenot ancestry, the son of Solomon Legaré and Mary Splatt Swinton. A childhood illness left him with stunted limbs. As a boy he studied under the great schoolmaster Moses Waddel at Willington Academy before entering the new South Carolina College as a sophomore in 1811 at the age of fourteen. He was valedictorian of the class of 1814. From 1818 to 1820 he studied abroad—French and Italian in Paris, and jurisprudence in Edinburgh.
Legaré enjoyed successful public and private careers. He studied law in Charleston, served in the General Assembly (1820–1822, 1824–1830), managed a plantation on Johns Island, and served as attorney general of South Carolina from 1830 to 1832. His services, however, were not limited to his native state. In 1832 Legaré was appointed chargé d’affaires in Belgium, and he was elected to Congress in 1836 as a Union Democrat. He was appointed U.S. attorney general in 1841 in John Tyler’s cabinet. On Daniel Webster’s resignation in 1843, Legaré became secretary of state ad interim, but he would die within three months. He was an effective attorney general who was for states’ rights but against nullification.
With Stephen Elliott, Legaré founded the Southern Review (1828–1832), which became the model for all subsequent Charleston magazines and was popularly known as Legaré’s magazine. He supplied much of its content. At the time of his death Legaré had enough manuscripts for a two-volume edition of his works, which were edited by his sister, Mary Legaré, and published posthumously in 1845. Neither Legaré’s works nor his magazine seem quite deserving of the extravagant praise they received during his lifetime. His best-known Southern Review essay, “On Classical Learning” (February 1828), made the case for the classics as a staple of the education of the southern gentleman and professional man. His literary taste was for the classics and eighteenth-century neoclassicism; he shared the doubts about the romantics that prevailed among Charleston critics well into the century. He believed that Greek and Latin should be studied from the eighth year through the sixteenth.
The Southern Review exemplified the conservatism of southern professional men, especially in Charleston, beginning with issues such as states’ rights and high tariffs and extending to agrarianism and slavery. But there were two issues that divided conservatives, unionism and nullification, the latter opposed by Legaré.
As literary critics, Charleston conservatives such as Legaré were slower in accepting romantic theory and practice than were those in New York and Boston, although Legaré did express occasional praise for Lord Byron, Walter Scott, and William Cullen Bryant. South Carolina had a tradition-based society to which Legaré was a leading contributor. A lifelong bachelor, Legaré died in Boston on June 20, 1843. He was buried in Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston.
Legaré, Hugh Swinton. Writings of Hugh Swinton Legaré. 2 vols. Edited by Mary Swinton Legaré Bullen. 1845–1846. Reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1970.
O’Brien, Michael A. A Character of Hugh Legaré. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985.
Rhea, Linda. Hugh Swinton Legaré: A Charleston Intellectual. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1934.