Jurist, governor. Magrath was born in Charleston on February 8, 1813, the son of the Irish merchant John Magrath and Maria Gordon. After his graduation from South Carolina College in 1831, Magrath briefly attended Harvard Law School, but he acquired most of his legal training in Charleston under the tutelage of James L. Petigru. He was admitted to the bar in 1835. From 1838 to 1841 Magrath represented the city parishes of St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s in the state House of Representatives. On March 8, 1843, he married Emma D. Mikell of Charleston. The couple had five children. Around 1865 Magrath was married again, this time to Mary Eliza McCord of Columbia. They had no children.
In 1856 Magrath was appointed a federal judge to the District Court of South Carolina, which brought him national attention and controversy. His tenure coincided with increasingly strident calls from some southern nationalists to reopen the African slave trade. Although opposed to the trade personally, Magrath nevertheless handed slave-trade proponents a signal victory in 1860. In a decision associated with the cases surrounding the Echo and the Wanderer, ships seized for illegally transporting African slaves, Magrath stated that the 1820 federal statute on piracy did not apply to the slave trade. “The African slave trade,” he declared, “is not piracy.” In rejecting the piracy statute, which carried the death penalty, Magrath’s decision took some of the teeth out of federal slave-trade laws and was hailed by proslavery and states’ rights advocates. Immediately following the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, Magrath resigned his judgeship. On November 7 he told a crowded Charleston courtroom that the “department of Government, which I believe has best maintained its integrity and preserved its purity, has been suspended.” Admirers later claimed that Magrath’s resignation was “the first overt act and irrevocable step” toward secession.
A cooperationist earlier in his career, Magrath supported secession by 1860, feeling “an assurance of what will be the action of the State.” He sat in the state’s Secession Convention and briefly served as the South Carolina secretary of state. In 1862 he was appointed as a Confederate district judge. His decisions generally opposed the concentration of authority by the Confederate government in Richmond. In December 1864 Magrath was elected governor of South Carolina, the last one chosen by the state legislature. During his brief tenure Magrath was affiliated with other southern governors who criticized the administration of President Jefferson Davis. By 1865 Magrath had become disenchanted with the “moral atrophy” of the southern people. “It is not an unwillingness to oppose the enemy, but a chilling apprehension of the futility of doing so, which affects the people,” he wrote at the time. Following the collapse of the Confederacy, Magrath was arrested on May 25, 1865, and imprisoned at Fort Pulaski, Georgia. Released in December, Magrath returned to Charleston and rebuilt his lucrative law practice. He died in Charleston on April 9, 1893, and was buried in Magnolia Cemetery.
Brooks, Ulysses R. South Carolina Bench and Bar. Columbia, S.C.: State Company, 1908.
Magrath, Andrew G. The Slave Trade Not Declared Piracy by the Act of 1820: The United States versus William C. Corrie; Presentment for Piracy. Colum- bia, S.C.: S. G. Courtenay, 1860.
Obituary. Charleston News and Courier, April 10, 1893, pp. 1, 2. Sinha, Manisha. The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina