Congressman, governor. Born at Craytonville, Pendleton District, on May 12, 1822, Orr was the son of Christopher Orr and Martha McCann. Young “Larry,” as he was known, attended schools at Anderson, where his family had moved in 1830. In 1839 Orr entered the University of Virginia and studied for two years. Returning to Anderson, he was admitted to the bar in 1843. On November 16, 1843, Orr married Mary Jane Marshall. The couple had seven children.
Orr’s public career began in 1843 as editor of the Anderson Gazette. He served in the General Assembly (1844–1847), where he championed upcountry interests, supported the popular election of presidential electors, and advocated reform of the free school system. He denounced the secessionist “Bluffton Movement” and the inequitable parish system of legislative apportionment. Elected to the U.S. Congress as a States’ Rights Democrat, Orr served five terms from 1849 to 1859. By sentiment a Unionist, Orr nonetheless was an adherent of states’ rights and the right of secession. Determining that southern interests would best be protected within a strong Democratic Party, he led the National Democrats in South Carolina from 1852 to 1860 and was responsible for the state sending a delegation to the 1856 Democratic national convention, the first time South Carolina had been represented in such a body. An opponent of the Know-Nothing movement, and initially a supporter of Stephen A. Douglas, Orr’s national stature was confirmed with his election on December 7, 1857, as Speaker of the House of Representatives (Thirty-fifth Congress), only the second South Carolinian to hold that office. With the rupture of the Democratic Party and the election of Abraham Lincoln, Orr supported secession as the South’s only recourse. He was a delegate to the Secession Convention, served on the committee to draft the ordinance, and was one of three commissioners sent to Washington to negotiate surrender of the Charleston forts.
Orr’s Confederate years were his least gratifying and productive. He raised the First Infantry Regiment Rifles, known as Orr’s Rifles, and served as its colonel. In December 1861 Orr was elected to the Confederate Senate where he served until the fall of the Confederacy. A bitter critic of the Jefferson Davis administration, Orr advocated individual and states’ rights over the national interest. By 1864, believing defeat inevitable, he supported a negotiated peace.
Orr immediately entered into Reconstruction politics. In 1865 he was a commissioner to negotiate with President Andrew Johnson for the establishment of a provisional government in South Carolina. That same year Orr served as a delegate to the state constitutional convention, where he was recognized as the “chief agent in the formation of the new Constitution.” Petitioned by convention members to run for governor, Orr became the first popularly elected chief executive in the state’s history. Inaugurated November 29, 1865, he and his administration saw the establishment of a state penitentiary, the provision of artificial limbs for Confederate amputees, the reopening of South Carolina College and other schools, the rebuilding of the state’s governmental infrastructure, and passage of the controversial “Black Codes,” which Orr felt was unwise. An advocate of limited black suffrage and conciliation toward the North, Orr nevertheless opposed ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He was removed from office by military order on June 30, 1868, to make way for newly elected Governor Robert K. Scott. From 1868 to 1872 Orr served as judge of the eighth judicial circuit. His rulings were marked by leniency to debtors, and he granted the first judicial divorces in the history of the state. In August 1870, concluding that opposition to the Radicals was counterproductive, Orr joined the Republican Party in the hope of effecting reforms. As a delegate to the 1872 Republican national convention, he praised President Ulysses Grant’s Ku Klux Klan policy in South Carolina. As reward for his support and as a gesture of reconciliation with the South, Grant nominated Orr as minister to Russia. He was unanimously confirmed on December 11, 1872.
Tall and portly, with a cordial and jovial personality, Orr was lauded by admirers as an astute political pragmatist, while condemned by critics as a self-serving opportunist who abandoned principles to advance his career. But despite his postwar conversion to the Republican Party, his accomplishments and reputation allowed Orr to retain the respect, if not the affection, of his fellow white South Carolinians. Orr arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia, in March 1873 but contracted pneumonia and died on May 5, 1873. He was buried in Anderson’s First Presbyterian churchyard.
Breese, Donald H. “James L. Orr, Calhoun, and the Cooperationist Tradition in South Carolina.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 80 (October 1979): 273–85.
Leemhuis, Roger P. James L. Orr and the Sectional Conflict. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1979.
White, Laura. “The National Democrats in South Carolina, 1852 to 1860.” South Atlantic Quarterly 28 (October 1929): 370–89.