Journalist, governor. One of antebellum South Carolina’s preeminent Unionist political leaders, Perry was born on November 20, 1805, in Pendleton District (now Oconee County), the son of Benjamin Perry and Anna Foster. Alternating farmwork with school, Perry was given complete management of the family farm by the age of fourteen. He attended one term, respectively, at the Asheville Academy in North Carolina in 1822 and the Greenville Male Academy in 1823. Perry began his legal studies in Greenville, which was to remain his lifelong residence, with the prominent state attorney Baylis J. Earle in March 1824. He was admitted to the bar on January 10, 1827. On April 27, 1837, Perry married Elizabeth Frances McCall of Charleston. They had seven children.
Perry’s public career began with his editorship from 1830 to 1833 of the Greenville Mountaineer, an organ of the state’s Unionists. Throughout his career Perry asserted that his political ideology rested on the principles of the Federalist Papers and Washington’s Farewell Address. As a newspaper editor and political partisan, Perry frequently found himself embroiled in controversy. On August 16, 1832, he mortally wounded the pro-nullification newspaper editor Turner Bynum in a duel arising over a slanderous article. Elected to the 1832 nullification convention, Perry voted against the ordinance. He was an unsuccessful congressional candidate of the Unionist Democrats in 1834, 1835, and 1848. Perry served eleven terms in the state House of Representatives (1836–1841, 1848–1859, and 1862–1864), as well as two terms in the state Senate (1844–1847). In the General Assembly he advocated upcountry economic interests, democratization of state government, and legal and judiciary reform. Returning to journalism, from 1851 to 1858 he edited the Southern Patriot, and its successor the Patriot and Mountaineer, the only Unionist newspaper in the state at that time. A delegate to the 860 national Democratic convention held in Charleston, Perry refused to join the state’s delegation in its walkout from the convention, believing that the salvation of the Union and the South was inextricably bound to the survival of a united Democratic Party. While decrying secession as “madness and folly,” Perry remained loyal to the state and the Confederacy, stating, “You are all now going to the devil and I will go with you.” During the Civil War, Perry held the positions of district attorney (1862), assessment commissioner of impressed produce (1863), and district judge (1865) under the Confederate government. In 1863 Perry was commissioned a second lieutenant of the Greenville Mounted Riflemen, one of two companies he was instrumental in organizing for home defense.
Perry’s political career culminated with his appointment as provisional governor of South Carolina by President Andrew Johnson. Serving from June 30 to December 21, 1865, Perry was an energetic and able chief executive, whose ultimate success was oftentimes hampered by his legalist approach and misreading of northern public opinion and political objectives. He restored to office all state officials who occupied them when the Confederacy collapsed, permitted organization of volunteer militia companies, negotiated the abolition of trial by military tribunal for whites, and, to alleviate public distress, refused to levy taxes. He recommended passage of the controversial Black Codes, which severely restricted the rights of freed slaves, and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Perry’s greatest achievement was the creation of a new state constitution, which embodied such long-cherished personal goals as popular election of governor and presidential electors, more equitable representation in the Senate, and the abolition of property qualifications for members of the legislature. On October 30, 1865, Perry was elected to the U.S. Senate, but he was denied his seat by the Republican Congress. An ardent opponent of Reconstruction, Perry opposed black suffrage, ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the calling of the 1868 constitutional convention. Defeated for election to Congress in 1872, Perry enthusiastically supported the candidacy of Wade Hampton III for governor in 1876.
Called by his admirers “the Old Roman” for his integrity and stoic adherence to principle, Perry had a reserved demeanor and brusque manner that masked a sensitive and emotional temperament. A passionate reader and prolific writer, in 1883 he published Reminiscences of Public Men. An irony of Perry’s career was that while a devoted Unionist, he disliked the North, loathed abolitionists, and after the Civil War became a champion of states’ rights when he judged them being usurped by extra-constitutional federal authority. Perry died on December 3, 1886, at his country estate Sans Souci and was buried in Greenville’s Christ Episcopal Church Cemetary.
Bleser, Carol K. “The Perrys of Greenville: A Nineteenth-Century Marriage.” In The Web of Southern Social Relations: Women, Family, and Education, edited by Walter J. Fraser, Jr., R. Frank Saunders, and Jon L. Wakelyn. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.
Kibler, Lillian Adele. Benjamin F. Perry: South Carolina Unionist. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1946.
Meats, Stephen, and Edwin T. Arnold, eds. The Writings of Benjamin F. Perry. 3 vols. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1980.