Lawyer, politician. Petigru was born near Abbeville on May 10, 1789, the eldest child of William Pettigrew, a farmer, and his wife, Louise Gibert, a well-educated Huguenot. He attended Moses Waddel’s Willington Academy, graduated from South Carolina College in 1809, and taught at Beaufort College while he read law. Admitted to the bar in 1812 shortly after changing the spelling of his name, he served as Beaufort District’s solicitor from 1816 to 1822. In 1816 he married Jane Amelia Postell, with whom he had four children: Alfred, Caroline, Daniel, and Susan.
In 1819 Petigru moved to Charleston, where he became James Hamilton’s law partner. Appointed South Carolina attorney general in 1822, he prosecuted all Charleston District civil and criminal cases, represented the state in appeals courts and federal courts, and advised the legislature. Upholding state authority, even as he strove to curtail the excesses of public officials, he also appealed to federal over state law when defending an army officer on slave-related charges. In addition, after a federal judge refused to rule on the state law that required free black sailors aboard vessels in Charleston harbor to be jailed, Petigru made no effort to enforce it.
In 1830 Petigru, a leader of the Unionist faction, resigned as attorney general and was elected to the state House of Representatives. Despite defeat in 1832, he remained a major spokesmen for his party until the repeal of nullification in 1833. In 1834, arguing for the plaintiff in McCready v. Hunt, he won a state appeals court decision that the nullifier-imposed test oath for all state officials violated South Carolina’s constitutional ban on such oaths. Months later he framed the legislative compromise subordinating state to national allegiance. Despite a second term (1836–1837) in the legislature, Petigru’s political career was destroyed by his loyalty to the checks and balances in the United States Constitution that restrained legislative power by judicial power and state government by federal government.
It was his preeminence as a lawyer that made Petigru a public man after 1840. Although he believed that common law must change in response to new social and economic conditions, his state’s limited industrialization restricted his contribution to such change to a few transportation and banking cases. In Pell v. Ball (1845), however, he argued successfully that plantation property did not differ from other forms and must be distributed among heirs by the same principles.
In the 1850s Petigru’s most distinctive equity practice relied heavily on arbitration and mediation to avoid erratic decisions from judges he considered inept. In court he appeared twice as often for the defendant as for the plaintiff. In cases involving abusive husbands, he served both rich and poor women, but his most visible representation of the legally disadvantaged served free people of color. As adviser to the British consul’s campaign to thwart the incarceration of black seamen and when he rescued the free children of George Broad from slavery, he acted both behind the scenes and in court. And though he never challenged the institution of slavery, he defied public opinion when he successfully represented Reuben Smalle, an itinerant Yankee believed to be an abolitionist. In recognition of his legal expertise rather than political conformity, in 1859 the legislature appointed Petigru to codify South Carolina civil law, a task he finished in 1862. His code, whose only significant substantive changes benefited free blacks, was not adopted until 1872, and then only in a reorganized form. Torn between conflicting allegiances to federal constitution and to southern culture, Petigru had an unchanging commitment to justice and order through law. His loyalty to a constitutionally defined balance of power never wavered, whether it was defending minority rights from majority incursions, checking legislative excess by judicial action, or contending that knowledgeable judges shape juries’ findings within the confines of the law.
Never backtracking in his condemnation of South Carolina’s April 1861 attack on Fort Sumter for having set “a blazing torch to the temple of constitutional liberty,” Petigru went to court to block the Confederacy’s confiscation of absentee Carolinians’ property and its requirement that lawyers, like other citizens, inform against such owners. Although he scorned the Richmond government and deplored war-time civilian dislocation, Petigru mourned Southern battlefield disasters, especially those injuring or killing his young kinsmen. He died in Charleston on March 9, 1863. In an impressive tribute, city and state officials as well as Charleston’s Confederate officer corps followed his coffin to St. Michael’s cemetery.
Carson, James Petigru, ed. Life, Letters and Speeches of James Louis Petigru, the Union Man of South Carolina. Washington, D.C.: W. H. Lowdermilk, 1920.
Ford, Lacy K., Jr. “James Louis Petigru: The Last South Carolina Federalist.” In Intellectual Life in Antebellum Charleston, edited by Michael O’Brien and David Moltke-Hansen. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986.
Pease, William H., and Jane H. Pease. James Louis Petigru: Southern Conservative, Southern Dissenter. 1995. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.