U.S. senator. Sawyer was born in Bolton, Massachusetts, on December 12, 1822. After graduating from Harvard University in 1844, he taught school in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts until 1859. While in New Hampshire he met and married Delia Gay of Nashua in 1854. In 1859 he accepted an offer to create a normal school for women in Charleston, South Carolina.
After the state seceded, Sawyer remained aloof from the Confederate effort until forced to join the Home Guards in 1864. At that point he secured a pass for himself and his family through the lines to a Union outpost. They returned to the North, where Sawyer campaigned for Abraham Lincoln’s reelection in 1864. In February 1865 he returned to Charleston and became active in advancing Reconstruction measures. Later that year he was appointed as a collector of internal revenue for South Carolina. He was elected to the 1868 constitutional convention but did not attend.
In 1868 Sawyer was elected as a Republican to the U.S. Senate, narrowly defeating Albert G. Mackey, a native white Republican. Sawyer then engineered the removal of Mackey from his post as collector of customs at the port of Charleston. For the rest of his term Sawyer and Congressman Christopher C. Bowen were considered the leaders of the “customs-house faction” of the Republican Party, which often opposed party regulars headed by Governor Robert K. Scott.
In the Senate, Sawyer gained a reputation as a conservative Republican and an active legislator. While he affirmed the right of blacks to vote and hold office, he also favored amnesty for former Confederates. Much of his energy was spent appealing for federal aid to the devastated South, including railroad appropriations, patronage appointments, and circulating currency. On issues relating to Reconstruction, Sawyer strongly opposed Republican corruption in South Carolina. In 1872 he returned to the state with an alleged message from President Ulysses Grant calling for an honest man to receive the Republican nomination for governor. When it went to the notoriously corrupt Franklin J. Moses, Jr., Sawyer and other moderates bolted the party and set up a rival convention, making their own nominations for state offices.
If Sawyer’s conservatism won him support in Washington, it hurt him in South Carolina. Regular Republicans first complained against Sawyer in 1870, when he was accused by a prominent black leader of failing to appoint enough African Americans to customhouse jobs. It was his participation in the bolters’ movement in 1872, however, that led to his replacement in the Senate. His four-year term ended that year, and he was not a serious candidate for reelection. The state legislature instead elected John J. Patterson.
After leaving the Senate, Sawyer remained in government for many years, serving in the U.S. Treasury Department, the Coast Survey, and the War Department. Retiring in 1887, he taught for a time in Ithaca, New York, and then moved to Tennessee to engage in the real estate business. Sawyer died suddenly in Shawnee, Tennessee, on July 31, 1891. He was buried on his property, Sawyer Heights, near East Cumberland Gap.
Reynolds, John S. Reconstruction in South Carolina, 1865–1877. 1905. Reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.
Sawyer, Frederick Adolphus. Papers. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
Seip, Terry L. The South Returns to Congress: Men, Economic Measures, and Intersectional Relationships, 1868–1879. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.