Writer, diplomat, historian. Trescot was born on November 10, 1822, in Charleston, the son of Henry Trescot and Sarah McCrady. Trescot studied at the College of Charleston, graduating in 1841, and then pursued legal studies with Edward McCrady and Mitchell King. He was admitted to the bar in 1843. Through his 1848 marriage to Eliza Natalie Cuthbert, he assumed the proprietorship of Barnwell Island, a self-sustaining Sea Island cotton plantation bordering the Broad River in Beaufort District. His marriage produced seven children.
An astute and productive writer, Trescot produced a series of addresses, essays, and pamphlets to define the culture of the planter class, defend its social hegemony, and put forth an essentially conservative case for southern nationalism. As a result, he developed a distinctive rationale for secession, extended through a broad campaign of correspondence with younger leaders of the landed interest from Virginia to the Gulf of Mexico. With the collapse of the first secession movement in 1852, he turned to writing essays on the diplomatic history of the Revolution and early republic, along with published critiques of foreign policy issues of the day. These writings brought him a posting to the U.S. embassy in London in 1852 and appointment as assistant secretary of state in 1860 under President James Buchanan.
Still loyal to the secession cause, by the end of 1860 Trescot found himself in a crucially informed position in the U.S. government at the very moment when South Carolina was moving against it and the embryonic Confederacy was beginning to arm. Corresponding with the conservative wing of the secession movement, Trescot effectively kept them apprised of secret military action or inactivity on the part of the central government and seems materially to have assisted in the transfer of arms to situations that would fall outside Union control.
Trescot’s Civil War career was a quiet one. He served on the state Executive Council, in the General Assembly (1862–1866), and on the staff of General Roswell Ripley. Trescot drew on his special knowledge of the state’s race laws to become involved in cases affecting the status of captured troops from the Union’s black regiments. And from first blood forth, he was called upon to eulogize the Confederate dead. He wrote eloquent, widely published memorials in one form or another for the rest of his life. Elaborate, affectionate, but clear-eyed portraits of plantation culture, these justifications of the social and moral relations of the Old South are his most important legacy.
With the end of the war, Trescot allied himself with the old “Union and Cooperation” forces of the upcountry. He served as agent for Governors Benjamin Perry and James Orr as a lobbyist in Washington, particularly for the recovery of confiscated land. Both there and in the pages of the press, Trescot argued for a cooperative approach to reordering the economic and social relations of the South, a system based on race separation and property privilege. With the implementation of congressional Reconstruction in South Carolina in 1868, such questions become moot, and Trescot’s remaining career was devoted to a series of diplomatic missions, from China to Chile to Mexico. In 1889 Trescot was especially instrumental in the formation of the Pan American Union. While he lived most of his last years in Washington, he maintained the family’s old summer residence in Pendleton, where he died on May 4, 1898. He was buried in the cemetery of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Pendleton.
Betts, Rose Miller. “William Henry Trescot.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1929.
Farley, M. Foster, ed. “Three Letters of William Henry Trescot to Howell Cobb, 1861.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 68 (January 1967): 22–30.
Hunt, Gaillard. “Narrative and Letter of William Henry Trescot, Concerning the Negotiations between South Carolina and President Buchanan in December 1860.” American Historical Review 13 (April 1908): 528–56.
Moltke-Hansen, David. “A Beaufort Planter’s Rhetorical World: The Contexts and Contents of William Henry Trescot’s Orations.” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1981): 120–32.
Olsberg, R. Nicolas. “A Government of Class and Race: William Henry Trescot and the South Carolina Chivalry, 1860–1865.” Doctoral diss., University of South Carolina, 1972.
———. “William Henry Trescot: The Crisis of 1860.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1967.