In 1826 he was elected to the state General Assembly, where he represented Prince William’s Parish for a single term in the House of Representatives.
Educator, congressman, U.S. senator. Barnwell was born near Beaufort on August 10, 1801, the son of planter and politician Robert Gibbes Barnwell and Elizabeth Hayne Wigg. He received his early education in Beaufort and Charleston and in 1817 entered Harvard, where he was the valedictorian of the class of 1821. Barnwell returned to Charleston to read law in the offices of James Hamilton, Jr., and James L. Petigru. He was admitted to the bar in 1823 and established a law practice in Beaufort District with his cousin Robert Barnwell Rhett.
In 1826 he was elected to the state General Assembly, where he represented Prince William’s Parish for a single term in the House of Representatives. The following year, on August 9, 1827, he married his second cousin Eliza Barnwell, with whom he had thirteen children. He ran successfully for Congress in 1828 and served from 1829 to 1833. Barnwell was a prominent nullifier, attending the nullification convention and signing the Ordinance of Nullification. Though he was unopposed for reelection, he retired at the end of his second term.
Barnwell returned to Beaufort to manage his legal practice and planting interests. In late 1835 he replaced the controversial Thomas Cooper as president of South Carolina College. Barnwell succeeded in restoring the college’s public credibility, as evidenced by rising enrollment and legislative appropriations for construction projects and book purchases. Blaming ill health, he resigned the presidency in 1841. His relationship with South Carolina College endured, however, and he remained a trustee almost continuously until his death.
After the death of U.S. Senator Franklin H. Elmore, Governor Whitemarsh B. Seabrook appointed Barnwell to the U.S. Senate, where he served from June 4 to December 8, 1850. During his brief term, the Senate considered the legislation making up the Compromise of 1850. Barnwell opposed many of the proposals, including the admission of California as a free state. Although he served as a delegate to the Nashville Convention (1850) and to the Southern Rights Convention (1852), Barnwell was among the leading “cooperationists,” considering separate state secession to be “fraught with danger.”
With the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Barnwell changed his position and embraced secession. He signed the Ordinance of Secession and was elected one of three commissioners to negotiate with President James Buchanan for the transfer of federal property in South Carolina to state control. He sat in the Provisional Confederate Congress in Montgomery, serving as its temporary chairman in February 1861 and as a member of the committee that drafted the Confederate constitution. Confederate president Jefferson Davis offered Barnwell the position of secretary of state, but he declined. He represented South Carolina in the Confederate Senate for the duration of its existence and was among South Carolina’s few consistent supporters of the Davis administration.
His wealth destroyed in the war, Barnwell in late 1865 returned to the reorganized and renamed University of South Carolina to serve as chairman of the faculty, the institution’s chief executive. He served until 1873, when, following the takeover of the university’s board of trustees by the Radical Republicans, Barnwell was dismissed. He opened a private school for girls in Columbia, but after the university was closed in 1877, Governor Wade Hampton III appointed Barnwell to serve as the institution’s librarian, secretary, and treasurer. He held the post until his death in Columbia on November 24, 1882. He was buried in the St. Helena Episcopal Churchyard, Beaufort.
Barnwell, John. “Hamlet to Hotspur: Letters of Robert Woodward Barnwell to Robert Barnwell Rhett.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 77 (October 1976): 236–56.
Hollis, Daniel W. “Robert W. Barnwell.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 56 (July 1955): 131–37.
–––. University of South Carolina. 2 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1951, 1956.
Moore, Alexander, ed. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives. Vol. 5, 1816–1828. Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1992.