One of Clemson’s most passionate postwar goals was to establish a college to provide practical education in agriculture and the sciences, as he believed that there would be “no hope for the South short of widespread scientific education.”
Engineer, agriculturalist, college founder. Thomas Green Clemson IV was born in Philadelphia on July 1, 1807, the third of six children of Thomas Green Clemson III, a prosperous merchant, and Elizabeth Baker. He studied at schools in Philadelphia and at the American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy in Norwich, Vermont. Clemson continued his education in Paris, attending lectures at the Sorbonne Royal College and earning a diploma as assayer from the Royal School of Mines in 1831. He worked as a mining engineer in the United States and abroad, and published numerous scientific articles.
Clemson married John C. Calhoun’s favorite daughter, Anna Maria, on November 13, 1838, at Calhoun’s Fort Hill plantation near Pendleton. They had four children, two of whom lived to adulthood. In 1844 Calhoun recommended Clemson’s appointment as chargé d’affaires to Belgium, the highest-ranking American diplomat to that country, where he served until 1851. Eventually settling in Maryland, Clemson made a name for himself as a leading agricultural chemist. He also promoted his belief in the value of scientific education and helped organize Maryland Agricultural College (later the University of Maryland).
In 1860 Clemson was appointed superintendent of agricultural affairs, a predecessor of the modern secretary of agriculture. Tensions were flaring between the North and the South, however, and Clemson’s sympathies lay with his wife’s home state. He resigned his federal position in March 1861. Clemson joined the Confederacy in May 1863 and served in the Nitre and Mining Bureau, Trans-Mississippi Department, until June 1865. After parole he joined his family at his mother-in-law’s home in Pendleton.
One of Clemson’s most passionate postwar goals was to establish a college to provide practical education in agriculture and the sciences, as he believed that there would be “no hope for the South short of widespread scientific education.” He continued the cause while serving as vice president and then president of the Pendleton Farmers Society from 1867 to 1869, but he soon became discouraged by the state’s poverty and the lack of support. In addition, Clemson was in continually poor health and grieving over the deaths of his two children, seventeen days apart, in 1871. The Clemsons took possession of Calhoun’s Fort Hill estate in 1872 and decided to use the property to establish a college. Clemson continued the plan after Anna’s death in 1875, meeting with supporters such as Benjamin Tillman, who had been working toward a similar goal. During the 1880s, in drafts of his will and letters to his attorneys, Clemson worked out his plans for a “high seminary of learning,” which would provide a course of studies “in theoretic and practical instruction in those sciences and arts which bear directly upon agriculture.”
Clemson died on April 6, 1888, and was buried in St. Paul’s Episcopal churchyard in Pendleton. He left 814 acres of land and more than $80,000 in assets to the state of South Carolina for the college he envisioned. The state formally accepted the bequest on December 6, 1889, after a lengthy debate and a court battle on behalf of Clemson’s only grandchild. Clemson’s seven handpicked life trustees and six additional trustees selected by the General Assembly helped bring Clemson Agricultural College (now Clemson University) to its opening day on July 7, 1893.
Clemson, Thomas Green. Papers. Special Collections, Clemson University Libraries, Clemson.
Holmes, Alester G., and George R. Sherrill. Thomas Green Clemson: His Life and Work. Richmond, Va.: Garrett and Massie, 1937.
Lander, Ernest McPherson. The Calhoun Family and Thomas Green Clemson: The Decline of a Southern Patriarchy. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983.
–––. “The Founder Thomas Green Clemson, 1807–1888.” In Tradition: A History of the Presidency of Clemson University, edited by Donald M. McKale. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1988.