Although a highly respected legislator and banker, Elliott is perhaps best remembered for his activities as a botanist.
Legislator, banker, botanist. Elliott was born on November 11, 1771, in Beaufort, the youngest son of William Elliott and Mary Barnwell. After the death of both parents, he grew up in the home of his older brother, William. In 1791 he graduated from Yale College, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.
Returning to Beaufort, Elliott quickly assumed an active role in the political and economic affairs of South Carolina. On January 28, 1796, he married Esther Wylly Habersham of Savannah, the daughter of James Habersham. The marriage produced thirteen children. From 1794 to 1800 Elliott represented St. Helena’s Parish for three terms in the state House of Representatives. In 1808 parish voters elected him to the state Senate, where he sponsored two important pieces of legislation. In 1811 he was instrumental in the passage of the Free School Act, which created the state’s first public-school system. The following year he wrote the act to create the Bank of the State of South Carolina. He resigned his Senate seat in 1812 to become president of the bank, a position he held until his death. Elliott also had sizable plantation interests in South Carolina and Georgia, including Silk Hope and Vallambrosa plantations on the Ogeechee River in Georgia. He grew rice and subsistence crops and experimented with crop rotation. Moving to Charleston in 1812, he subsequently sold his Georgia plantations.
Although a highly respected legislator and banker, Elliott is perhaps best remembered for his activities as a botanist. His initial interest was geology, but a long trip northward in 1808 focused his attention on plants. He learned much from Dr. John Brickell and later named the genus Brickellia in his honor. In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Elliott met Henry Muhlenberg, the premier botanist in America at that time. They maintained an active correspondence, with Muhlenberg urging Elliott to make his research public. He assembled a magnificent library and acquired a small farm at which he planted a wide variety of seeds, roots, and bulbs. In addition to his personal collecting activities, he also persuaded some sixty persons to gather specimens, which he added to his herbarium (later preserved at the Charleston Museum). Between 1816 and 1824 he published A Sketch of the Botany of South-Carolina and Georgia, issued in thirteen parts. He soon became an exacting and meticulous botanist, with correspondents across the United States, Canada, and Europe. His other publications included “Observations on the Genus Glycine, and Some of Its Kindred Genera” (1818) and “Some Observations on the Culture of the Cherokee or Nondescript Rose as a Hedge Plant,” written in 1814 but published posthumously.
In Charleston, Elliott found a variety of additional outlets for his wide-ranging talents. He was president of the Literary and Philosophical Society of South Carolina (1814–1830), a trustee of South Carolina College (1820–1829), and a trustee of the College of Charleston (1826–1830). He devised a book classification system for the Charleston Library Society. He played an important role in the creation of the Medical College of South Carolina, where he lectured in 1824 as its first professor of natural history and botany. He helped oversee the Orphan House and served on other civic boards. As a commissioner of the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company, he urged building a transportation network with Charleston as its terminus. In 1828 Elliott and Hugh Swinton Legaré launched the Southern Review, a quarterly literary magazine.
When the American Geological Society was formed in 1819, Elliott was one of its vice presidents. He was a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, the American Philosophical Society, and the Linnaean Society in Paris, France. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an honorary member of the Lyceum of Natural History of New York. He was honored with the LL.D. from Yale (1819), Harvard (1822), and Columbia (1825). The Medical College of South Carolina bestowed an honorary M.D. in 1825.
Elliott died on March 28, 1830. He was buried at St. Paul’s Radcliffeborough in Charleston.
Barnwell, Stephen B. Story of an American Family. Marquette, Mich., 1969. Elliott, Stephen. A Sketch of the Botany of South-Carolina and Georgia. 2 vols.
1816–1824. Reprint, New York: Hafner, 1971. Lesesne, J. Mauldin. The Bank of the State of South Carolina: A General and
Political History. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1970. Moultrie, James, Jr. An Eulogium on Stephen Elliott, M.D. & L.L.D.
Charleston, S.C.: A. E. Miller, 1830. Rogers, George A. “Stephen Elliott, a Southern Humanist.” In The Humanist in His World, edited by Barbara W. Bitter and Frederick K. Sanders. Greenwood, S.C.: Attic, 1976.