As a congressman, Hammond joined the charmed circle of planter-politicians that composed the state’s leadership.
Congressman, governor, U.S. senator. Son of the New England emigrant Elisha Hammond and Catherine Fox Spann of Edgefield, Hammond was born on November 15, 1807, in Newberry District. Schooled at home by his father, he entered South Carolina College, a breeding ground for the state’s political leaders, at the age of sixteen. While his academic record was not distinguished, Hammond became president of the famous Euphradian Society where he honed his debating skills. After graduating in 1826 he taught school briefly and studied law with William Harper and William Campbell Preston among others. He was admitted to the bar in December 1828.
Hammond came of age politically during the nullification crisis. As were his former teachers, he was an early convert to the idea of a state veto of federal laws. In January 1830 he assumed the helm of the Columbia Southern Times and his partisan editorials brought him to the attention of the state’s nullifying elite led by John C. Calhoun. They also involved him in a controversy with Unionist congressman James Blair. A duel between the two men was barely averted. In a another incident, after exchanging a series of heated editorials, Hammond got involved in a public brawl with C. F. Daniels, the Unionist editor of the Camden Journal.
Hammond’s attempts to gain social respectability complemented his political ambitions. His marriage to the lowcountry heiress Catherine Fitzsimons on June 23, 1831, resulted in the acquisition of a large plantation, Silver Bluff, in Barnwell District. The couple eventually had eight children. As an owner of over a hundred slaves, he rapidly ascended to the pinnacle of South Carolina society. For the next few years he devoted himself to a vigorous struggle of wills with his recalcitrant slaves. Engrossed in his plantation, Hammond lost election to the state convention that nullified the federal tariff laws of 1828 and 1832. After President Andrew Jackson responded with a proclamation against nullification, Governor Robert Y. Hayne appointed Hammond as one of his aides de camp and he set about raising two regiments with great zeal. Back in the political limelight, Hammond was elected to Congress in October 1834.
As a congressman, Hammond joined the charmed circle of planter-politicians that composed the state’s leadership. During nullification he had loudly questioned the value of a Union that threatened slavery. In Congress he emerged as one of the staunchest advocates for the nonreception of abolitionist petitions during the Gag Rule controversy and gave a memorable speech that celebrated slavery and the hierarchical organization of southern society. In 1836 he suddenly withdrew from politics because of ill health and embarked on an extended tour of Europe.
On his return to South Carolina, Hammond started angling for the governorship. Calhoun’s political machine led by Franklin H. Elmore and Robert Barnwell Rhett supported the candidacy of the former Unionist John P. Richardson to effect a reconciliation between nullifiers and Unionists. Hammond suffered a resounding defeat in the gubernatorial election of 1840 but two years later, in December 1842, he was elected governor with the support of the Rhett-Elmore clique. His term was marked by two incidents: the expulsion of Samuel Hoar, a Massachusetts emissary sent to negotiate the imprisonment of black sailors, and the Rhett-led Bluffton movement. Hammond supported the movement, which was nipped in the bud by Calhoun, who worked to unite competing factions in South Carolina behind his presidential bid.
Political failure and personal indiscretions dogged Hammond at this time. His brother-in-law, Wade Hampton II, broke off relations with him when he discovered Hammond’s indiscretions with his daughters. Hammond, along with his oldest son, also sexually exploited two of his female slaves, mother and daughter. This led to a public estrangement from his wife. Personal isolation forced him into a life of semiretirement from politics for the next decade.
At home Hammond immersed himself in the life of the mind. One of the founders of the state’s agricultural society, he was a vocal advocate of economic diversification and scientific agriculture. Hammond’s letters on slavery to the English abolitionist Thomas Clarkson became proslavery classics and were reprinted in The Proslavery Argument (1852) and Cotton Is King (1860). He is best remembered for his famous “Cotton is King” speech delivered in the U.S. Senate in 1858 during the Kansas debates. Arguing that all societies needed a “mud sill” class to perform the drudgery of labor, he pointed out that democracy threatened not only slavery but also all property and capital.
A staunch defender of slavery, Hammond however was skeptical of the wisdom of slavery expansion. During the Wilmot Proviso controversy and the first secession crisis, he was severely critical of Calhoun’s efforts to “agitate in SoCa” and the South. He participated in the Nashville Convention but refused to attend the second meeting after the Compromise of 1850. On Calhoun’s death he lost his bid for the vacant senate seat to Rhett, who was committed to single-state secession. Hammond, who now sympathized with southern cooperationists, touted a plan that would keep the state in the Union but sever all its ties to the federal government. In 1857 the legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate because of his relative independence from the two warring factions, the secessionists and the National Democrats, ending his hiatus from state politics.
As senator, Hammond alienated secessionists by arguing that the South could dominate the Union through the Democratic Party. Until the very eve of disunion, Hammond hoped for the defeat of the Republican Party. After Lincoln’s election, he resigned from the Senate and supported secession and the establishment of the Confederacy. During the Civil War, he, as were other southern planters, was critical of Jefferson Davis and chafed under Confederate impressment policies. However, he remained committed to the idea of a southern nation and died on November 13, 1864, his body wracked by mercury poisoning, his spirit destroyed by the imminent southern defeat.
Bleser, Carol, ed. Secret and Sacred: The Diaries of James Henry Hammond, A Southern Slaveholder. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Faust, Drew Gilpin. James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
Hammond, James Henry. Papers. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. –––. Papers. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
Merritt, Elizabeth. James Henry Hammond, 1807–1864. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1923.
Wilson, Clyde N., ed. Selections from the Letters and Speeches of the Hon. James H. Hammond, of South Carolina. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1978.