He won election to the South Carolina Senate in 1825, served two terms, and never again sought or held elective office. He played an important role behind the scenes in state politics, however.
Planter, soldier, legislator. Hampton was born on April 21, 1791, at Woodlands Plantation, Richland County, the eldest son of Colonel (later General) Wade Hampton I and his second wife, Harriet Flud. As Hampton’s father was a Revolutionary War hero, congressman, and one of the wealthiest planters in the South, the son soon took his place among the highest ranks of the planter aristocracy. He was educated at Moses Waddel’s Willington Academy and later studied at South Carolina College between 1807 and 1809. Though academically gifted, he left college and accepted a commission as a second lieutenant in the First Light Dragoons in the U.S. Army in 1813, serving under his father’s command on the Canadian front against the British in the War of 1812. He was discharged in June 1814 after his father’s resignation, but he subsequently served on General Andrew Jackson’s staff in January 1815, distinguishing himself in preparing American defenses against the British assault on New Orleans.
After the war Hampton helped manage his father’s vast estates in Louisiana, as well as the Millwood-Woodlands complex near Columbia. He became known as an avid hunter, outdoorsman, breeder of thoroughbred horses, and horse racing enthusiast. On March 6, 1817, he married Ann Fitzsimons, daughter of a wealthy Charleston merchant, and settled at Millwood. The couple had eight children. In 1820 he accepted an appointment as deputy inspector general of the South Carolina Militia, became a leader of the Agricultural Society, and was a trustee of South Carolina College from 1826 to 1857. He won election to the South Carolina Senate in 1825. He served two terms and never again sought or held elective office. He played an important role behind the scenes in state politics, however. He was known to favor nullification, but opposed disunion. Especially between 1849 and 1852, he worked vigorously behind the scenes to thwart those who hoped to take South Carolina out of the Union. After 1843 he was an effective and implacable political opponent of his brother-in-law and former friend, Governor James Henry Hammond, whom Hampton discovered had behaved dishonorably toward his teenage daughters.
A tradition states that when Hampton’s father died in 1835, the son destroyed the will, which would have left the bulk of the estate to him. It is clear that no will was extant, and his father’s lands and slaves were divided between himself, his stepmother, and his half-sisters. He took possession of most of the family holdings in South Carolina and divided his time between them and his own “Walnut Ridge” tract of 2,529 acres in Mississippi, which he had purchased more than a decade earlier. He purchased eight thousand acres in Texas and, with his sons Wade III and Christopher, bought 2,300 acres in Cashiers Valley, North Carolina. He also invested heavily in railroads.
Hampton died suddenly, probably of a stroke, on his Mississippi plantation on February 9, 1858, and was buried at Trinity Church in Columbia. He left vast landholdings but also large debts to his three sons and four unmarried daughters.
Bridwell, Ronald E. “The South’s Wealthiest Planter: Wade Hampton I of South Carolina, 1754–1835.” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 1980.
Faust, Drew Gilpin. James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
Meynard, Virginia G. The Venturers: The Hampton, Harrison, and Earle Families of Virginia, South Carolina, and Texas. Easley, S.C.: Southern Historical Press, 1981.