Lowndes’s talent and influence in national affairs did not go unrecognized by his contemporaries. He declined two offers to become secretary of war and also turned down diplomatic appointments to Russia, Turkey, and France.
Congressman. Lowndes was born at Horseshoe Plantation in St. Bartholomew’s Parish on February 11, 1782, the son of Rawlins Lowndes and Sarah Jones. Although christened William Jones, he never used his middle name. A severe childhood bout with rheumatic fever left him with an enfeebled body but did nothing to dull his exceptional mind. Educated at private academies in England and Charleston, Lowndes was a model student and outstanding orator. He studied law in the office of Henry William DeSaussure and Timothy Ford and was accepted to the bar in 1804, but he practiced for less than a year before quitting the legal profession. On September 10, 1802, Lowndes married Elizabeth Brewton Pinckney, the daughter of former governor Thomas Pinckney. The marriage produced three children.
In 1804 Lowndes was elected to the General Assembly, representing St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s Parishes in the House of Representatives until 1808. He quickly became a respected and important member of the assembly, where he supported bills to establish public schools and to prohibit slave importations. He also authored the so-called Compromise of 1808, an amendment to the state constitution that provided the upcountry with more equitable representation in the General Assembly. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the state Senate in 1808.
Although a Democratic-Republican in his political views, Lowndes nevertheless was a strong critic of Thomas Jefferson’s handling of the deteriorating relationship between the United States and Britain and France. In 1810 Lowndes was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he became a leading member of the “War Hawks,” a faction of young congressmen who strongly favored a military resolution of the nation’s dispute with Britain. Working with fellow congressmen Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and others, Lowndes pushed to strengthen the nation’s defenses and ardently supported America’s entry into war in 1812. A gifted legislator and persuasive speaker, Lowndes rapidly established himself as one of the most influential members of Congress. He sat on important committees, serving at different times as chairman of the committees on naval affairs, ways and means, coinage, and foreign affairs. A nationalist, he helped author legislation creating the Second Bank of the United States and supported the enactment of protective tariffs in 1816. In 1817 Lowndes introduced a plan to pay off the national debt, which led to the elimination of the debt by 1835. In his final important public work, Lowndes and Clay led the successful effort in the House to pass the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which admitted Missouri as a slave state but recognized the right of Congress to limit slavery in the territories.
Lowndes’s talent and influence in national affairs did not go unrecognized by his contemporaries. He declined two offers to become secretary of war and also turned down diplomatic appointments to Russia, Turkey, and France. Nominated for Speaker of the House in 1820, he lost the election by a single vote. In December 1821 the South Carolina General Assembly nominated Lowndes for the presidency. Sensible of the honor but also embarrassed by the damage the nomination had done to the candidacy of his close friend Calhoun, Lowndes tactfully responded that he did not believe that the presidency was “an office to be either solicited or declined.”
During this time, however, Lowndes’s health began to deteriorate. He resigned his seat in Congress in May 1822 and sought a change of climate to improve his condition. After spending several months in the North, he sailed for London with his wife and daughter in October. Lowndes died en route on October 27, 1822, and was buried as sea.
Ravenel, Harriott Horry. Life and Times of William Lowndes of South Carolina, 1782–1822. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1901.
Vipperman, Carl J. William Lowndes and the Transition of Southern Politics, 1782–1822. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.