McDuffie gained national attention during the nullification crisis. He believed nullification to be a legitimate extraconstitutional measure with secession as its logical conclusion. His fiery speeches in support of nullification, and their appeal among South Carolina voters, may have forced Calhoun to realize that his state and many of its politicians were more radical on the issue than he was.
Congressman, governor, U.S. senator. The son of John and Jane McDuffie, George McDuffie was probably born on August 10, 1790, in Columbia County, Georgia. His family was poor, and he received little formal education in his early years. By age twelve he was clerk in a country store. Soon thereafter he moved to Augusta, Georgia, to clerk for James Calhoun, an older brother of John C. Calhoun. Impressed with McDuffie’s intelligence, Calhoun sent him to live with his brother William. McDuffie attended Moses Waddel’s school for a year, then entered South Carolina College in the junior class. After graduating in 1813, McDuffie was admitted to the bar and began practicing law in Pendleton. In 1815 he became the law partner of Congressman Eldred Simkins in Edgefield. On May 27, 1829, McDuffie married Mary Rebecca Singleton. They had one daughter before Mary died on September 14, 1830.
In 1818 McDuffie was elected to the S.C. House of Representatives, where he represented Edgefield District for a single term. When Simkins retired from Congress in 1821, McDuffie was elected to succeed his law partner. He entered Congress as a nationalist and supporter of John C. Calhoun. He soon found himself entangled in the political feud between Calhoun and William H. Crawford of Georgia. During the 1821–1822 congressional term, McDuffie engaged William Cumming, a Crawford supporter, in a bitter newspaper battle. McDuffie and Cumming met on the dueling field three times, and twice McDuffie was severely wounded. Despite the fact that he survived, McDuffie’s wounds lingered and contributed to the physical and mental decline of his later years.
As a devout nationalist during his first years in Congress, McDuffie considered states’ rights to be political heresy. But he changed his position during the 1820s after Congress passed a series of tariffs that he thought harmed South Carolina and unfairly benefited the North. In a widely circulated 1830 speech before Congress, McDuffie asserted that consumers, not producers, bore the brunt of the tariff, which cost southern planters the equivalent of forty out of every one hundred bales of cotton they produced. The “forty-bale” theory, though dubious economics, nevertheless gained wide acceptance among southern planters, who blamed the tariff for low cotton prices.
McDuffie gained national attention during the nullification crisis. He believed nullification to be a legitimate extraconstitutional measure with secession as its logical conclusion. His fiery speeches in support of nullification, and their appeal among South Carolina voters, may have forced Calhoun to realize that his state and many of its politicians were more radical on the issue than he was. Accord- ing to the historian William Freehling, McDuffie’s inflamed oratory, including a description of the Union as a “foul monster,” made him “a living embodiment of the wrath of the nullifiers” to many Americans. He actively participated in the 1832 nullification convention, writing the convention’s address to the other states of the Union. Curiously, although a fierce proponent of states’ rights, McDuffie supported rechartering the Second Bank of the United States, which other states’ rights advocates viewed as another federal usurpation of power.
McDuffie resigned from Congress in 1834 to become governor of South Carolina. During his term South Carolina passed laws severely restricting the legal rights of free blacks in the state. Any free black returning to South Carolina was to be sold back into slavery. South Carolina port officials were to arrest any African Americans serving aboard vessels docked in port. No slaves who had been north of the Mason-Dixon line could be imported into South Carolina, and severe penalties would be enacted on any person who assisted slaves in avoiding state law.
McDuffie’s political influence declined after his term as governor. A powerful and provocative speaker during times of crisis, he seemed to lack the cool-headed nature to be politically effective at other times. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1842, he advocated the subtreasury plan proposed by Democrats and supported the annexation of Texas but opposed that of Oregon, believing that no government could rule people three thousand miles away.
Resigning from the Senate in 1846, McDuffie returned to private life in South Carolina. After his retirement, he became deeply depressed and ultimately became insane. McDuffie died on March 11, 1851, in Sumter District. He was buried in the Singleton family cemetery in Wedgefield.
Fletcher, Ralph Henry. “George McDuffie: Orator and Politician.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1986.
Freehling, William W. Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816–1836. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.
Green, Edwin L. George McDuffie. Columbia, S.C.: State Company, 1936.