As a member of the House from 1892 to 1897, McLaurin increased his influence in state and national politics. On the national scene he was a strong advocate of free silver, frequently using his oratorical talents throughout the nation.
Congressman, U.S. senator. McLaurin was born in Marlboro County on May 9, 1860, the oldest son of Philip Bethea McLaurin and Tommie Jane Weatherly. Both parents came from prosperous antebellum planter families prominent in the Pee Dee. McLaurin was graduated from Carolina Military Institute in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1880. From 1880 to 1882 he attended law school at the University of Virginia. He was admitted to the South Carolina Bar in 1882 and opened a law office in Bennettsville. On February 19, 1883, McLaurin married Lenora J. Breeden, the daughter of Thomas J. Breeden, a prosperous Marlboro farmer. Their marriage produced six children.
From 1883 to 1892 McLaurin practiced law with former judge John P. Townsend. In 1885 McLaurin met Benjamin Ryan Tillman when the South Carolina Agricultural and Mechanical Society convened in Bennettsville. During the next five years McLaurin became a supporter of Tillman’s Farmers’ Association. In 1890, benefiting from Tillman’s popularity, McLaurin was elected to the S.C. House of Representatives from Marlboro County. The following year McLaurin was elected attorney general, and he focused on prosecuting cases against the phosphate industry and railroad regulation. In November 1892, with Tillman’s endorsement, McLaurin was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
As a member of the House from 1892 to 1897, McLaurin increased his influence in state and national politics. On the national scene he was a strong advocate of free silver, frequently using his oratorical talents throughout the nation. In state political circles he was a leading Tillmanite. However, in 1894 McLaurin campaigned against the South Carolina dispensary system and supported William H. Ellerbe for governor over Tillman’s handpicked successor, John Gary Evans. In 1895 McLaurin opposed Tillman’s plan to convene a constitutional convention. By early 1896 the two men seemed to have set aside their differences, evidenced by McLaurin’s spirited defense of Tillman from a verbal attack by Richmond Pearson, a Republican representative from North Carolina.
When U.S. Senator Joseph Earle died in May 1897, Governor William H. Ellerbe appointed McLaurin to the seat. In a special election in August, McLaurin easily defeated two other candidates for the remaining five years of the term. Over the next few years McLaurin began to espouse his program of “Commercial Democracy,” which called for the expansion of the protective tariff to cover raw materials produced in the South and advocated the development of the textile industry in the state. McLaurin’s final break with Tillman and the Democrats came when he cast the deciding vote that ratified the Treaty of Paris in 1899, which ended the Spanish-American War. Tillman opposed provisions in the treaty that permitted the United States to annex former Spanish colonies, including the Philippines. Over the next two years McLaurin voted with the Republicans on several issues, including subsidizing the shipping industry, the gold standard, and territorial expansion by the United States. The ill feeling between McLaurin and Tillman reached a climax on February 22, 1902. In a speech on the Senate floor, Tillman accused McLaurin of selling his vote on the Treaty of Paris for patronage in South Carolina. McLaurin called the accusation “a willful, deliberate, and malicious lie.” Tillman immediately sprang across two desks and landed a blow to McLaurin’s forehead. McLaurin responded by hitting Tillman in the nose. After a brief struggle, the two men were separated by nearby senators. The Senate subsequently censured both men, but the fight effectively ended McLaurin’s U.S. Senate career as Tillman used his influence to insure that McLaurin could not run for reelection.
After a brief stint practicing law in New York City, McLaurin returned to Marlboro County in 1905 and became an advocate for the cotton farmers, championing the establishment of a cotton warehouse system. A year after his election to the state Senate in 1913, McLaurin successfully guided the Cotton Warehouse Act through the legislature. This act established a state warehouse system to remove surplus cotton from glutted markets in order to boost prices. He was subsequently elected the first warehouse commissioner. Resigning in 1917, McLaurin made an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1918 before returning to Marlboro County to concentrate on his agricultural and business pursuits. He died of a heart attack on July 29, 1934, and was buried in McCall Cemetery, Bennettsville.
Stroup, Rodger E. “John L. McLaurin: A Political Biography.” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 1980.