During his later years Middleton, a major slaveholder, was obligated to manage the rice plantations that provided the family’s income.
Legislator, governor, congressman, diplomat. Born in London on September 28, 1770, Middleton was the son of Arthur Middleton, a prominent lowcountry planter and patriot, and Mary Izard. His early life was shaped by the Revolutionary War. Middleton was in Philadelphia when his father signed the Declaration of Independence. Later in the war Middleton saw his father imprisoned by the British and sent to St. Augustine, Florida. Although well tutored at home, Middleton regretted that the Revolution and his father’s premature death in 1787 prevented him from attending a university. His uncles Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Edward Rutledge sent him north in 1790 to obtain “a thorough Knowledge of . . . his own Country.” He then went abroad for several years. In England on November 13, 1794, Middleton married Mary Helen Hering, a daughter of a British army officer. The couple had fourteen children, four of whom died in infancy.
On returning to the United States in 1799, Middleton took up management of his family’s properties, including three rice plantations on the Combahee River. Around the same time he began a long career in South Carolina politics when elected in 1802 to the state House of Representatives from the parishes of St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s. Reelected three times, he served in the General Assembly from 1802 until 1809. In addition to serving on the influential Ways and Means Committee, Middleton was appointed to committees dealing with important issues such as incorporation of the state bank, curtailing the slave trade, and legislative reapportionment to reflect the growing upcountry population (which he supported).
By 1808 Middleton, in contrast to various friends and relatives among the lowcountry planters, was aligned with the Democratic-Republicans. Personally popular and politically middle-of-the-road, he was elected to the state Senate in the fall of 1810 and then was chosen governor on December 10. As governor, he pressed successfully for passage of the long-discussed law establishing free public schools. Anticipating war with England, Middleton supported President James Madison and urgently recommended strengthening South Carolina’s militia and defenses.
Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Middleton represented Charleston District in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Congresses (1815–1819). Following the War of 1812, Middleton favored efforts to make the United States economically independent. He supported federal appropriations for internal improvements, the tariff of 1816, and the Bank of the United States. In his second term Middleton chaired the House committee investigating the illicit slave trade that was being carried on via Amelia Island. His committee report endorsed the Monroe administration’s controversial actions in suppressing the “horde of foreign freebooters” on the island and termed the slave trade “repugnant to justice and humanity.” It impressed Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and probably helped to identify Middleton to both Adams and President James Monroe as an ally in South Carolina. During his tour of the South in 1819, Monroe honored Middleton by spending the night at his Ashley River plantation, Middleton Place.
After Adams and Calhoun suggested Middleton for a diplomatic post, Monroe appointed him minister to Russia in early 1820. Because he was knowledgeable about national affairs, already familiar with Europe, and fluent in French, Middleton was exceptionally well prepared for such a post. The Middletons left for Russia in the summer of 1820. Middleton proved an adroit and able diplomat. His first task was to represent American interests during Czar Alexander I’s arbitration of the dispute over slaves removed by the British at the end of the War of 1812. In part because of Middleton’s presentation of the arguments, the award was in favor of the United States. His forceful protests and well-prepared arguments also helped persuade Russia to withdraw her claim to the Pacific northwest coast below the 54o40’ parallel, thus protecting American fishing and trading rights.
Upon his return home in 1830, Middleton was appalled by the danger posed to the Union by the “baneful doctrine of nullification.” Becoming a leader of the Unionists, he reminded South Carolinians of “the high privilege of self-government” and emphasized the necessity of abiding by the decision of the majority. Although he agreed that existing tariff rates were “excessively high,” he nevertheless believed that protective tariffs were constitutional. He was one of the few Unionist delegates to the nullification convention in November 1832, and he was a vice president of the Union convention in December 1832, where he adamantly opposed the proposed test oath.
During his later years Middleton, a major slaveholder, was obligated to manage the rice plantations that provided the family’s income. A devoted, though sometimes difficult, father and husband, he seemed happiest during the summers he spent with his family in Newport, Rhode Island. Middleton died in Charleston on June 14, 1846, and was buried at Middleton Place.
Bailey, N. Louise, Mary L. Morgan, and Carolyn R. Taylor, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina Senate, 1776–1985. 3 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.
Bergquist, Harold E., Jr. “Henry Middleton and the Arbitrament of the Anglo-American Slave Controversy by Tsar Alexander I.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 82 (January 1981): 20–31.
–––. “Russian-American Relations, 1820–1830: The Diplomacy of Henry Middleton, American Minister at St. Petersburg.” Ph.D. diss., Boston University, 1970.
Harrison, Eliza Cope, ed. Best Companions: Letters of Eliza Middleton Fisher and Her Mother, Mary Hering Middleton, from Charleston, Philadelphia, and Newport, 1839–1846. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.