Pickens’s public career began in college when he authored a series of articles in the Charleston Mercury espousing state sovereignty and questioning the legality of a protective tariff.
Congressman, diplomat, governor. Born on April 7, 1807, in St. Paul’s Parish, Pickens was the son of Governor Andrew Pickens, Jr., and Susan Smith Wilkinson. Reared among his father’s extensive landholdings in South Carolina and Alabama, Pickens attended Franklin College in Georgia before entering South Carolina College as a sophomore. He was active at the latter in the Clariosophic Society and was known for his oratory skills. He left college in 1827 without graduating following a student revolt over compulsory mess attendance. On October 18, 1827, he married Margaret Eliza Simkins. After reading law with her father, Eldred Simkins, Pickens was admitted to the bar on December 2, 1828. Pickens amassed considerable property, including land in South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi, as well as a sizable number of slaves. The 1860 census lists him as the owner of $45,400 in real estate and $244,206 in personal property, including 276 slaves. Although heavily encumbered with debts, he still had considerable landholdings at the time of his death. Pickens’s first wife died on August 12, 1842. He was married on January 9, 1845, to Marion Antoinette Dearing, and that marriage lasted until her death on August 14, 1853. On April 26, 1858, he married Lucy Petway Holcombe of Texas. His three marriages produced nine children.
Pickens’s public career began in college when he authored a series of articles in the Charleston Mercury espousing state sovereignty and questioning the legality of a protective tariff. Later articles in the Columbia and Edgefield newspapers marked Pickens as a leading proponent of nullification. From 1832 to 1833 he represented Edgefield District in the General Assembly. He rose quickly to chair the committees on federal relations and the judiciary, playing an instrumental role in the passage of the test oath law. He was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel in the state militia and helped raise volunteers to defend against threatened federal military coercion.
Elected to fill the unexpired term of George McDuffie in the U.S. House of Representatives, Pickens took his seat in the Twenty-third Congress on December 8, 1834. He was a strong supporter of slavery, states’ rights, and an independent national treasury. He was an ally and confidant of John C. Calhoun, with whom he had close family ties. He often served as Calhoun’s chief lieutenant in the House, although the rise of rivals for Calhoun’s favor led to a troubled relationship by the latter part of the decade. In 1839 Pickens’s bid to be elected Speaker of the U.S. House was thwarted by his rivals in the South Carolina delegation, Robert B. Rhett and Franklin Elmore. The sectional bickering in the House led him not to seek reelection in 1842. He declined an appointment as minister to France, but he assisted Calhoun’s unsuccessful attempt at the presidency in 1844 and was active at both the state and national Democratic conventions. Elected to the state Senate in the fall of 1844, he also harbored hopes of a U.S. Senate seat. In 1845 he again refused a diplomatic appointment, this time to Great Britain. He retired to Edgefield after serving one term in the state Senate.
Pickens attended the 1850 Southern Rights Convention in Nashville and advocated southern unity as the only means of stopping northern agitation over slavery. The failure of southern cooperation pushed him toward the radical position of separate state action. He lost a close vote for governor in December 1850 but was elected to the state convention held in 1852 to consider secession.
The state had swung toward a more conservative position, and he lost subsequent bids for the U.S. Senate and for his old seat in the House. He renewed his activities with the national Democratic Party, which he now considered the best hope of preserving the southern cause within the Union. He attended the 1856 Democratic convention in Cincinnati and actively campaigned for James Buchanan, who, after his election as president, offered Pickens the position of minister to Russia. Although he initially declined, Pickens accepted the post after he lost a race for the Senate in 1857, and he sailed for St. Petersburg on May 28, 1858. Aware that he was being considered as a compromise presidential candidate and with a complaining wife and the growing political crisis, Pickens resigned his post on April 17, 1860. However, it was early November before he returned to the United States. He entered the contest for governor and prevailed after close balloting on December 16, 1860.
South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860, placing Pickens in a difficult situation. Under intense local pressure to dislodge the Federal military presence in Charleston harbor despite the lack of military preparedness, Pickens adopted a cautious approach that sought a negotiated surrender. Except for shots fired on the Star of the West as the ship attempted to resupply Fort Sumter in January, Pickens avoided hostilities. The eventual bombardment and capture of Fort Sumter came after the Confederate government took control of events in the harbor.
Pickens’s administration was dominated by military problems, including raising troops and supplies for defending the coast and assisting the war effort in Virginia. The lack of military resources became apparent when Union forces seized Port Royal Sound in November 1861. Confidence in Pickens’s leadership reached a low point soon thereafter when large parts of Charleston were destroyed by fire. The Secession Convention reacted to these disasters and Pickens’s perceived deficiencies by forming a five-member council to exercise executive authority. Although he was a member of the council, the usurpation of his authority created an antagonistic relationship between Pickens and the members elected by the convention. Conscription, slave impressments, and other measures enacted produced widespread disapproval of the council but increased Pickens’s reputation. The council was abolished in December 1862, shortly after Pickens’s term as governor ended. Pickens retired to his plantation in Edgefield. Aside from participating in the 1865 constitutional convention, he held no other office or political role. He died at his home on January 25, 1869, and was buried at Willowbrook Cemetery in Edgefield County.
Edmunds, John B. Francis W. Pickens and the Politics of Destruction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.