Pinckney launched a stellar legislative career in 1816 when St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s Parishes elected him to the South Carolina House of Representatives.
Legislator, congressman, editor. Pinckney was born on September 24, 1794, the son of Charles Pinckney (1757–1824) and Mary Eleanor Laurens and the grandson of Henry Laurens. Descended from two of the state’s most prestigious families, Pinckney enjoyed a privileged upbringing. Schooled by the Reverend George Buist in Charleston, he later entered South Carolina College. After graduating in 1812, Pinckney studied law with his brother-in-law, Robert Y. Hayne, but did not pursue a legal profession.
Pinckney launched a stellar legislative career in 1816 when St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s Parishes elected him to the South Carolina House of Representatives. He served from 1816 to 1828, including two terms as Speaker of the House (1824–1828). Returned to the House in 1830, Pinckney was chosen as Speaker again in 1832. As editor of the Charleston Mercury (1822–1832), Pinckney made the newspaper one of the most influential states’ rights and proslavery organs in the South. An ardent ally of John C. Calhoun and a supporter of nullification, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives at the end of 1832.
Taking his seat in March 1833, Pinckney worked with Calhoun in the Senate and James Henry Hammond in the House to counter the influx of abolitionist petitions that inundated Congress in the early 1830s and which called for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in the District of Columbia. Calhoun and Hammond maintained that Congress had no constitutional authority to interfere with slavery in the District of Columbia and that it should reject all such petitions without consideration. In 1836, in the midst of his second term in Congress, Pinckney suddenly and dramatically split with Calhoun and Hammond by introducing a series of resolutions in the House declaring that Congress had no right to interfere with slavery in the South, that Congress “ought not” to interfere with slavery in the District of Columbia, and that all abolitionist petitions should be tabled immediately following their reception. The motives for Pinckney’s actions remain unclear, but he defended them as the South’s best course of action against the rising tide of abolition in the North. Calhoun, Hammond, and most of South Carolina, however, denounced Pinckney. By stating that Congress “ought not” interfere with slavery, Pinckney was believed by his critics to have ceded a crucial constitutional point by tacitly implying that Congress had the authority to interfere if it chose to do so. Accepting and tabling abolitionist petitions likewise implied that Congress could act on them if it so desired. Despite the lack of support from his state, the Pinckney resolutions passed the House by wide margins and would become the basis of the infamous “gag rule” that would evoke years of bitter debate in Congress.
Fire-eaters and nullifiers in South Carolina organized to defeat Pinckney’s reelection to Congress in 1837 and were successful. Returning to Charleston, he was elected mayor of the city in 1837, largely through the support of the city’s working class, among whom he remained popular. He had also served as intendant (mayor) of Charleston from 1830 to 1832. An energetic civic leader, Pinckney began construction of White Point Gardens (the Battery), transformed the College of Charleston into America’s first municipal college, and lobbied for the erection of a poorhouse for slaves and free African Americans.
Pinckney married twice. In 1814 he married Rebecca Pinckney Elliott. They had three children. Following Rebecca Pinckney’s death in 1821, he married Sabina Elliott Ramsay. They had no children. Henry Laurens Pinckney died in Charleston on February 3, 1863, and was buried at the Independent Congregational Church.
Ford, Lacy K., Jr. Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry, 1800–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Freehling, William W. Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816–1836. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.
Moore, Alexander, ed. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives. Vol. 5, 1816–1828. Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1992.