Preston was appointed president and professor of belles lettres of South Carolina College in 1845 and assumed his post on January 1, 1846. Preston was an able scholar and a successful college administrator.
U.S. senator. William C. Preston was born on December 27, 1794, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where his father, Francis Smith Preston, served as a member from Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was the grandson of two notable Virginia frontiersmen, William Preston and William Campbell, and a great-nephew of Patrick Henry. At fourteen, Preston entered Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, but poor health forced him to leave the school. He was later sent by his family to South Carolina College in Columbia, where he graduated in 1812.
Preston returned to Virginia and studied law in Richmond under William Wirt. However, illness again plagued Preston, and he traveled for his health. After traveling through several states, in 1817 he went to the university in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he continued his legal education, matriculating on November 3, 1818. While at Edinburgh, he became close friends with Hugh Swinton Legaré of South Carolina and the author Washington Irving. Preston returned to Virginia in 1820 to continue his law practice in Abingdon and was appointed a justice of Washington County in 1821. In 1822 he traveled to Missouri and married Maria Eliza Coalter, whose father lived in Columbia, South Carolina. Preston’s first wife died in 1829, and he married Louise Penelope Davis of Columbia in 1831. Preston and his first wife had two children; he and his second wife had one.
In 1824 Preston moved from Virginia to Columbia and entered a law partnership with William Harper, who had married Preston’s sister-in-law. Preston was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1828 and served until 1833, representing Richland District. He championed free trade, states’ rights, and nullification but disagreed with more radical nullifiers on the issue of the test oath. In 1833 Preston was elected by the South Carolina legislature to fill the U.S. Senate seat of Stephen D. Miller, who had resigned. Preston was reelected in 1837.
In the Senate, he was considered by many to be an eloquent orator. Skilled in delivering a prepared text, he was also an able extemporaneous speaker. Preston introduced a resolution for the annexation of Texas right after Texas had won its independence from Mexico in 1836. He supported the “Gag Rule” and opposed the sending of abolition literature through the U.S. mail. He was an active critic of President Andrew Jackson, voting to censure Jackson in 1834. His opposition to Jackson led him into the emerging Whig Party.
Nor was Preston a supporter of Martin Van Buren when the latter became president in 1837. Unlike his colleague John C. Calhoun, Preston opposed Van Buren’s subtreasury proposal. His failure to support Van Buren’s proposal widened the political breach that already existed between Preston and Calhoun. Between 1837 and 1840 Preston had the political support of many South Carolinians. However, Calhoun exerted considerable political pressure against Preston and his supporters. By 1840 Preston and the fledgling South Carolina Whig Party crumbled under the Democratic attack led by Calhoun, resulting in a one-party state. In 1842 the South Carolina legislature instructed him to vote for the subtreasury. Preston refused, angering the legislature and Calhoun. Politically isolated, he resigned instead. Despite his political defeat, Preston remained personally popular with many in South Carolina. When he returned home, the Democratic-turned-Whig was given a public dinner that was attended mostly by Democrats.
Returning to Columbia to resume his law practice, Preston was appointed president and professor of belles lettres of South Carolina College in 1845 and assumed his post on January 1, 1846. Preston was an able scholar and a successful college administrator. He undertook efforts to improve the college, including the creation of a board of visitors, and advocated university status for the school. Admired and respected by the students, Preston had to retire from the position in 1851 after he suffered a stroke. He remained a trustee of South Carolina College until he resigned on November 29, 1857. Preston founded the Columbia Lyceum, endowing it with his three-thousand-volume library. He died in Columbia on May 22, 1860, and was buried in the Trinity Episcopal Churchyard.
Lander, Ernest M., Jr. “The Calhoun-Preston Feud, 1836–1842.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 59 (January 1958): 24–37.
Preston, William Campbell. The Reminiscences of William C. Preston. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933.
Rion, James H. William C. Preston, LL.D., as President, and Belles-Lettres Professor, of South Carolina College: An Address Delivered before the Class of 1850, at Their Second Quinquennial Meeting, December, 1860. Columbia, S.C.: R. W. Gibbes, 1861.