Chosen Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1789, Read repeatedly offered himself for higher office without success. Finally, in 1794, he won election to the U.S. Senate, where he sat from 1795 to 1801. A Federalist with close ties to the mercantile community, Read cast the crucial vote necessary for ratification of the Jay Treaty, for which a Charleston mob opposing the accord hung him in effigy and threatened his home.
Lawyer, U.S. senator. Born around 1752 in Christ Church Parish, Read was the eldest son of the Charleston merchant James Read and Rebecca Bond. About 1759 Read’s parents settled in Savannah, where he received his early education at a local boarding school. He began the study of law in 1768, and although admitted to the South Carolina Bar in 1773, he went on to Gray’s Inn in London to further his legal studies. While there, Read joined other Americans in the British capital in petitioning against the Coercive Acts of 1774. Upon his return to South Carolina two years later, he assumed a captaincy in the Charleston militia. After the fall of the city in 1780, Read was one of sixty-five South Carolina patriots exiled by the British to St. Augustine, Florida. There, he landed in solitary confinement for twelve days as a result of “some imprudent expressions” in his correspondence. Refusing to admit any wrongdoing, he remained a prisoner in St. Mark’s Castle for five months, until his exchange in July 1781.
With the restoration of civil government in South Carolina, Read in January 1782 took a seat in the Jacksonborough Assembly, where he represented the city parishes of St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s. He remained a member of the House of Representatives until 1794. During his first term, he served on the committee for the amercement of Loyalists and helped lead the opposition to the arming of blacks. The following year, on February 12, 1783, the General Assembly elected him to Congress. A delegate for two years, Read played an active part in deliberations that culminated in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. He also lobbied to have the federal capital placed in a southerly location. Toward the end of his congressional tenure, on October 13, 1785, Read married Catherine Van Horne, daughter of the wealthy New York merchant David Van Horne. The couple had four children.
Read’s time in Congress led him to chafe at the impotence of the federal government under the Articles of Confederation. “To be respected [Congress] must be enabled to enforce an Obedience to their Ordinance. . . . If this is denied Congress is I think an Unnecessary & Useless Burden.” In the January 1788 debates on the Constitution in the state House of Representatives, Read spoke strongly in favor of the new plan of government. Representing Christ Church Parish at the state ratification convention the following May, Read also voted for it.
Chosen Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1789, Read repeatedly offered himself for higher office without success. Finally, in 1794, he won election to the U.S. Senate, where he sat from 1795 to 1801. A Federalist with close ties to the mercantile community, Read cast the crucial vote necessary for ratification of the Jay Treaty, for which a Charleston mob opposing the accord hung him in effigy and threatened his home. Despite having been treated “exceedingly Cruelly” by John Rutledge in the wrangle over the treaty, Read struggled to get his fellow South Carolinian confirmed as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, although he was unsuccessful. Through patronage, Read gained influence over local customs and excise services and the Charleston branch of the Bank of the United States, agencies of particular importance to his merchant allies. At the peak of his public career in the late 1790s, Read, with James Simons, headed the most powerful faction in state politics. In 1800, however, he narrowly lost a reelection bid to John Ewing Colhoun, with Read apparently “sacrificed” for his support of the administration of John Adams. Appointed a federal district judge by Adams under the Judiciary Act of 1801, Read never served, as the authorizing legislation was repealed before he could take office.
As a lawyer, Read achieved distinction at both the state and the federal bars. From 1776 to 1779 he acted as counsel for South Carolina. In 1786 he joined the defense in the sensational trial of William Clay Snipes for the dueling murder of Maurice Simons. In the mid-1790s he litigated a series of sensitive cases for the British vice consuls in Charleston and Savannah, who sought to use American courts to recover British vessels captured by French privateers. Despite his experiences during the Revolution, Read often represented British interests, which likely cemented his reputation for being “decidedly anti-Gallican.” In 1795 Read became the first South Carolinian to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Although given to “wonderful pomposity,” Read was deemed “a sensible, as well as a very good natured man.” He died in Charleston on July 17, 1816, survived by his wife and children.
Bailey, N. Louise, and Elizabeth Ivey Cooper, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives. Vol. 3, 1775–1790. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1981.