In the Senate, Robertson served as chairman of the Committee on Manufactures. On the issues surrounding Reconstruction, his stance softened somewhat during his time in office.
U.S. senator. Robertson was born near Winnsboro on August 3, 1823, son of the War of 1812 veteran John Robertson. He was graduated from South Carolina College in 1843. Three years later he married Mary C. Caldwell, whose father later became president of the South Carolina Railroad. A prominent planter, Robertson was appointed aide-de-camp to Governor R. F. W. Allston in 1858. During the Civil War, however, Robertson sided with the Union and was said to have entertained General William T. Sherman in his Columbia home.
After the war, Robertson joined the Republicans. As one of the leading native South Carolinians in the party, he won election as a delegate from Richland County to the 1868 constitutional convention. In that body, of which he was the wealthiest member, Robertson advocated two principles: that former Confederates should be punished; and that conservative financial measures should be adopted in order to win the confidence of northern financiers. Thus, he opposed a “stay law” to prevent the collection of debts, arguing that the “largest debtors in this State are those who staked their all on secession.”
In return for his loyalty to the Union and the Republican Party, Robertson was bitterly condemned by most white Carolinians. In particular, the Charleston Mercury denounced him as a harsh taskmaster whose embrace of racial equality was motivated by self-interest. In Republican circles, however, he was considered one of the best men the party had to offer, both because of his private wealth and because of his political moderation. As a result, the state legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate in 1868. He was reelected in 1870 and served until 1877.
In the Senate, Robertson served as chairman of the Committee on Manufactures. On the issues surrounding Reconstruction, his stance softened somewhat during his time in office. Soon after arriving he proposed a bill designed to punish former Confederates by continuing to deny them most of their political rights. In 1871, however, he opposed the Ku Klux Klan Act, which attempted to punish Democratic violence, as well as an attempt by Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner to link amnesty for former Confederates with a civil rights bill. In the summer of 1874 he assailed the corruption of South Carolina Republicans and predicted that if better men were not elected, “the President will refuse to recognize the Government by withholding the aid it will require in the enforcement and collection of taxes, in which case it is bound to fall through.” By 1877, with his commitment to Reconstruction eroded, he advised President Ulysses S. Grant to allow the election of the Democrat Wade Hampton III as governor, which effectively ended Reconstruction.
During his time in the Senate, Robertson seems to have been plagued by poor health. When his term ended in 1877, he retired from public life and private business for health reasons. For the next twenty years he was almost entirely paralyzed and in constant discomfort, but he died peacefully in Columbia on October 13, 1897. He was buried in Elmwood Cemetery.
Reynolds, John S. Reconstruction in South Carolina, 1865–1877. 1905. Reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.
Robertson, Thomas James. Papers. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
Seip, Terry L. The South Returns to Congress: Men, Economic Measures, and Intersectional Relationships, 1868–1879. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.