Legislator, judge, governor. Simpson was born in Laurens District on October 27 1823, son of John Wells Simpson and Elizabeth Satterwhite. He was educated at Laurens Male Academy and attended both the South Carolina College and Harvard. However, he graduated from neither. He then studied law, was admitted to the bar, and opened a law practice in Laurens. On March 25, 1847, he married Jane Elizabeth Young, and they had eight children. In 1860 Simpson owned thirty-one slaves employed on his landholdings in Laurens District.
During the 1850s, he served two nonconsecutive terms in the South Carolina House of Representatives. In 1860 he was elected senator from Laurens District and served until 1863. When war broke out, he was on the staff of General Milledge Luke Bonham and participated in the siege of Fort Sumter and the First Battle of Manassas. Returning to South Carolina, he helped organize the Fourteenth South Carolina Infantry and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He saw action at Seven Days, the Second Battle of Manassas, and Antietam. Upon winning a special election to the Confederate Congress in 1862, he resigned his commission and his state Senate seat. He was reelected and served until the end of the war.
After the war he purchased land in Pettis County, Missouri, and considered leaving South Carolina. He took the oath of allegiance to the United States in 1867 and the following year was elected to Congress as a Democrat. However, his Republican opponent challenged the election on the grounds of “fraud, force, and violence,” and Simpson was disqualified. Despite this setback he remained active in party politics, served as a member of the executive committee of the state Democratic Party, and was a friend and supporter of Wade Hampton.
In 1876 Simpson ran on the Hampton ticket as a candidate for lieutenant governor. He took the oath of office but, like Hampton, was barred from the State House by federal troops. When the troops were withdrawn in March 1877, he assumed his post as presiding officer of the South Carolina Senate. On February 26, 1879, Hampton resigned as governor, and Simpson took his place. Interested in education and agriculture, he was instrumental in the granting of university status to South Carolina and in the creation of the state agricultural commission and fish commission. After less than a year in office, he was elected chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court; he was then reelected in 1885 and served until his death. Simpson died in Columbia on December 26, 1890, and was buried in Laurens Cemetery.
Bailey, N. Louise, Mary L. Morgan, and Carolyn R. Taylor, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina Senate, 1776–1985. 3 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.