Congressman, governor. Williams was born in Cheraw (later Darlington) District on March 8, 1776, the son of David Williams, a planter, and Anne Rogerson. Williams traveled north for most of his education, attending school at Wrentham, Massachusetts, before enrolling at Rhode Island College in 1792. Three years later Williams returned to South Carolina to redeem his inheritance, which was encumbered with debt. Between 1796 and 1800 he still spent much of his time in Rhode Island, where he studied law and was admitted to the bar. On August 14, 1796, Williams married Sarah Power of Providence. The couple had two children. Following Sarah’s death in 1803, Williams married Elizabeth Witherspoon in November 1809. They had no children.
At the start of 1801, Williams formed partnerships with John McIver and then Peter Freneau to publish two Charleston newspapers, the City Gazette and the Weekly Carolina Gazette. In 1804 Williams returned to his plantations near Society Hill, Darlington District, and thereafter made planting his chief occupation. Williams was a progressive farmer and was perhaps the first to introduce mules into South Carolina. He also engaged in other business ventures. About 1812 he built one of the first cotton mills in the state and operated its machinery with slave labor. He later experimented with other manufacturing activities and was actively involved in the state militia, internal improvements, and literary and educational activities.
Williams entered public service in 1805, when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving from 1805 to 1809 and 1811 to 1813. A Democratic-Republican, Williams supported President Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807 and later joined three prominent South Carolina “War Hawks” (John C. Calhoun, Langdon Cheves, and William Lowndes) in calling for war with Great Britain. In his final term in the House, Williams served as chairman of the Military Affairs Committee.
In 1813, with the War of 1812 under way, President James Madison commissioned Williams a brigadier general, and Williams briefly saw service on the Canadian frontier. He resigned his commission in December 1813 and returned to South Carolina, where he was elected governor on December 10, 1814. His was a vigorous administration. The recent war made Williams a vocal advocate of military preparedness, and he pushed hard for state and federal funds to strengthen South Carolina’s militia and coastal defenses. Williams’s tenure also saw the settlement of the state’s boundary dispute with North Carolina and the acquisition of the Cherokee strip in northwestern South Carolina.
After his term ended on December 5, 1816, Williams retired to his home plantation, Centre Hall, near Society Hill. Except for a brief stint as Darlington District’s representative in the state Senate (1824–1828), he refused public office. However, he remained politically active. Although he opposed the tariff of 1828, Williams rejected nullification as a danger to the Union. He instead advocated that South Carolina develop its own manufacturing and reduce its reliance on northern-made goods. He probably would have been a Unionist leader but for his untimely death on November 17, 1830. While building a bridge on Lynches Creek, he was struck by a falling timber and died the following day.
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.
Cook, Harvey Toliver. The Life and Legacy of David Rogerson Williams. New York, 1916.
Lander, Ernest McPherson, Jr. The Textile Industry in Antebellum South Carolina. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.