Governor. Wilson was born in Cheraw District in May 1784 to John Wilson and Mary Lyde. He studied law in Baltimore and was admitted to the South Carolina Bar in 1807. Two years later, on December 31, 1809, Wilson married Charlotte Alston. The marriage produced two daughters. Charlotte died in 1817, and Wilson married Rebecca Eden of New York in October 1825. Together they had three children.
Attracted to politics at an early age, Wilson entered public life as a Democratic-Republican. He served four terms in the General Assembly from 1806 to 1817. During the War of 1812 he edited a short-lived, prowar Charleston newspaper. In 1817 Prince George Winyah Parish elected Wilson to the state Senate, where he served until 1822. During his last term he served as president of the Senate for several days until he was elected governor on December 7, 1822.
As governor, Wilson demonstrated himself to be an ardent advocate of states’ rights. He denied that Congress had the power to make internal improvements. Legislative resolutions during Wilson’s tenure declared that protective tariffs were unconstitutional and that Congress was without authority to tax the citizens of one state to pay for improvements within another. Another accomplishment during his term was the abolishment of the state Court of Equity. He also advocated, unsuccessfully, a more humane revision in laws affecting South Carolina’s black population. Simultaneously, Wilson warned his constituents to guard against antislavery influence in Congress and the northern states, insisting on “a firm determination to resist, at the threshold, every invasion of our domestic tranquility.” Wilson proved less diligent in maintaining the financial records of his office, however, and he was threatened with impeachment for failing to account for his contingent funds in a timely manner.
After his term ended, Wilson returned to the Senate, serving from 1826 to 1829. In late 1832 Charleston voters sent him to the Nullification Convention in Columbia, where he was one of the more ardent proponents of nullification. Afterward he retired from public office to concentrate on his writing and his somewhat radical positions involving public affairs. In 1835 he became head of “The Lynch Club” and supported mob action in Charleston regarding the seizure of abolitionist mailings.
In 1838 Wilson published Code of Honor: or Rules for the Government of Principals and Seconds in Duelling. He was reportedly experienced in the practice and believed himself qualified to codify its regulations. By doing so, he hoped to prevent needless encounters and perhaps to save lives. The Code’s provisions addressed such topics as responses to insults, appropriate time between an insult and the duel, weapons, paces, roles of a participant’s “second,” and even the wording to be used. Despite assertions that his code would save lives, it required that any man refusing to fight be publicly labeled a coward. Code of Honor was so popular that it was reprinted in 1858 and again in 1878. Indeed, Wilson wished that his code of honor would be employed by gentlemen “until the advent of the millennium.”
Wilson died in Charleston on February 13, 1849, and was buried in St. Paul’s churchyard.
Bailey, N. Louise, Mary L. Morgan, and Carolyn R. Taylor, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina Senate. 3 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.