George McDuffie

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Date: 1936
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,571 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1290L

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About this Person
Born: August 10, 1790 in Augusta, Georgia, United States
Died: March 11, 1851
Nationality: American
Occupation: Politician
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McDuffie, George (Aug. 10, 1790 - Mar. 11, 1851), representative and senator, was probably born in Columbia County, Ga. There is some doubt as to the date and the place of his birth. His parents were John and Jane McDuffie, both natives of Scotland who came to Georgia after the Revolution and settled in the pinelands about thirty miles from Augusta. The father was a man of fine mind and character but very poor, and the boy began life with no prospect of education beyond that offered by an old-field school. At the age of twelve he was a clerk in a country store and, two years later, obtained a similar place in Augusta, where he boarded with his employer, James Calhoun, who, seeing the boy's capacity, in 1810 persuaded William Calhoun, a brother, to take him to live with him while attending Moses Waddell's school at Willington, which was close by. There McDuffie remained for a year and then entered the junior class at South Carolina College, where he was graduated in 1813 with a reputation as a debater and orator. He was admitted to the bar a year later and began practice at Pendleton, S. C. In 1815 he moved to Edgefield and became the partner of Eldred Simkins, who had a large practice. McDuffie was soon elected to the lower house of the legislature and served two terms. In 1818 Simkins succeeded to Calhoun's seat in Congress and, after a second term, retired in favor of McDuffie, who remained in the House from 1821 until 1834, when he resigned to become governor of South Carolina. Returning to the bar after two terms as governor, he at once built up a large practice. In 1842 he succeeded William C. Preston in the Senate. He resigned in August 1846 and returned to private life. About 1829 he moved to "Cherry Hill," a plantation in the Sumter District, S. C., near the Savannah River and there ended his days. Although he came from poverty and obscurity, he won admission into exclusive South Carolina society. He married in 1829 Mary Rebecca, the daughter of Col. Richard Singleton, who died on Sept. 14, 1830. Their only child married the younger Wade Hampton, 1818-1902 [q.v.].

McDuffie entered Congress a strong nationalist. In the same year he wrote as a newspaper article a "Defence of a Liberal Construction of the Powers of Congress," directed against state sovereignty and strict construction, which, amusingly enough in the light of later events, James Hamilton, Jr., had reprinted in pamphlet form with laudatory comment (1821). In discussing the right of a state to judge of its own powers, McDuffie said, "No climax of political heresies can be imagined, in which this might not fairly claim the most prominent place" (see Magoon, post, 246). But his nationalism did not long endure. He was attacking the tariff in a short time, opposing internal improvements with almost equal vehemence in 1825, advocating a prohibitory tax on Northern goods in 1828, and in 1831 declaring that a Union made by the majority was a foul monster whose deformity could be worshiped only by those worthy of their chains. In 1830, while fulminating against the protective tariff, he developed what was known as the "forty-bale" theory. Holding that the tariff affected cotton growers particularly and that it subtracted from their profits by forcing them to sell their produce in exchange for a reduced purchasing power, he argued that the producer and not the consumer paid the duty on imports, and that, as a result, the Southern planters gave to the government, or to Northern manufacturers, forty out of every hundred bales of cotton they produced (Register of Debates in Cong., 21 Cong., 1 Sess., 1830, pp. 842-62). Like most of his contemporaries in South Carolina, he was utterly unable to perceive how far slavery was an economic handicap to the South.

He favored nullification, although he was inclined to regard it, if not a revolutionary remedy, at least one outside of the Constitution. Nor would he agree that it was a peaceful one but believed that secession would probably follow it, a prospect that aroused no terrors in his soul. His speech of May 19, 1831, at Charleston is frequently said to have brought Calhoun to open advocacy of nullification. He was a delegate to the nullification convention in 1832 and wrote the address to the people of the other states in which, after severe condemnation of the protective tariff, he warned them that secession might follow and declared that, if the federal government employed force, South Carolina would rather be "the cemetery of freemen, than the habitation of slaves" (Journal of the Convention of the People of S. C. . . . 1833, 1833, p. 78). He was disappointed at the success of the compromise and frankly scornful of the nullification of the Force Bill in 1833, which he thought an empty and impotent gesture.

In Congress he quickly acquired reputation as a ready, eloquent, and sensational debater, and the news that he intended speaking rarely failed to fill the galleries. His speeches, usually extemporaneous, were always delivered as if he were in a frenzy of passion. They were characterized by their noise and fury, extravagance of phrase, and denunciatory quality, though on occasions he could also be persuasive. His voice was fine and powerful, his memory unfailing, his face expressive, his fluency never failed, and always he "pounded the air with his fists." All of this was in striking contrast to his normal manner, for he was ordinarily quiet and reserved, almost to taciturnity, with a somber cast to his thought, which made a smile almost a stranger to his face. John Quincy Adams said he had a "gloomy churlishness" (post, vol. IX, p. 119) in his character. The explanation of this characteristic probably lies in his physical condition. He was a confirmed dyspeptic. During the session of Congress of 1821-22 he became involved in a quarrel with William Cumming of Georgia growing out of the Calhoun-Crawford rivalry for the presidency. After they had extensively abused each other in the press, Cumming challenged McDuffie and came to Washington for the duel, which occurred after the close of the session. McDuffie suffered a permanent injury to the spine and was never again a well man. His health grew steadily worse, and he suffered from severe fits of depression, which finally amounted to attacks of melancholia. He also grew increasingly irritable, during his last years was a pitiable wreck, and finally died insane. The Cumming duel was not his only affair of the kind. In fact, Cumming again challenged him, but the duel was never fought. At the same session McDuffie had a quarrel with James M. Wayne of Georgia, later associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, which led to a challenge, but the matter was adjusted. During the Twentieth Congress he challenged Thomas Metcalfe of Kentucky, who chose rifles as the weapons for the encounter. James Hamilton, Jr., McDuffie's second, horrified at this breach of the code, refused to let his friend appear and later made it known that McDuffie, as a result of his wound, could not fire a rifle. McDuffie also challenged Joseph Vance, of Ohio, who declined to meet him.

In Congress McDuffie became the most radical of the opponents of the protective tariff. He was venomous in his hatred of the Adams administration, and in the first session of the Nineteenth Congress he made furious charges of a corrupt bargain between Adams and Clay and proposed an amendment to the Constitution providing for a more direct election of president in order to prevent a recurrence of such a thing. During the Adams administration he was chairman of the ways and means committee. He had supported Jackson strongly in 1821 in the Florida matter and from 1825 to 1829 was an enthusiastic advocate of his election as president, and it was confidently expected in 1829 that he would be in the cabinet. But his support was soon lost. He broke with Jackson on the questions of nullification and the bank. McDuffie was as enthusiastic in his support of the bank as he was of nullification, and in 1832 he presented to the House the bank's memorial for recharter. During his brief senatorial career he favored the annexation of Texas, although as governor of South Carolina he had opposed it, and introduced a resolution for it. He opposed the occupation of Oregon as impracticable, declaring that never, even in the sanguine dreams of youth, had he conceived of having under the same government people who lived 3,000 miles apart (Congressional Globe, 27 Cong., 3 Sess., p. 200). After the expiration of his term as governor he lost influence in South Carolina, as Calhoun gained it. Up to that time he was in high popular favor and genuinely beloved. He was a little above medium height with a large, spare figure. He had prominent, striking features, brilliant and deep-set blue eyes, and black hair. Always he was grim-looking with the "fierce earnestness" of passionate conviction. His temperament was nervous, he was easily moved emotionally, and his motives seem not to have been selfish. He was as frank as he was bold, clear-headed, and strikingly consistent for a politician. He relaxed somewhat with his intimates and, when in good health, enjoyed cards, checkers, and backgammon.


[Some letters in Lib. of Cong.; family records and MSS. in private hands; Trinity Archive, Sept. 1892; Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, ed. by C. F. Adams, vols. V-IX (1875-76); J. B. O'Neall, Biog. Sketches of the Bench and Bar, 1859, vol. II; E. L. Magoon, Living Orators in America (1849); B. F. Perry, Reminiscences of Public Men (1883); Hist. of S. C., ed. by Yates Snowden (1920), vol. II; C. S. Boucher, The Nullification Controversy in S. C. (copr. 1916); D. F. Houston, A Critical Study of Nullification in S. C. (1896), pp. 35-49; Charleston Daily Courier, Mar. 13, 1851.]

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Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2310007901