Portrait of Charles Pinckney, circa 1786

Slavery at South Carolina College, 1801–1865:

The Foundations of the University of South Carolina

Intellectual Founders


John Rutledge (1739–1800)

Portrait of John Rutledge, circa 1780
John Rutledge, ca. 1780, Wikimedia Commons

John Rutledge was a South Carolina governor and Supreme Court chief justice. Rutledge College was later named in his honor. The governor, born into a slaveholding family, grew up with a slave named Pompey as his companion. He was educated in Great Britain and returned to Charleston to practice law. Although Rutledge claimed that he disliked slavery, as an attorney he twice defended individuals who abused slaves. Before the American Revolution, Rutledge owned sixty slaves; afterward, he possessed twenty-eight. His wife Elizabeth emancipated her own slaves, and his nieces were abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimké. Despite this, Rutledge convinced the Constitutional Convention not to abolish slavery. When Rutledge died in 1800, he only owned one slave due to financial difficulties.

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746–1825) & Charles Pinckney (1757–1824)

Portrait of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, circa 1800
Charles C. Pinckney, ca. 1800, National Park Service

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a Charleston native, was a lawyer, planter, and Revolutionary War general. The Charlestonian, along with his cousin Charles Pinckney, aided in the founding of South Carolina College. Seeing the lack of education in the state, Pinckney and Henry William DeSaussure planned the college around 1770 and brought their dreams to fruition in 1801. Pinckney College is named for him and his cousin, Charles Pinckney. Pinckney owned slaves throughout his life and believed that the institution was necessary to the economy of South Carolina. At the Constitutional Convention, he agreed to abolish the slave trade in 1808, but opposed emancipation. In 1801, Pinckney owned about 250 slaves. When his daughter Eliza married, Pinckney gave her fifty slaves. On his death, he bequeathed his remaining slaves to his daughters and nephews.

Portrait of Charles Pinckney, circa 1786
Charles Pinckney, ca. 1786, National Park Service

Charles Pinckney, a Charleston native, was a lawyer, Revolutionary War lieutenant, writer and signer of the United States Constitution, and South Carolina governor. A few books from Pinckney’s legendary library reside in the South Caroliniana Library today. Pinckney’s son, Henry Laurens Pinckney, graduated from the college as valedictorian in 1812. Born into a slaveholding family, Pinckney believed blacks had greater security as slaves and owned 200 to 300 slaves himself. He freed his slaves Primus, Cate, Betty, and Dinah on his death, along with Dinah’s children Anthony, John, Peneta, and Carlos, leaving provision for the children’s education and support. This and other evidence, though inconclusive, indicates that Pinckney may have been the father of these children.

Henry William DeSaussure (1763–1839)

Bust of Henry William DeSaussure
Henry W. DeSaussure, SCL

Henry William DeSaussure, Princeton graduate, attorney, mayor of both Charleston and Columbia, framer of the South Carolina Constitution, and longtime chancellor of South Carolina, participated in the founding of South Carolina College. Concerned at the lack of higher education in the state, he not only planned the college, along with Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, but also co-sponsored the legislation for the college. Contemporaries said that DeSaussure watched over the new college like a father. DeSaussure College was named in his honor. A plantation and slave owner, DeSaussure mentioned his slaves in an 1809 letter. DeSaussure wrote a friend that his slaves were in good health and that he planned to obtain new clothes and blankets for them. He hoped Americans would work out a plan to prosper economically without slaves; he believed a remedy would make everyone involved happier, not only the slaves but also the citizenry at large. Although DeSaussure personally disliked the institution, he betrayed the conflicted feelings of many of his contemporaries. He believed that slavery brought great wealth to the country’s economy, for example, and was concerned about the economy if it were abolished. Without a remedy, however, DeSaussure feared that a revolt might ensue. In an attempt at justification he commented that northerners did not treat blacks like human beings, even though they were not enslaved.

Stephen Elliott (1771–1830)

Portrait of Stephen Elliott, circa 1820
Stephen Elliott, ca. 1820, Gray Herbarium

Stephen Elliott, a pioneer of modern botany, was born in Beaufort, South Carolina. Elliott was a scientist, banker, planter, legislator, and professor. As a legislator, he sponsored the 1811 Free School Act and the 1812 creation of the Bank of South Carolina. He was elected president of South Carolina College in 1820, but due to his prior commitment as president of the state bank, Elliott declined the position. Elliott College was later named in his honor. The Yale graduate and valedictorian owned a plantation and slaves near Beaufort, where he lived from 1800 to 1808, conducting botanical experiments. The botanist later wrote A Sketch of the Botany of South-Carolina and Georgia; the herbarium of specimens he created is preserved at the Charleston Museum. He aided in the founding of the Medical College of South Carolina in Charleston and served as a professor there until his death.