- James Hamilton of South Carolina
Few dispute the crucial role that South Carolina played in the politics of the Jacksonian era and in the sectional crisis. The small state's voice, defiant and unyielding, rings out clearly in the rising crescendo of the controversy over [End Page 188] slavery. Much has been written about the role of John C. Calhoun in shaping the terms of the debate over nullification, and excellent studies exist that look at the nature of South Carolina politics and how its peculiarities helped created a "prelude to civil war."
Robert Tinkler, in his new biography of James Hamilton, brings to our attention an often-overlooked participant in those contentious times. Tinkler argues that this one-time intendant of the city of Charleston, later a powerful and well-connected member of the Palmettos state's congressional delegation, and eventually governor, Hamilton bore a name known to all in antebellum South Carolina. Hamilton was connected by blood and marriage to two of the powerful rice dynasties of the South Carolina low country, and Tinkler carefully explains his role in creating the political machine that became the nullifier movement. During the 1830s, Hamilton took up the cause of Texas, serving as a legate to the European powers on behalf of the new, slave-holding Republic(and winning recognition of Texas from Great Britain in the process).
Tinkler does an excellent job of using his subject to examine some of the most important political issues in antebellum America. Hamilton supported the annexation of Texas by the 1840s, though he became an opponent of some of the more radical South Carolinians (such as Robert Barnwell Rhett) who hoped to turn the Texas issue into a constitutional crisis that would lead to the destruction of the Union. A fervent land speculator, Hamilton found himself overwhelmed with debt and somewhat disgraced because of his financial reverses. Tinkler effectively shows how these personal difficulties affected Hamilton's political views. He raises important questions about the role of land speculation in Texas and the Southwest among some of the key figures in the sectional controversy.
Tinkler examines the political career of James Hamilton by using a familiar paradigm to explain the ideological trajectory of Southern politicians of this era. He argues that, not unlike Calhoun himself, Hamilton followed a path from nationalist to sectionalist in his sympathies. One wonders about these categories and if politicians like Hamilton are best framed in this fashion. Does supporting monies for the repair and upkeep of the Cumberland road mean one has become a nationalist? Tinkler shows that Hamilton gave great support to the Bank of the United States, but he also makes it clear that his support for the Bank grew from the highly sectional needs of South Carolina planters and merchants rather than the impetus of a nationalist ideology. Moreover, Hamilton's position on Texas and his warm support for the national Democrats and James Polk suggest that he could, in comparison to other South Carolinians of his era, hold views less sectional than one might expect of a committed Nullifier. Tinkler's arguments, as with similar arguments that have been made by the biographers of Calhoun, raise the question that the lives and careers of men like Hamilton are best understood not as the story [End Page 189] of frustrated and former nationalists, but rather as the story of highly conservative pragmatists who adjusted to changing currents.
Along with this question regarding how the author framed his discussion of Hamilton, my only major criticism has to do with his breezy discussion of the Vesey conspiracy and the contemporary controversy over that crucial event. Hamilton's service as Charleston's intendant coincided with the Vesey conspiracy and Hamilton compiled one of the more important official accounts of the event. Unfortunately, the controversy over the conspiracy, whether or not it actually represented a plan for a major slave revolt or whether South Carolina's planter elite used the rumor of revolt to tighten their grip on their slaves and their slave society, receives hardly...