James L. Petigru

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James Louis Petigru

James Louis Petigru (May 10, 1789 – March 9, 1863) was an American lawyer, politician, and jurist in South Carolina. He is best known for his service as the Attorney General of South Carolina, his juridical work that played a key role in the recodification of the state's law code. He was also known for opposing nullification and, in 1860, state secession.


Petigru graduated from South Carolina College in 1809.[citation needed] He was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1812.[citation needed] In 1816, he was elected as the solicitor of Abbeville County, South Carolina.[citation needed] He became the Attorney General of South Carolina in 1822.[citation needed] In 1830, after having lost a bid for a seat in the South Carolina Senate, he was elected to fill a vacant seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives.[citation needed] He was the leader of the anti-nullificationists in that body.[citation needed]

He also acted as lead attorney in the case of M'Cready v. Hunt, focusing on test oaths and States Rights, which was brought before the South Carolina Court of Appeals in 1834.[citation needed] The case involved a "test oath" passed by the South Carolina legislature in November 1832, requiring members of the state militia to pledge "faithful and true allegiance" to the State of South Carolina.[citation needed] The law was vague on the underlying and contentious issue of sovereignty, and did not specifically state whether allegiance to the state was superior to allegiance to the federal government.[citation needed] Given tensions of the times, dispute over interpretation of the oath immediately erupted.[citation needed] The "Nullifier" faction asserted that allegiance to the state had precedence over allegiance to the federal government, while "Unionists" asserted that the federal government had primacy over all states.[citation needed]

Eventually, a legal case on the validity of the test oath reached the state Court of Appeals in Columbia.[citation needed] Attorney Robert Barnwell Rhett, of Beaufort, argued for the test oath with the support of state Governor Robert Y. Hayne.[citation needed] In opposition, the Unionist Petigru was joined by business attorney Abram Blanding of Columbia, and Thomas Smith Grimké of Charleston.[citation needed] The June 2, 1834 decision from the three judges fell 2 to 1 for the Unionists.[citation needed] "Nullifiers" immediately called for the impeachment of the two jurists.[citation needed] "Nullifier" legislators responded to the decision by calling for a constitutional amendment to legalize the test oath and assert the primacy of allegiance to South Carolina. (Ford, pp. 148–149)

After South Carolina seceded in 1860, Petigru famously remarked, "South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum." This quote is still used to describe contemporary South Carolinian politics.[1] Petigru opposed the Confederacy, although he did not believe that South Carolina would return to the Union.[citation needed]

He had been entrusted, in 1859, with the codification of the laws of South Carolina; he completed the task in December 1862.[citation needed] His code was rejected by the unreconstructed legislature of 1865, but formed the basis for the codification of 1872.[citation needed]

Petigru died in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1863.[citation needed] He is buried in St. Michael's Churchyard.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  • Ford, Lacy K., Jr., Origin of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry, 1800 to 1860, Oxford University Press, U.S., 1991, ISBN 0-19-506961-7
  • Who Was Who in America, Historical Volume, 1607-1896. Chicago: Marquis Who's Who, 1963.
  1. ^ [1], CNN, 8 June 2010
Legal offices
Preceded by
Robert Young Hayne
Attorney General of South Carolina
Succeeded by
Hugh S. Legaré