Robert James Turnbull

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Robert James Turnbull (January 1775 - June 15, 1833) was an American lawyer, planter, writer and politician from South Carolina who also published under the name Brutus. His essays in the Charleston Mercury advocating nullification were published as a pamphlet under the title The Crisis: Or, Essays on the Usurpations of the Federal Government, which has been described as "the handbook for nullification and resistance."[1]


Turnbull's father was Andrew Turnbull, a British physician married to a Greek wife (a native of Smyrna, where he had worked for British interests). Dr. Turnbull was given a grant by the British Crown in 1772 to establish a colony in Florida, which was settled by about 15,000 Greeks and other immigrants from the Mediterranean, as well as some Moravians. The colony was not a large success, and Dr. Turnbull lost his grants. The Turnbulls settled in Charleston, South Carolina when the British Army occupied the town during the American Revolution, some time after Robert James Turnbull was born in New Smyrna, Florida in January, 1775; and when the war ended, the doctor flatly refused to become an American citizen. Robert was sent to school in England after the war, during which time his Visit to the "Philadelphia Penitentiary" (which discussed the penitentiary concept and argued against capital punishment) was published in London (1797). It was translated into French in 1800, and gained him some notice in the United States as well as in Europe. He returned to the United States, and studied law in Charleston and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He took up legal practice in Charleston until 1810, when he moved to a large plantation in the rural part of the state.

Denmark Vesey[edit]

In July 1822, Turnbull served on the seven-man court that tried Denmark Vesey and a number of his co-conspirators, who had planned a slave rebellion. It sentenced 34 of them to death (including Vesey and his closest lieutenants, Peter Poyas and Gullah Jack) and 37 to penal transportation outside the state.[2]

Political leadership[edit]

Turnbull wrote a series of articles on nullification and free trade in 1827 for the Charleston Mercury which were afterward issued as The Crisis and helped cement his place as a leader in the nullification faction in South Carolina politics. He was a member of the 1831 free trade convention in Columbia, South Carolina and a similar one in Charleston in 1832; he wrote the report of the 1831 convention. In November of that year he served as a delegate to the convention of the people of South Carolina that passed the Ordinance of Nullification (which declared that the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were unconstitutional and unenforceable within the state of South Carolina after February 1, 1833), and again prepared the report of that convention. He died in Charleston on June 15, 1833, during the late stages of the Nullification Crisis which he had played such a role in precipitating.


  1. ^ Edgar, Walter B. South Carolina: A History Charleston, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1998; p. 331
  2. ^ Snowden, Yates & Harry Gardner Cutler, eds. History of South Carolina Volume 1. Chicago & New York: Lewis Publishing Company, 1920; p. 556.