Thomas Smith Grimké

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Thomas Smith Grimké (September 22, 1786 – October 12, 1834) was an American attorney, author, orator and social activist.

Parents and education[edit]

Thomas Grimké was the second of fourteen children borne to jurist John Faucheraud Grimké, and Mary ("Polly"), daughter of Thomas and Sarah (Moore) Smith, of Charleston, South Carolina. He graduated from Charleston College, and entered the study of law under John Julius Pringle, then Attorney General of South Carolina, in 1804. He suspended his legal studies to enter Yale in the fall of 1805. After completing courses at Yale, Grimké expressed a desire to prepare for the ministry, but yielded to the wishes of his jurist father and was admitted to the bar in May 1809. Grimké practiced law in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1830, Grimké received an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from Yale.

Legal career[edit]

On 17 March 1827, Grimké advocated, in an address before the Bar Association of South Carolina, the codification of the laws of that state. He was a member of the State Senate in 1826-1830, and in 1828 made a speech in support of the federal government on the tariff question.[1]

Grimké had a distinguished career in the Carolina courts. He is perhaps best known for the case of M'Cready v. Hunt, focusing on States Rights, which was brought before the South Carolina Court of Appeals in 1834. The case involved a "test oath" passed by the South Carolina legislature in November 1832. The oath required that members of the state militia pledge "faithful and true allegiance" to the State of South Carolina. 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. However, dispute over the oath immediately erupted. The "Nullifier" faction asserted that allegiance to states had precedence over allegiance to the federal government, while "Unionists" asserted that the federal government had primacy over all states.

Eventually, a legal case on the validity of the test oath reached the state Court of Appeals in Columbia. Attorney Robert Barnwell Rhett, of Beaufort, argued for the test oath with the support of state Governor Robert Y. Hayne. He was opposed by a trio of young Unionist attorneys, James L. Petigru, of Charleston, business attorney Abram Blanding, of Columbia, and Thomas S. Grimké. The June 2nd, 1834 decision from the three judges fell 2 to 1 for the Unionists. "Nullifiers" immediately called for the impeachment of the two jurists. "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.[2]

Social activism[edit]

Grimké was an active advocate and donor to the temperance movement and a prominent member of the American Peace Society. He was also an advocate and lecturer upon the reformation of education in America, particularly urging the use of The Bible as a text-book in schools. Though a fine classical scholar, he opposed both classics and mathematics as elements of an education.[1] He was an early advocate of reformed spelling, as a means of simplifying education, and used his original spelling method in his own publications after 1833. Grimké was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1833.[3]

He advocated absolute non violence, holding that even self-defensive warfare was wicked. When asked what he would do if he were mayor of Charleston, and a piratical vessel should attack the city, he is said to have replied that he would marshal the Sunday-school children in procession, and lead them to meet the invader,[1] which caused his ideas to be met with much ridicule.


The Grimké family were German by descent, and his paternal grandmother's family was French Huguenot. On January 25, 1810, he married Sarah Daniel Drayton, of Charleston, who died on July 23, 1867. The couple had six sons. His siblings included the noted orators and abolitionists Sarah Moore Grimké and Angelina Grimké Weld. His brother and law partner, Henry W. Grimké, was the father of journalist and diplomat Archibald Grimké and Francis J. Grimké, a Presbyterian minister. Another brother, Frederick Grimké (1791–1863), was for some time presiding judge of the Ohio Court of Common Pleas, and from 1836-1842 was a judge of the state supreme court, resigning to devote his time to philosophical studies.[1]


Grimké died of cholera on October 12, 1834, while on a lecture tour and a visit with family members in Ohio. He was buried in Columbus, Ohio. A sermon preached in Charleston on the occasion of his death was subsequently printed in the Episcopal publication “Gospel Messenger” (volume 11, December, 1834).

The contemporary doctor Daniel Drake remembered him in these terms:

It may be trule said of Mr.G. that he was a Christian scholar, a Christian orator, a Christian philosopger, and a Christian gentleman. He had resolved the whole duty of man, in every situation and relation of life, into the simple and sublime principple of obedience to God, and was himself a luminious example of conformity, in practice, to his own theory of moral obligation. The preservation of the Union was one of his cherished themes..."[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Wikisource-logo.svg Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1900). "Grimké, John Faucheraud". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton. 
  2. ^ Ford, pp. 148-149.
  3. ^ American Antiquarian Society Members Directory
  4. ^ Drake, Daniel (1834). Discourse on the History, Character, and Prospects of the West: Delivered to the Union Literary Society of Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, at Their Ninth Anniversary, September 23, 1834. Truman and Smith. p. 53-54: "Thomas S. Grimké."

External links[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