Speaker's Bureau

Reconsidering James Petigru: Unionist and Civic Reformer in a Radical Age

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Few sarcastic quips in all of southern history remain as famous as James Petigru’s reported comment upon receiving the news that South Carolina had seceded from the Union. South Carolina, Petigru mused sarcastically, was “too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.” Petigru died in 1863, a devoted Unionist and southern dissenter who also remained a beloved Charlestonian and civic reformer. For all his lack political influence, Petigru remained the “first citizen” of Charleston: a brilliant attorney, an active intellectual, a dedicated and engaged churchman, and an active civic leader. In a world of political polarization, Petigru nonetheless enjoyed less political influence but held more public respect than any other Charleston citizen. Unable to command a straitjacket for radical South Carolina, Petigru sounded the prophet’s word among a distempered population but to no avail; but he found solace in an active civic life in the city he loved in spite of itself.

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Lacy Ford