James Henry Hammond, Pro-slavery Paedophile Politician

Painting of James Henry Hammond as a young man - headstuff.org
Hammond as a young man. Source

It’s always interesting when a historical figure has to be re-evaluated in the light of new evidence. For over a century James Hammond was a controversial figure, and allegations about his personal life were often seen as merely mudslinging prompted by his uncompromising pro-slavery stance. It wasn’t until 1989, when his private diaries were found and published, that it turned out that the allegations, and more, were true. Hammond had written down all his deeds, secure in his own self-belief that he had done nothing wrong, and that he was the hero of his own personal tale. Most decent modern souls would, I feel confident, disagree.

James Henry Hammond was born in 1807 in South Carolina, the son of Elisha and Catherine Hammond. Elisha was a teacher from Massachusetts who had dreamed of being an attorney, and from an early age he groomed James Henry to follow that dream. Elisha hoped to win the patronage of Catherine’s wealthy uncle John Fox to aid in this, and named his youngest son after the old man. The plan came to naught, however, when the two fell out. Elisha later explained to James that he had been forced to turn against Uncle John:

for attempting to destroy the chastity of your sisters – a thing I never intended to have related to you, but he did it more than once, twice or thrice.

As we shall see, while young James did not inherit any of the old man’s money, he definitely inherited his unfortunate appetites. In the absence of this patronage, which would have permitted him to go to one of the more prestigious national colleges, he attended South Carolina College and studied law. While there he made the acquaintance of Thomas Jefferson Withers, an older student. Some letters between the two were re-discovered in 1978, and suggest a potential homosexual affair – or at the very least, a more physically relaxed friendship than one might expect from the era. The two had at least shared a bed on some occasion, and in one letter Withers says:

Thomas Jefferson Withers - headstuff.org
Thomas Jefferson Withers. Source.

I feel some inclination to learn whether you yet sleep in your Shirt-tail, and whether you yet have the extravagant delight of poking and punching a writhing Bedfellow with your long fleshen pole – the exquisite touches of which I have often had the honor of feeling?

While the context in the letter makes it clear that the “touches” were the result of Hammond’s restless sleeping rather than any overt sexual activity, the camp and flirty tone of the letter is a million miles away from the tight, buttoned down image that Hammond tried to project. He also appears to have had, even at this time, a predilection for younger women. In 1830, at the age of 23, he met a 16 year old girl named Catherine Elizabeth Fitzsimmons. Catherine was an heiress, her father having died five years earlier, and the following year Hammond proposed marriage. Her family objected, claiming that she was too young to marry, and denouncing Hammond as a fortune hunter. When they insisted this was a love-match, the family asked Hammond to renounce the young lady’s dowry. Naturally, this would have outraged his honour, and so eventually he married her, dowry and all. As a result he gained a plantation of 7500 acres, along with 147 slaves. For the rest of his life, regardless of what else he did, Hammond would be a planter.

Catherine Fitzsimmons Hammond - headstuff.org
Catherine Fitzsimmons Hammond. Source

Prior to that, however, he had supported himself both in his father’s planned career of lawyer, and as a reporter. In 1830, the same year he met Catherine, he even founded his own newspaper. The Southern Times began publication in January 1830, on a platform of Nullification – the belief that the citizens of South Carolina should refuse to pay federal taxes. Though it ceased publication six months later, it was enough to get him noticed on the local political scene. In 1834 he ran for Congress on a platform of Nullification and was elected. However at the time he was suffering from an ulcerous stomach, and the stress of Washington political life exacerbated the condition. Fearing for his health he resigned, and took Catherine and their son Harry on a trip to Europe to relieve his stress. His fifteen month grand tour around the British Isles and the Continent. One incident on this trip illuminates the social baggage that Hammond brought along. At a Belgian inn he felt he was being overcharged, so he tried to have his coachman drive away without paying. When an employee grabbed the horse’s reins to prevent this, Hammond ordered him to let them go. When the man refused to do so, Hammond beat him severely with his cane. In his own eyes, as he would later explain, this was entirely justified. He was of a higher class, and a mere servant such as this owed him unquestioning obedience. Under the laws of South Carolina at the time, he would have faced no charge. Belgium, however, saw things differently. Hammond spent a night in jail. When he paid a bail of five hundred francs the next day he was released, and promptly fled the country to avoid facing any charges.

Some say travel broadens the mind, but in Hammond’s case it seems to have narrowed it. He was profoundly unimpressed with the “free societies” he saw in Europe, and came back to South Carolina convinced that a lack of slavery was a sure recipe for wide-spread poverty. His prestige locally had been enhanced by the trip, and in 1839 he ran for election as governor of South Carolina. He was confident enough of victory that he built a townhouse in Columbia, but he was defeated. In 1842 he stood again, and this time he was successful. His term as governor was most notable for his reorganisation of the state militia, and his advocacy for secession from the Union in response to a new increase in federal taxes. This was blocked by Senator John C Calhoun, an occasional ally of Hammond’s who was also a fierce opponent of federal taxation, but who was also a staunch defender of the Union as necessary. After his term as governor ended Hammond began to make a push for a Senate seat of his own, but that, along with his political career, were soon derailed by his wife’s brother in law, Wade Hampton II. Wade, it appeared, had just found out what Hammond had been doing to Wade’s daughters.

Wade Hampton - headstuff.org
Wade Hampton II. Source

The Hampton family had been an important part of Hammond’s political career. Wade’s father had been a lieutenant colonel in the Revolutionary War and a general in the war of 1812, while Wade himself had been an aide to the future president Andrew Jackson. Wade’s support had been a major boon to Hammond, but that support came to an abrupt end in 1843 when his daughter Harriet finally told him what Uncle James had been doing to his nieces for all those years when they came to visit. Hammond’s own account in his diaries makes for stomach-churning reading, as he shamelessly details the “familiarities” he inflicted on the teenage girls, which he describes as being their fault for “permitting my hands to stray unchecked”. As always, in his diaries it is Hammond himself who is the victim of the “coarse sensibilities” of his enemies. At first Wade tried to spread the tale of Hammond’s abuse discreetly, but when Hammond began making moves towards the Senate, the older man felt compelled to make his allegations more public. Though this did have the result of derailing Hammond’s career, at least for now, it had dire consequences for his family. As one contemporary pointed out, “no man who valued his standing could marry one of the Hampton girls”, and no man did – all four who had suffered his abuse would die unwed.

Through this Catherine stood by her husband, but in 1850 he finally pushed her too far. As with many slave-owners of the day, Hammond began sexually assaulting one of his slaves, a woman named Sally Johnson. This began in 1839 when she he purchased her aged 18. Along with Sally came her daughter Louisa, a baby at the time. When Louisa reached the age of 12 years old in 1850 then Hammond began sexually assaulting her as well. This appears to have been the final straw for Catherine, and she gave Hammond an ultimatum – sell the two women, or else she would leave. When he refused to do so, then she left, and took their children with her. Hammond blamed her mother for this (as always, it had to be someone else’s fault), declaring:

I trace it all to the horrible connection, which Satan seduced me into forming with the vulgar Fitzsimmons family, whose low Irish descent and hypocrisy can only be compared with their low-Irish pride, selfishness and utter want of refinement and tone.

Conveniently forgetting, of course, that he owed his entire fortune to that self-same family. In fact, though he boasted of his prowess as a planter and even produced a detailed manual on how to run a plantation, the death rate among his slaves was far above average and he would never have been able to make a success of his estates on his own. Perhaps it was realising this that eventually led him to reconcile with his wife in 1853 – which he did by making a gift of Louisa Johnson to Catherine’s mother, while he passed Sally (and the children the two had borne) to his son Harry, who had also apparently been abusing Louisa. Exhorting his son to take care of those children of Louisa who were “of your blood if not of mine”, he declared:

I cannot free these people and send them North. It would be cruelty to them…Slavery in the family will be their happiest earthly condition.

Somehow I doubt he asked Sally or Louisa what their opinion in the matter was.

James Henry Hammond as a Senator - headstuff.org
Hammond as a senator. Source.

In 1857 the scandal surrounding Hammond had faded enough that he became the only acceptable compromise candidate between the factions of John C Calhoun and Robert Barnwell Rhett. So he finally got his seat in the Senate, where he became an outspoken pro-slavery advocate, who went so far as to advocate the death penalty for abolitionists. His most infamous pronouncements on the topic were:

I firmly believe that American slavery is not only not a sin but especially commanded by God through Moses and approved by Christ through His Apostles.


I repudiate, as ridiculously absurd, that much-lauded but nowhere accredited dogma of Mr. Jefferson, that “all men are born equal.”

The capstone to this legacy of vileness was a speech he gave to the Senate on the 4th March 1858. In it he set out a theory of society he had developed based on his European travels. Known as the “Mudsill Theory”, this dictated that:

In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life…Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government.

Based on this, he declared that either slavery or extreme poverty were a necessary foundation for a society. By rejecting one, the North had invited in the other. [1] In the same speech he declared the folly of the North in thinking it could make war upon the South, with its vast wealth based on the cotton trade.

You dare not make war on cotton. No power on earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is king.

History would, of course, prove him wrong.

Apart from that oft-quoted speech, Hammond’s term in the Senate was largely uneventful. In a surprising change from his prior politics, his efforts were largely directed against secession, as he felt that the South was better placed trying to stay within the Union and negotiate from a position of strength. Still, once Lincoln was elected President and the Southern states chose to secede, he resigned like the rest of their senators and came home. He spent the war on his plantation, and his diary shows that it was not a pleasant experience. Union raids on the coast of South Carolina made the rich planters very aware of how vulnerable they were. The collapse of the cotton market (which, contrary to his predictions, did not cause the collapse of the world financial market) left him with no source of income, and government requisitions took their toll on what was left. With the young men off at war, Hammond began to eye his slaves nervously, fearing an insurrection. Of course, the progress of the war was all due to the lack of following his council:

War news bad from every quarter. . . .All this owing to the want of capacity in the President [Jefferson Davis] to which he added the lowest jealousy, the most malignant temper, the most perverse & mulish obstinacy, spleen, spite & illimitable conceit & vanity. If I had not known from the first that he had all these disqualifications for his position & that besides he is, when pushed, an abject coward, I should think he is a traitor.

In November 1864, with the war all but lost, Hammond died. At the time of his death he owned 300 slaves, all of whom would be freed within a few weeks when the Union armies reached his plantation. Within six months the war was over, and his arrogant speech of six years before could be seen for the vainglorious boasts of a man sick in soul and deed, rotten to the core. On the day before he died he told his son “If we are subjected, run a plow over my grave” – may the poisonous notions that infused his words and deeds suffer the same fate.

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[1] Naturally he then goes on to point out that it’s far more acceptable for “another and inferior race” to occupy this position in society.