Benjamin Franklin Perry

Black & white photograph of Benjamin Franklin Perry

Benjamin Franklin Perry, engraved by H.S. Sadd, from Livingston, John. From Portraits of Eminent Americans Now Living: With Biographical and Historical Memoirs of their Lives and Actions. 1853-54. Wikimedia Commons.

(1805-1886)  Perry was born in the Pendleton District (now Oconee County), the son of Benjamin Perry and Anna Foster. He attended one term, respectively, at the Asheville Academy in North Carolina in 1822 and the Greenville Male Academy in 1823. Perry began his legal studies in Greenville with the prominent state attorney Baylis J. Earle in  1824. He was admitted to the bar in 1827. On April 27, 1837, Perry married Elizabeth Frances McCall of Charleston. They had seven children.

Perry was editor from 1830 to 1833 of the Greenville Mountaineer, an organ of the state’s Unionists and frequently found himself embroiled in controversy. On August 16, 1832, he mortally wounded the pro-nullification newspaper editor Turner Bynum in a duel arising over a slanderous article. Elected to the 1832 nullification convention, Perry voted against the ordinance. Perry served eleven terms in the state House of Representatives (1836–1841, 1848–1859, and 1862–1864), as well as two terms in the state Senate (1844–1847). In the General Assembly he advocated upcountry economic interests, democratization of state government, and legal and judiciary reform. Returning to journalism, from 1851 to 1858 he edited the Southern Patriot, and its successor the Patriot and Mountaineer, the only Unionist newspaper in the state at that time. During the Civil War, Perry held the positions of district attorney (1862), assessment commissioner of impressed produce (1863), and district judge (1865) under the Confederate government. In 1863 Perry was commissioned a second lieutenant of the Greenville Mounted Riflemen.

Perry’s political career culminated with his appointment as provisional governor of South Carolina by President Andrew Johnson in 1865. Perry restored to office all state officials who occupied them when the Confederacy collapsed, permitted organization of volunteer militia companies, negotiated the abolition of trial by military tribunal for whites, and, to alleviate public distress, refused to levy taxes. He recommended passage of the controversial Black Codes, which severely restricted the rights of freed slaves, and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Perry’s greatest achievement was the creation of a new state constitution, which embodied such long-cherished personal goals as popular election of governor and presidential electors, more equitable representation in the Senate, and the abolition of property qualifications for members of the legislature. In 1865, Perry was elected to the U.S. Senate, but he was denied his seat by the Republican Congress. An ardent opponent of Reconstruction, Perry opposed black suffrage, ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the calling of the 1868 constitutional convention. 

Called by his admirers “the Old Roman” for his integrity and stoic adherence to principle, Perry had a reserved demeanor and brusque manner that masked a sensitive and emotional temperament. An irony of Perry’s career was that while a devoted Unionist, he disliked the North, loathed abolitionists, and after the Civil War became a champion of states’ rights when he judged them being usurped by extra-constitutional federal authority.