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- Apr 1, 1999
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William Henry Gist was born on August 22, 1807 in Charleston, South Carolina. He was the illegitimate son of Francis Fincher Gist and Mary Boyden. Very little is known about his childhood or about his mother. What is known is that in 1811, Francis, who was a merchant, took the boy with him to Union County, where his brother Nathanial lived. Francis and Nathanial had been left an inheritance by their father and used their stake to become wealthy landowners.
After Francis died in 1819, Gist was taken in by his uncle Nathanial, who petitioned the Charleston District Court and succeeded in making sure William Henry was legally recognized as a Gist, Nathanial paid for his nephew to attend South Carolina College in Columbus. But the younger Gist was expelled for leading a student boycott.
Gist studied independently and passed the bar anyway. He eventually returned to Union, where his father had left him property near the Tyger River. It took him four years to build his house, called Rose Hill. During that time, his first child with wife Louisa Bowen died at birth. His second child, Maria, was born in April 1830 but his 18 year-old wife died less than two weeks later.
Gist remarried in 1832 to Mary Elizabeth Rice. They lived at the Rose Hill Plantation along with more than two dozen slaves. Like many other southerners, an attack on slavery ownership was an attack on their very way of life and a direct threat to their livelihoods.
In 1840, Gist was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives, running on a platform that promoted states’ rights. Four years later he was elected to the South Carolina state Senate. In 1858 he was elected governor of South Carolina by the General Assembly, amidst the political background of growing tension over the issue of slavery in America.
Gist staunchly opposed Abraham Lincoln run for President and felt if he were elected, Southern interests would not be his priority. As such, Gist felt the south had to act to protect itself. So prior to the election, he sent letters to the governors of Louisiana, North Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama and Florida and asked what their response would be if Lincoln was elected.
Gist’s hard-line position was clear. “It is the desire of South Carolina that some other state should take the lead, or at least move simultaneously with her. If a single state secedes, she will follow her. If no other state takes the lead, South Carolina will secede (in my opinion) alone, if she has any assurance that she will soon be followed by any other states. Otherwise, it is doubtful.”
Initially, only the governors from Mississippi and Florida pledged to join South Carolina with secession. But it was all the coalition Gist needed. After Lincoln was elected, Gist declared, “The only alternative left, in my judgment, is the secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.”
A special committee convened on December 20, 1860, where members signed the Ordinance of Secession that severed all bonds between South Carolina and the federal government. Within two months, six more states seceded and the Confederate States of America was founded.
When the Civil War ended, Gist received a pardon from Andrew Johnson and was required to take an amnesty oath, promising to defend and uphold the United States Constitution. Although he avoided legal repercussions the way of life he had vigorously defended was officially over.
Gist returned to Rose Hill but without slaves to help run it, the plantation lost most of its value. Unable to afford hired farm workers, Gist was forced to rent out parcels of land to sharecroppers.
William Henry Gist died September 30, 1874, of appendicitis and was buried in the family plot near Rose Hill.