What is now Barnwell College was constructed as a science hall in 1910 and named LeConte, after two science professors. When the science discipline and the LeConte name moved to a new facility in 1952, the original building was renamed Barnwell after South Carolina College’s third college president, Robert Woodward Barnwell (1801-1882). Barnwell did not have a direct connection to the purpose of the building.1
Barnwell’s ties to South Carolina College, now University of South Carolina:
- Third president, 1835-1841
- Recommended what is now the South Caroliniana Library be built
- Member of the Board of Trustees
- Chairman of the faculty, 1865-18732
- Librarian and caretaker of campus grounds, 1877-1882
- Was a wealthy slaveowner and owned at least 128 enslaved people.
- As a U.S. Congressman, publicly defended slavery and states’ rights
- In 1850 argued before the U.S. Senate that “there is nothing in the word of God which forbids or condemns this relation, but on the contrary, much that justifies and sustains” slavery, and thus white Southerners could own slaves “with all good conscience”
- Signed the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession
- Chaired the Provisional Confederate Congress February 1861, helped draft their constitution
- Represented South Carolina in the Confederate Senate, 1861-1865
- Was removed as chairman of faculty in 1873, was viewed as an obstacle to the integration of South Carolina College
Robert W. Barnwell was born near Beaufort, South Carolina, on August 10, 1801. He was born to wealthy slaveowners Robert Gibbes Barnwell and Elizabeth Hayne Wigg. His father was also a politician. Robert W. Barnwell attended Harvard in 1817 and was the valedictorian of the class of 1821. While there, he became close friends with classmate Ralph Waldo Emerson. After graduation, Barnwell returned to South Carolina and by 1823 had established a law practice in Beaufort District with his cousin and ardent secessionist Robert Barnwell Rhett.
Barnwell married his second cousin, Eliza Barnwell, on August 9, 1827. They had 13 children and seven survived childhood: Eliza Woodward; John Gibbes; Robert Hayne; Mary Gibbes Elliott; Nathaniel Berners; James Stuart; and Emily Howe. Four of his sons served in the Confederate military. Eliza outlived her husband and died in 1891.
In 1826 Barnwell was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives, where he served for a single term. He then served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1829 to 1833. He retired at the end of his second term, preferring “private life,” despite the opportunity to run unopposed for a third term.
In 1835, Barnwell became the president of South Carolina College, replacing Thomas Cooper. Though a successful president, he cited poor health for his resignation in 1841, though he remained a near-constant trustee of the College after his tenure. In 1850, Barnwell was appointed to the U.S. Senate after Franklin Elmore died. Though Barnwell only served in the U.S. Senate from June to December 1850, he spoke on the Compromise of 1850, opposing California’s addition as a free state. He declined to run for office again after his six-month term ended. Barnwell served as a delegate to the Nashville Convention in 1850 and the Southern Rights Convention in 1852 but considered separate state secession to be “fraught with danger.”3
By Lincoln’s election in 1860, however, Barnwell embraced secession and signed the Ordinance of Secession. Alongside James Orr and J.H. Adams, Barnwell was sent to negotiate with President Buchanan over the transfer of federal property in South Carolina to state control. The discussions were unsuccessful, and the Southern delegates claimed that the presence of U.S. troops in the Charleston harbor were “a standing menace which renders negotiation impossible, and…threatens speedily to bring to a bloody issue questions which ought be settled with temperance and judgment.”4 Barnwell served as temporary chairman in the Provisional Confederate Congress in February 1861 and was in the committee that drafted the Confederate constitution. Barnwell cast the deciding vote for South Carolina to elect Jefferson Davis as Confederate president. Continuing his discomfort with long-lasting authority positions, Barnwell turned down Davis’ request that he serve as Confederate secretary of state.5 A longtime supporter and friend of Davis, Barnwell continued to support him through the war. Barnwell represented South Carolina in the Confederate Senate from 1861 to its dissolution at the end of the war.
Most of Barnwell’s wealth stemmed from slaveowning, thus he returned to Beaufort after
the war financially destitute.6 In late 1865 Barnwell became the chairman of the faculty at the reopened University
(nee College) of South Carolina. He was dismissed in 1873 as the Republican Board
of Trustees members devoted themselves to integrating the university. Barnwell operated
a girls’ school in Columbia until 1877, when the election of Wade Hampton III as governor
effectively ended Reconstruction in the state. The university was closed in 1877 for
restructuring and resegregating, and Hampton appointed Barnwell the librarian, secretary
and treasurer. Barnwell held these positions until his death on November 24, 1882.
He is buried in Beaufort.
Barnwell at South Carolina College
Barnwell became the third president of South Carolina College in 1835. He was only 34 and had no experience in education but was described as a good disciplinarian and teacher. He helped strengthen the reputation of the school and increased its enrollment after it reached an all-time low during the presidency of the controversial Thomas Cooper. During Barnwell’s term as president, the buildings now known as Lieber, Pinckney and Elliott were constructed.
In 1838, Barnwell recommended that the college build a library, which is now the South Caroliniana Library. When it was finished in 1840 it was the first freestanding college library in the nation. Barnwell persuaded the South Carolina legislature to donate 2,000 books a year to the library, and within two years the Caroliniana’s holdings outnumbered the libraries at Princeton and Columbia.7 Despite Barnwell’s relatively successful tenure, he retired with the excuse of “poor health,” though he would live on for more than forty years.8 Barnwell told his cousin that he was “not fit for the place” of president of the college and “was constantly ashamed of the miserable way in which I got over rather than through my duties as a professor…The simple truth is that I have not talent, learning or industry enough to fill an important station as it ought to be filled nor have I honesty and humility enough to fill it in such manner as I can.”
In 1865, Governor Benjamin Perry encouraged Barnwell to become the chairman of the faculty at the newly reopened University of South Carolina.9 It was a difficult position as the university had very little fiscal support in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Despite this, the university added a law and medical school under Barnwell in 1866. In 1868, the state government underwent massive changes that resulted in Black South Carolinians serving in the legislature as well as on the Board of Trustees, and they desired to integrate the university. The LeConte brothers resigned from the faculty, disgusted with the “negro legislature.”10
Barnwell, however, remained as faculty chairman to, according to historian Daniel Hollis, “prevail upon the trustees to refrain from making radical changes at the university.” In 1873, however, Secretary of State Henry E. Hayne enrolled in the medical school, becoming the first official matriculation of a Black student to the University of South Carolina. Barnwell was “dismissed” as chairman by the Board of Trustees on October 3, 1873. Professors Gibbes and LaBorde resigned as faculty members three days after Hayne’s enrollment.11
In April 1877 Governor Hampton closed the university, forcing those enrolled, many
of them Black, to continue their educations elsewhere. That same year, he appointed
Barnwell the university’s librarian and temporary caretaker of the premises. The school
reopened as whites-only in 1880, and Barnwell remained in-residence on the campus
as librarian until his death in 1882.
States’ Rights and Slavery
Barnwell was a wealthy slaveowner and owned large plantations in the Lowcountry. In 1860 he enslaved at least 128 people in Beaufort and eight in Columbia.12 Barnwell came from a family of prominent rice planters, which necessitated a large, enslaved population to harvest.
As Barnwell’s wealth stemmed almost entirely from slavery, he was an ardent Southern apologist and opponent of federal tariffs. He believed that South Carolina slaveowners were dignified, and the “greater part of the slaveholders in other states are mere negro drivers believing themselves wrong and only holding on to their negroes as something to make money out of.”13 Rather than deny that the states’ rights conflict was about slavery, Barnwell instead asserted that “I think we may have a good address making slavery the issue & defending it as a social institution claiming the right of secession & recommending a Congress of the Slaveholding States.”14 The “whole civilization rests” in slavery, claimed Barnwell, “implicated with it by ties so deep and strong that their dissolution must place in most imminent peril all things.” Christian Southerners concluded “that there is nothing in the word of God which forbids or condemns this relation, but on the contrary, much that justifies and sustains” slavery, and thus Barnwell asserted that Southerners could own enslaved people “with all good conscience.” Furthermore, Greece and Rome “conquered the world” and rested “their organization polity upon this institution of slavery.”15
Barnwell frequently expressed his frustration with Congress and called for a “convention of the Slaveholding States” long before his attendance of several in 1850. He frequently called for a “concert of the Slaveholding States” to “put an end to the struggle.” In 1844, Barnwell wrote that “unless slavery is upheld as a political institution essential to the preservation of our civilization and therefore to be maintained and defended in the same high strain as liberty itself we must become a degraded people.”16
Though he did not advocate for separate state secession until his own state’s actions
in 1860, for decades Barnwell had predicted that “the Southern civilization must go
out in blood” due to sectional tensions over slavery and other “institutions.” “It
seems to me that when a country degrades itself,” he continued, “its citizens may
abjure the country with the disgrace it has drawn upon them.”17 He repeated these sentiments in 1850, telling James Henry Hammond that “the Southern
people ought to act with promptitude & decision if they would be free” and that South
Carolina “will be a fire ship in the Union if they will not let us go out of it. I
do not believe that this Union as administered now will tolerate slavery & slavery
therefore must not tolerate this Union…those who stand up for state & Southern rights
must either kill or be killed.”18
What is now Barnwell was constructed in 1910 and named LeConte. The LeConte brothers were science professors at the college and thus considered fitting namesakes for the new science hall requested by the Board of Trustees. This building and Davis were the first two buildings to be constructed at the University since before the Civil War.19
By the 1940s, however, the building was a fire hazard, overcrowded, and had badly outdated scientific equipment.20 The University received more than $1 million dollars appropriated by the state General Assembly for a postwar building program, but did not spend the money until 1950 when the state congress threatened to rescind their funding.21 When the new science building was finally constructed in 1952, university science faculty wished the name LeConte to move with the school. The older building was renamed Barnwell to honor him in his capacity as third college president. In the late 1970s the building endured significant fire damage and an additional floor was added during repairs.22
1 A Spirit of Place: Buildings and Gardens of the University of South Carolina Columbia Campus, 1801-2016 (Columbia: Division of Administration and Finance, University of South Carolina, 2016), 9, 35.
2 At this time, there was no college president.
3 Henry H. Lesesne, “Barnwell, Robert Woodward” South Carolina Encyclopedia Online 13 Oct. 2016; Daniel W. Hollis, “Robert W. Barnwell” South Carolina Historical Magazine 56 (July 1955): 131-37.
4 The Correspondence Between the Commissioners of the State of So. Ca. To the Government At Washington And the President of the United States; Together With the Statement of Messrs. Miles and Keitt (Charleston: Evans and Cogswell, 1861).
5 Barnwell frequently referred to himself as “too indolent and cowardly.” Robert W. Barnwell to Robert Barnwell Rhett, 30 Dec. 1842 in John Barnwell, “Hamlet to Hotspur: Letters of Robert Woodward Barnwell to Robert Barnwell Rhett.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 77 (October 1976), 249.
6 Like many antebellum South Carolina planters, Barnwell was deeply in debt due to poor returns even before the war began. Robert W. Barnwell to Robert Barnwell Rhett, 5 May 1844 in Barnwell, “Hamlet to Hotspur,” 250.
7 Hollis, “Robert W. Barnwell,” 132-3
8 In 1837, illness kept Barnwell in Beaufort for several weeks, and he sought medical treatment in New York in 1841. Robert W. Barnwell to Robert Barnwell Rhett, 1 Oct. 1842, in “Hamlet to Hotspur,” 246.
9 The school would not have a president until 1880.
10 Hollis, 135.
11 Daniel W. Hollis, University of South Carolina Volume 2 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1956), 66. There are no BOT minutes 1869-1873—they pick up at the meeting where he was dismissed. No reason for his firing was recorded other than the announcement. Hollis believes it’s “obvious” that he opposed the plans of the Trustees.
12 In the Census of 1860, Robert Barnwell is listed as owning 22 and 128 enslaved people in different sections of the Prince Williams Parish of Beaufort, South Carolina. It is likely that the smaller number belong to his son, Robert Hayne Barnwell, who would have been 26. In the 1850 Census, a Robert Barnwell enslaved 34 people in Colleton and 43 people in Beaufort. See our sources folder.
13 Robert W. Barnwell to Robert Barnwell Rhett, 1 Nov. 1844, in “Hamlet to Hotspur.” 252.
14 Robert W. Barnwell to James Henry Hammond, 26 Sep. 1850, in John Barnwell, ed., "In the Hands of the Compromisers": Letters of Robert W. Barnwell to James H. Hammond John Barnwell” Civil War History 29.2 (June 1983), 168.
15 “Debate on the Compromise Bill—Mr. Barnwell, June 27, 1850” Appendix to the Congressional Globe, for the First Session, Thirty-First Congress (Washington, DC: John C. Rives, 1850), 991.
16 Robert W. Barnwell to Robert Barnwell Rhett, 23 Jan. 1841, 1 Nov. 1844, in “Hamlet to Hotspur,” 240, 252.
17 Ibid., 19 Feb. 1845, “Hamlet to Hotspur,” 255
18 Robert W. Barnwell to James Henry Hammond, 25 Jul. 1850, 9 Sep. 1850, 26 Sep. 1850, in “‘In the Hands of the Compromisers’: Letters of Robert W. Barnwell to James H. Hammond, 159, 167-9.
19 A Spirit of Place: Buildings and Gardens of the University of South Carolina Columbia Campus, 1801-2016 (Columbia: Division of Administration and Finance, University of South Carolina, 2016), 9.
20 Henry H. Lesesne, A History of the University of South Carolina, 1940-2000 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001), 19
21 Ibid., 74-5. They were apparently waiting for federal matching funds and construction prices to drop (they did not and federal money failed to arrive.).
22 A Spirit of Place, 35. There does not seem to be any further logic on naming.