Preston College was constructed by Hopkins and Baker in 1939, for the purpose of student residence, which it remains today. It was named after college president and U.S. Senator William Campbell Preston (1794-1860). Contemporary newspapers provide no logic for the building’s naming other than Preston’s service as a college president. The dorm was meant to house 294 men. The Public Works Administration funded nearly half the cost of construction, as it also did for the new library and Sims College built in 1939.1 In July 1941, the First Army Corps leased one half of Preston College for their headquarters.2
Preston’s connection to South Carolina College, now the University of South Carolina:
- Through his time as student (1809-1812), Trustee (1843-1845; 1851-1857), and College President (1845-1851), Preston was active at the college for 48 years.
- While president was also professor of belles lettres.
- Grew enrollment to its highest level until surpassed in 1905.
- Active member of Euphradian debate society as student and president.
- Owned slaves, including his time as College president; they may have worked for or at the College.
- Was vocally opposed to abolition and advocated for state’s rights, expressed these
opinions in U.S. Congress.
- Supported Congressional gag rule on the topic of slavery in 1836.
- Supported the annexation of Texas as a slave state in Congress, arguing that they would replace Native Americans with “a race of man rapidly fulfilling the high destiny of civilized men.”
- Threatened Southern secession for “self-preservation” of its “domestic institution” or slavery as early as 1838.
William Campbell Preston was born in Philadelphia on December 27, 1794.3 His father, Francis Smith Preston, was a U.S. House of Representatives member from Virginia, and his mother, Sarah Buchanan Campbell Preston, was the daughter of notable Virginian William Campbell. Patrick Henry was his great-uncle, and from his childhood he was close to James and Dolly Madison. Many of William C. Preston’s siblings would eventually move to South Carolina: Margaret Buchanan Frances Preston became the first wife of Wade Hampton III; and John S. Preston married Caroline Hampton, the daughter of Wade Hampton I, one of the wealthiest slaveowners in the country. John became a South Carolina State Legislator and ardent secessionist and Confederate.4 Francis Preston acquired land upon which he built a salt mine from Sarah’s father William Campbell, and much of the family’s wealth came from the Preston Salt Works. They lived on a sprawling estate near the salt mines near Abingdon, Virginia.5 William Preston recalled feeling isolated in Abingdon, with “domestics,” likely enslaved servants, as his only company.6
After a brief time at Washington College (now Washington and Lee in Lexington, Virginia), Preston fell ill and attended South Carolina College from 1809 to 1812. Preston remembers leaving for South Carolina on horseback with “a negro servant to wait on and take charge of me.”7 Preston then studied in Edinburgh, Scotland and toured Europe. He returned to Virginia in 1820 and became a lawyer.
In 1819, Preston traveled to “the frontier,” eventually spending time with Governor William Clark in St. Louis, Missouri. While there he socialized with Judge David Coalter, formerly one of the largest landowners in South Carolina who had moved to Mississippi to make money selling property. Preston married Coalter’s daughter, Maria Eliza, in December 1819.8 They had one daughter who lived to adulthood: Sally Campbell Preston (d. 1845). Maria died in 1829. In 1831, Preston married Louise Penelope Davis of Columbia (d. 1853).
In 1824, Preston returned to Columbia, South Carolina, to begin a law firm with his brother-in-law William Harper.9 Four years later, he was elected to the South Carolina State House of Representatives, representing Richland District until 1833. As a representative, Preston wrote South Carolina’s response to the tariff bill, claiming that it discriminated against southern planters in favor of northern manufacturers.10 After the resignation of Stephen D. Miller, Preston was elected by the state legislature to fill his vacancy in the U.S. Senate. Preston was a U.S. senator from 1833 to 1842. Throughout his career, Preston was well known as an orator, and his Senate addresses were no exception. He introduced a resolution for the annexation of Texas immediately after their independence in 1836, and was a vocal advocate for Southern states’ rights and nullification. A Whig, Preston disagreed with the policies of then-president Andrew Jackson, and voted to censure him in 1834.
Despite his status as a nullifier from South Carolina, Preston refused to support policies proposed by fellow senator John C. Calhoun and his followers. The Whig party of South Carolina was dramatically reduced by Calhoun and the Democrats by 1840. In 1842, the South Carolina legislature instructed Preston to vote in favor of President Martin Van Buren’s subtreasury proposal. Preston refused on the grounds that this would violate his states’ rights principles.11 This angered both the legislature and Calhoun, and Preston resigned as a U.S. senator.
Upon his return to Columbia, Preston became a trustee of South Carolina College in 1843. He was then appointed president and professor of belles lettres in 1845. While there, he formed alliances with faculty and trustees alike, such as Thomas Cooper, James H. Thornwell, and Francis Lieber.12 Preston retired as president after a stroke in 1851, but then became a trustee of the College again until his resignation on November 29, 1857. He founded the Columbia Lyceum, to which he donated his three-thousand-volume library.13
Long having been unwell, Preston died in Columbia on May 22, 1860. Upon his death, former students declared that he “died universally esteemed and lamented.”14 He was buried in the Trinity Episcopal Churchyard. Having outlived his children and wives, Preston named his niece Virginia Preston Carrington as his executrix and allotted his holdings between Virginia and her sister Nancy. 15 It has been suggested that Preston viewed Virginia Preston Carrington as an adopted daughter.16
Preston Against Abolition
In the census of 1840, Preston is listed as enslaving four people. In the census of 1850, while college president, Preston and his wife enslaved ten people.17
Preston was an avid advocate of states’ rights and the legitimacy of nullification. When he announced his candidacy for the state legislature, he “asserted the rights, denounced the wrongs, and endeavored to maintain the interests of the State, against the General Government,” especially in respect to the “unconstitutional and oppressive” tariff.18
Preston was a frequent and vocal critic of abolitionism, and predicted that their “attacks” on the South would lead to war and disunion as early as the 1830s. He supported the Congressional “gag rule” that prevented discussions of slavery by the legislature, and opposed the circulation of abolitionist literature through U.S. mail.19 Preston asserted that Congress had “no right to assail, or to permit to be assailed, the domestic relations of a particular section of the country…of which you are necessarily ignorant” and dubbed abolitionism “the spirit of propagandism” whose religious support was that of “infatuated and deluded men.” He urged the federal government to adopt “the strongest measures of which this Government is capable…to oppose, by all possible means, and to the last extremity, the destructive and exterminating doctrines of these terrible incendiaries,” or abolitionists. Evoking the Haitian independence as a concerning emergency, he warned that “the South has the power and the will to vindicate its rights and protect itself…it would be forced into a position of self-defense by the inexorable necessities of self-preservation.”20
Preston used similar rhetoric when advocating in Congress for the annexation of Texas in 1838. In addition to arguing that Mexican or Comanches would doom the land of Texas to “be an eternal waste” of “useless fertility.” In the place of “the wild Caddoes and Camches [sic], would appear a race of man rapidly fulfilling the high destiny of civilized men” if Texas became a state for the white settler. Furthermore, Preston found the opposition of northern states to Texas annexation “hostile to the institutions of the South, and propose their destruction” filled with “that wild and blind fanaticism, or still blinder cant, which infects the public mind” on the subject of abolition.21
Notably, Preston’s speeches do not provide a justification of the righteousness of slavery, but rather why the federal government had no power to control the “domestic institution” and how the “rabid” “fanatics” in the north were oppressing and attacking the South. He did believe, however, that expanding the slaveholding community to Texas would place enslaved people in “a more healthy climate, a more fertile soil; they would be less crowded together in large masses, and, from the enhanced value in their labor, enlist a more intense interest on the part of their owners to attend to their wants and necessity.” If the South’s “laws, institutions, spirit of enterprise, and habits of order” were extended to Texas, he asserts, “it would rapidly become the seat of civilization and religion.”
The South, Preston concluded, had a duty to “provide for her own safety” from political powers raised against her. It is against, abolitionism, “that prurient and drunken philanthropy, more to be dreaded as a madness than to be pitied as a disease, which menaces the destruction of the Union,” Preston asserted,
“and a portion of it with massacre and burning, and all the nameless horrors of servile
war. It is against the perpetual and irritating agitation of bitter and unprofitable
topics, which cannot come to good, that this measure is intended to provide. I wish
no power for the South but enough to protect herself; no boon but to be let alone;
no influence here, but enough to check in this body the mad caprices of unbridled
Preston at South Carolina College
As a trustee of the College beginning in 1843, Preston was an ally of Thomas Cooper, who was removed as president due to his stalwart belief in the separation of church and college. Preston voted in the minority to retain Cooper as president and introduced legislation to repay the fines levied on Cooper during the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.23
Preston became president in 1845, becoming the first alumni to do so. His six years spent as college president were known for bringing in a large enrollment, restoring public confidence in the institution, and a dedication to the study of elocution. Eventually, enrollment numbers hit 237 students, a number that would not be matched again until 1905.24 He was lauded by the students for recommending the abolition of the “incubus” Steward’s Hall, and suggested that the College develop a Board of Visitors. He also advocated that the College be converted to a University, though it was not done during his tenure.25
In the last three years of his presidency, however, Preston’s failing health made him unable to adequately discipline the large student body. He missed the majority of the faculty meetings and eventually asked to resign in May 1850. His health temporarily improved, however, and the trustees requested that he rescind his resignation. In 1851, when his health yet again took a turn for the worse, he submitted his final resignation November 26, 1851. 26
Resuming his post as a trustee in 1852, Preston continued to advocate on behalf of his friends, to little avail. When Francis Lieber was denied the role of President of the college, Preston gifted him a pair of engraved silver pitchers and remained in contact with Lieber during what he called “the McKay [sic] tragedy.” This referred to the president nominated in Lieber’s stead, Charles McCay, which caused over a year’s trouble for the trustees and faculty.27
By the time of his resignation from the Board of Trustees in 1857, Preston had been associated with the College either as a student, president, or trustee for forty-eight years.
As a student at South Carolina College, Preston was a member of the Euphradian Society,
and remained involved throughout his time as president and trustee. South Carolina
contemporaries referred to Preston as the “Cicero” to his college roommate, George
McDuffie’s Demosthenes. A debating society at Wofford College was named in Preston’s
Preston College was constructed by Hopkins and Baker in 1939, for the purpose of student residence, which it remains today. The dorm was meant to house 294 men. The Public Works Administration funded nearly half the cost of construction, as they also did for the new library and Sims built in 1939.29 In July 1941, the First Army Corps leased one half of Preston College for their headquarters.30 Contemporary newspapers provide no logic for the building’s naming other than Preston’s service as a college president.
1 “USC building program large during 1939” The State. 31 Jan. 1940.
2 The Columbia Record 4 Jun. 1941
3 His family was living in D.C. during his father’s time as a congressman.
4 Yet another Preston sibling—Isaac Trimble Preston—became a justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court.
5 Robert C. Whisonant, “Geology and the Civil War in Southwestern Virginia: The Smyth County Salt Works” Virginia Minerals 42.3 (August 1996), 25.
6 William C. Preston, The reminiscences of William C. Preston edited by Minnie Clare Yarborough (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933), 2.
7 This “servant” was enslaved. Preston, Reminisces, 5.
8 The South Carolina Encyclopedia entry for Preston says 1822 but their marriage certificate says St. Louis in 1819. Also, her father died in August 1821.
9 Maria’s sister Catherine married William Harper. Joseph Wardlaw, Genealogy of the Wardlaw Family: With Some Account of Other Families With Which It Is Connected (United States: Unknown, 1929), 28. Accessed via Ancestry.Com.
10 Christopher Biehl, "William Campbell Preston: Harbinger of Secession" Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech, Fall 2015.
11 Ernest Lander M. Jr., “The Calhoun-Preston Feud, 1836-1842,” The South Carolina Historical Magazine 59.1 (1958): 25.
12 Preston was still corresponding with Lieber as late as 1857 despite the former’s revocation of the South. Thornwell was not fond of Cooper or Lieber, and yet Preston corresponded with all three and referred to them as his friends.
13 Trenton Hizer, “Preston, William Campbell” South Carolina Encyclopedia Online 26 Jan 2017.
14 James Rion, “William C. Preston, LL.D., as president and belles-lettres professor, of South Carolina College” address, December 1860. South Caroliniana Library, Columbia, South Carolina, 3.
15 Richland County, South Carolina, Probate Court Estate Papers, 1799-1955, Box 55 No. 01365, the estate of William C. Preston (1860).
16 Preston, Reminiscences, 125, footnote 4. It’s a strange claim, however, as in the census of 1860 and 1870 she lives with her mother in Virginia. Preston makes no mention of his sister in his will, just her daughter.
17 1840 U.S. Census, South Carolina, Richland, Columbia, p. 422; 1850 U.S. Census, Slave Schedules, South Carolina, Richland, Columbia.
18 William C. Preston to The Public, 25 Mar 1831, South Caroliniana Library, Digital Collections.
19 Hitzer, “Preston, William Campbell”
20 William Preston Address to the U.S. Senate, 1 Mar 1836, in E.L. Magoon, Living Orators in America (New York: Baker and Scribner, 1849): 350, 356, 361, 362.
21 William C. Preston, Speech of Mr. Preston, of South Carolina, on the Annexation of Texas. Delivered in the Senate of the United States, April 24, 1838 (Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1838), 14, 17.
22 Ibid, 17.
23 Daniel Walker Hollis, University of South Carolina Vol.1, South Carolina College (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1951): 111, 118.
24 Hollis actually calls his tenure the “brightest” of the College’s “golden age.” University of South Carolina, 149.
25 Rion, “William C. Preston…” 12-13.
26 Hollis, 153-6.
27 W.C. Preston to Francis Lieber, 12 Jun 1857. Lieber Papers, South Caroliniana Library.
28 Hollis, 262.
29 “USC building program large during 1939” The State 31 Jan 1940
30 The Columbia Record 4 Jun 1941