09 July 2014

Beaufort District's Literary History - Grayson



In line with the Adult Summer Reading Program theme, Literary Elements, we have put special collections materials by some of Beaufort District's finest writers from colonial times to the present on display inside the Research Room. Among those represented is William J. Grayson.

Grayson was born in Beaufort on November 12, 1788. He spent much of his youth cavorting on Parris Island enjoying life as only a coastal boy can, fishing, swimming, hunting, boating. He attended Beaufort Grammar School and later was tutored by Milton Maxcy.  He graduated from South Carolina College in 1809. He became a schoolmaster in his home town until his friends secured his election as the St. Helena's Parish state representative to finish out the unexpired term of James H. Cuthbert.  Upon his marriage in 1814, Grayson became assistant principal at Beaufort College and later Savannah Academy.  Yellow fever outbreaks in 1817 led him to abandon teaching for the study of law.  He was deeply disappointed that "Right, justice, truth" were not of primary importance in the practice of law so he turned again to politics.  He served terms in the SC House of Representatives, the SC Senate, and the US House of Representatives. For about a dozen years, he was Charleston's customs collector. He was editor of the antebellum Beaufort Gazette newspaper. Although he promoted nullification in the 1830s, he wrote that the "Union is the source of peace, prosperity, and power" in 1850 as sectionalism began to hold sway.

William J. Grayson is best remembered for his proslavery verse, The Hireling and the Slave. In his poem Grayson describes the plight of the Northern factory worker as worse than that of the Southern slave. Eugene D. Genovese's foreword to Witness to Sorrow: The Antebellum Autobiography of William J. Grayson (SC 975.7 GRA) edited by Richard J. Calhoun states that there was nothing new in Grayson's apology of slavery, other than he wrote it in verse.  The poem shows Grayson's "extreme agrarian distaste for industrialization and the industrial state but also a rationalist's fear of the anarchy that could result from class strife.... Exploitation of the [industrial] worker would lead to socialism, communism, [and] anarchy." (p.10) According to Edwin Epps, "Most Southerners saw Grayson's poem as reasonably argued, mostly accurate and persuasive; Northerners ... mostly ignored the poem intended as a rebuttal to Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe." (Literary South Carolina, 2004) It met with instant local success but is mostly remembered as an example of Southern insensitivity to the enslaved.  We have a rare 1856 edition of the Hireling and the Slave in our collection. 


Grayson stood with other South Carolina Unionists such as James L. Petigru, Benjamin F. Perry, and James Henley Thornwell in opposition to the fire-eaters for years.  However "Once the South was at war, Grayson chose publicly to be a patriot, loyal to the Confederacy; but, privately, in his autobiography, he continued to be realistic as to the problems that plagued the South and would provoke defeat in war." (Genovese's foreword, p. 16)

He grieved for the loss of the Union in his Autobiography written during the early years of the Civil War. We have a photocopy of "Autobiography of William John Grayson" as a typescript "copied from Original MS in possession of the South Caroliniana Library Columbia, S.C. by Theo Frick & Margie Peak" in 1941. A nearly complete transcription of his autobiography was printed in installments in volumes 48 - 51 of the South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine which you can read in our Research Room. The most recent version of this work is Witness to Sorrow mentioned above. Calhoun's notes to the autobiography are invaluable for anyone interested in learning more about mid-19th century Beaufort District social life and customs. 

Grayson died at his daughter's home in Newberry, SC on October 4, 1863. He is buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston.

To learn more about William John Grayson, check out the list of resources we have in our Wordpress blog http://bit.ly/1xTsSKp.   

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