Thomas Green Clemson was no ordinary man. He was, in fact, as unique as he was highly educated, skilled, pragmatic, visionary and complex. A new biography addresses Clemson’s multifaceted life, the century and issues that helped shape him and his ongoing influence today. Thomas Green Clemson will be available for purchase in summer 2009 through the Alumni Center.
Early Years: 1807-1813
Thomas Green Clemson was born in Philadelphia on July 1, 1807. He was the son of Thomas Clemson, a Quaker merchant, and Elizabeth Baker, daughter of a prominent Episcopal family. Clemson’s father was quite successful and wealthy for his time. Tragically, his father died in 1813 when young Thomas was only six. He left an estate of $100,000 to Thomas and his five siblings: (1) John Baker, who became an Episcopal Bishop; (2) William; (3) Louisa, who married Samuel Washington, a grand-nephew of George Washington; (4) Catherine, who married a Mr. North of Philadelphia; and (5) Elizabeth, who married a Rev. Barton, Rector of St. James Church, Lancaster, Penn. Little is known about the education of Thomas Clemson’s family. John Baker, as a clergyman, probably had formal training.
Early Schooling: 1813-1823
Very little also is known about Clemson’s early education. The tradition is that he attended schools in Philadelphia, possibly run by Quakers. During his formative decade of elementary and secondary schooling, it is said that young Thomas excelled in sciences. At the age of 16, Clemson went off to school in Norwich, Vt.
College Years: 1823-1826
Probably one of the most notable influences on Thomas Clemson’s vision of higher education occurred while he was a student at the American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy at Norwich, Vt. Some accounts have dismissed the importance of this period of time as attending a preparatory school for boys. However, this was not what we today think of as being sent to a military boarding school. Clemson’s two years at Norwich can be looked upon as his collegiate experience. At Norwich, Clemson again is said to have excelled in sciences and particularly chemistry.
Graduate Higher Education in France: 1826-1831
In 1826, with assistance from his father’s trust fund, 20-year-old Thomas went on his grand tour of Europe. Many accounts of Clemson’s years abroad note he studied in Paris at “the celebrated School of the Mines.” He attended lectures of noted chemists Louis Jacques Thenard, Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac and P.L. DuLong at the Sorbonne Royal College of France in Paris, one of the oldest institutions of higher education. He later studied at the chemical laboratory at Robiquet and completed his studies at the Royal School of Mines in Paris. In June 1831, Clemson received his formal diploma as an assayer of mines from the French Royal Mint in Paris. With this degree in hand, he was internationally certified as a mining engineer. During his years in France, he had studied with internationally known scientists and engineers. The portrait of Thomas Clemson by Ord in the Fort Hill parlor shows the young man. In addition to studying, Clemson became interested in politics. As a student in Paris, he took part in the Revolution of 1830, which dethroned Charles X of France and placed Louis Philippe as king. A souvenir of the three-day coup is a large round metal plate, which Clemson picked up in a Paris street after the fighting.
Mining and Engineering Career: 1832-1838
During the 1830s, Clemson gained success in his profession as a consulting and mining engineer in the United States and internationally. He traveled to profitable projects in Missouri at the Mine LaMotte and a coal mine in Cuba. During this period, he also wrote numerous scientific articles. For the next decade, Clemson continued his career of mining projects and scholarly writings.
Courtship and Early Marriage: 1838-1840
In the spring of 1838, Thomas, a confirmed bachelor, met Anna Maria Calhoun. The young lady of 21 and the scientist who was 10 years older were married in the parlor at Fort Hill, the estate of her politician father, John C. Calhoun, senator from South Carolina. The couple lived in Philadelphia for two years but returned to Calhoun’s plantation in 1840.
Planter Life at Fort Hill, 1840-1843, and Cane Brake Plantation, 1843-1844
The Clemsons moved in with the Calhouns at Fort Hill and lived there during three of the first five years of their marriage. Their first child, a daughter, was born Aug. 13, 1839, and died within three weeks. The next two children, John Calhoun Clemson, who was born July 17, 1841, and Floride Elizabeth Clemson, who was born Dec. 29, 1842, both lived to adulthood.
Clemson’s introduction to agriculture was an important outgrowth of his marriage into the Calhoun family. Calhoun offered his son-in-law not only a roof over his head, but also inspired Clemson’s lifelong interest in farming. Calhoun was a progressive farmer experimenting with various crops, breeds and techniques such as terracing and deep plowing. Clemson’s scientific studies turned toward questions of agriculture such as soil analysis. During this time, Calhoun also enlisted his new son-in-law to aid in a gold mining project at his O’bar mine, later known as the Calhoun Mine, in Dahlonega, Ga. Clemson’s interest in scientific agriculture grew, and in 1843 he bought a plantation of his own (1,000 acres) in the Edgefield District called Cane Brake. Just as the Clemsons settled into their new home, Thomas Clemson sought a new adventure abroad.
Diplomatic Career in Belgium: 1844-1851
Calhoun, who was then secretary of state for President John Tyler, knew of his son-in-law’s desire to return to Europe and aided the appointment of Clemson as chargé d’affaires or diplomat to Belgium. Clemson was the highest-ranking ambassador from the United States to Belgium. Clemson and King Leopold I shared an interest in art, and the King awarded Clemson the Order of Leopold medal. The Clemsons were in Belgium when Calhoun died in 1850 and returned to United States in 1852. Ironically, Clemson’s dismissal was by Secretary of State Daniel Webster, a vowed adversary of Clemson’s father-in-law, John C. Calhoun.
Clemson’s farm, The Home, in Maryland: 1853-61 and 1866-71
Following his return to the United States, Clemson sold Cane Brake. In June 1853, the Clemsons relocated to a small farm in Bladensburg, Md., near Washington, D.C. He called his farm The Home. The Clemson’s fourth child, Cornelia “Nina” Clemson, was born Oct. 3, 1855, and tragically died of scarlet fever on Dec. 20, 1858. With the depression over the death of his youngest child, Clemson threw himself into his work of scientific writing.
In 1856, Clemson also aided in the founding of the Maryland Agricultural College (now the University of Maryland).
Superintendent of Agricultural Affairs, Department of Interior: 1860-1861
Clemson’s talents in agriculture became well known in Washington circles. On Feb. 3, 1860, Clemson was appointed as the superintendent of an agricultural bureau by Jacob Thompson, secretary of the interior in the administration of President James Buchanan. Clemson was responsible for agricultural planning under the Patent Office. In his duties, he traveled to Europe seeking new varieties of plants. In this federal post, Clemson was the predecessor of the modern secretary of agriculture.
Clemson also was involved in the passage of the Morrill Land-Grant Act. Because of Southern opposition, ironically much based on Calhoun’s philosophy of states’ rights, the Morrill Land-Grant Act was postponed until 1862. Unfortunately, Clemson’s federal position came into question amid the rising turn toward secession.
Civil War/Scientist Soldier: 1861-1865
With the threat of war, Clemson resigned his agricultural post on March 4, 1861. Clemson, like many Americans, had a difficult decision to make. He stood on the side of his adopted state. Following the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, Clemson left Maryland for South Carolina. In Pendleton on Nov. 2, 1861, Clemson spoke to the Farmers Society and publicly “Urged the establishment of a department of agriculture in the government of the Confederate States which, in addition to fostering the general interest of agriculture, would also serve as a sort of university of the diffusion of scientific knowledge and the improvement of agriculture.”
Fifty-four-year-old Clemson enlisted in the Confederacy and was assigned to the Army of the Trans-Mississippi Department. Clemson worked in Arkansas and Texas developing nitrate mines for explosives. He was paroled on June 9, 1865, at Shreveport, La., after four years of service. His son Capt. John Calhoun Clemson enlisted in the Confederate Army and spent two years in a prison camp, similar to the Southern Andersonville, on Johnson’s Island, in Lake Erie, Ohio.
The Aftermath of War in Pendleton: 1865-1866
After the Civil War, Clemson returned to the Pendleton home of Mrs. Calhoun, Mi Casa. Anna and daughter Floride had come from Maryland in December 1864. Floride Clemson’s diary of those years is published as “A Rebel Came Home.” Fort Hill, at that time, was occupied by the widow and family of Calhoun’s eldest son, Andrew. Thomas Clemson was elected president of the Pendleton Farmer’s Society in 1866. One of his goals was the establishment of an institution of higher learning in South Carolina to provide practical education in agriculture and the sciences.
The idea for Clemson University began at the Farmers’ Hall. Clemson enlisted the support of the organization members such as Colonel Richard W. Simpson and Daniel K. Norris, later life trustees of Clemson College. Thus, the farmers’ movement and the Clemson vision combined.
Reconstruction Years: 1866-1872
The period of reconstruction found Thomas Clemson, as it did many former Confederates, a man without a country. He had voluntarily given up a promising federal post and a government career.
Daughter Floride (Mrs. Gideon Lee) died July 23, 1871, at age 28 of consumption (tuberculosis) at Leeside in Carmel, N.Y. Her infant daughter, Floride Isabella, was raised by her father, Gideon Lee, and her stepmother, Ella Lorton, a childhood friend of Floride’s from Pendleton. On Aug. 10, 1871, the Clemsons’ son John was killed in a train wreck between a passenger train and a lumber or freight train on the Blue Ridge Railroad near Seneca, S.C. He was 30 and unmarried.
Retirement to Fort Hill: 1872-1875
In 1872, the Clemsons retired to Fort Hill following the tragic deaths of their two adult children. Three years later, on Sept. 22, 1875, Anna died from a heart attack at age 58. Although she did not specifically mention the founding of a college at Fort Hill, the implications have always been that in her will to her husband the intent of a college would take place. Thomas Clemson’s only grandchild was growing up in New York, and the rest of his family was deceased. Again, he came back to his recurring idea of founding a school at the Fort Hill estate as a lasting legacy to the sons of farmers and fellow Confederate soldiers, a lost generation.
Final Years and Honorary Degree at South Carolina College: 1875-1888
During the last 13 years of his life, Clemson set out to establish, in drafts of his will, the type of scientific institution that had taken root in his life experiences and in the meetings at the Farmer’s Hall some 20 years before. Thomas Clemson was given an honorary degree from the South Carolina College in June 1886. The College in Columbia had received the Morrill funds and made only a half-hearted attempt at agricultural education.
Clemson’s Last Will and Bequest
Clemson’s will is an important document in the history of higher education. His bequest clearly reflects his altruistic attitude. If the state was not going to accept his will, Clemson’s alternative was to have his executor establish a private university along the same lines after three years.
The Place of Fort Hill in Clemson’s Bequest:
Clemson’s intention to create a higher education institution is at the core of his will. A corresponding feature of Clemson’s will was the preservation of Fort Hill, his residence and the plantation home of his father-in-law, John C. Calhoun. In a letter to his friend and attorney a few years before his death, Clemson wrote that in case the Legislature did not accept his will that, “some legally constituted association such as now holds possession of Mt. Vernon may act as trustees for the preservation of the home of the illustrious man who spent his life in the public service of his country and who dignified a state which so long trusted and honored him.”
To many of the supporters, a crucial selling point of Clemson’s project was the Calhoun connection. “No nobler monument could be raised to the great Carolinian than such an institution on the spot where the tradition of his great and beautiful life would be most strongly felt, and where the youthful mind of the State could be trained to take up his work.”
In the final version of his will, he clearly spelled out the mission of Fort Hill in his bequest by directing two items in both his will and codicil:
“Item 4. It is my desire that the dwelling house on Fort Hill shall never be torn down or altered, but shall be kept in repair, with all the articles of furniture and venture which I hereinafter give for that purpose, and shall always be open for the inspection of visitors.”
“Item 9. I give and bequeath to my executor, or to be held by him subject to the trusts and condition of Items 1, 2, and 3 of this my will, and for the purpose of adorning the Fort Hill residence as provided in Item 4 of this my will, all of my permanent furniture, relics and articles of vesture, pictures and painting, including the large painting or picture of John C. Calhoun, now hanging in my setting room, and not otherwise disposed of herein, and all of my books.”
“Item 9. I hereby authorize and direct my executor to employ such persons he may deem necessary to take charge of the Fort Hill dwelling house and articles therein donated.”
“Item 14. I authorize and empower my executor to expend such sums of money as he may deem necessary to keep the Fort Hill dwelling house and premises in repair.”
The Legislature accepted all provisions of the will from the composition of the board of trustees (seven Clemson named as life trustees who appoint their successors and six appointed by the Legislature) to the name of the institution as Clemson Agricultural College.
The Dream: 1888-1896
Clemson died on April 6, 1888, at age 81 of pneumonia. He is buried next to his beloved Anna at St. Paul’s Episcopal churchyard in Pendleton. Clemson left 814 acres of land and more than $80,000 in other assets to the state of South Carolina. To his only granddaughter he left $15,000 and 288 acres, which the College Trustees later bought. After a bumpy road in the courts (His son-in-law took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.), Clemson’s will finally passed the Legislature on Dec. 24, 1888, and the Act of Acceptance was formally signed into law on Nov. 27, 1889. Clemson’s hand-picked life trustees took up the banner to bring Clemson’s dream to fruition. The seven original life trustees met under an oak tree on the lawn of Fort Hill on May 22, 1888. Spearheading the efforts was Benjamin Ryan “Pitchfork” Tillman, who later became governor and U.S. senator.
In 1891, the Clemson Agricultural College’s Board of Trustees erected a tall shaft at Thomas Clemson’s grave bearing this inscription:
“Thomas Green Clemson, Founder of Clemson Agricultural College, Born July 1, 1807, Died April 6, 1888.”
Thomas Clemson’s life work toward a higher education goal was much like that of other founders of colleges or universities. He knew the privileges of education and had the vision of providing the same to sons of his adopted state. And at the same time, perhaps he saw himself as a successor to Thomas Jefferson when he noted: “If the project here presented should go into operation it would insure the prosperity of the State, and be an additional light to the world, and be surely counted to its founders in that life which we hope to realize hereafter.”
When Thomas Jefferson was requested to know what inscription he desired to be inscribed upon his tomb, he answered, “Founder of the University of Virginia; Author of the Declaration of Independence, and mover of the statue for religion freedom.”
Thomas G. Clemson was privileged to excel in an era that higher education and particularly scientific and agricultural studies were in its infancy in the United States. He knew pioneers in higher education ranging from scientist Gay-Lussac to statesman Calhoun. Thomas G. Clemson in his 81 years of life knew the gifts of higher education and he was motivated to create a great legacy known today as Clemson University on the plantation of his father-in-law, John C. Calhoun.
Former President Enoch W. Sikes, in the introduction to the Holmes & Sherrill’s biography, noted that Clemson “gave more to the college which bears his name than John Harvard did to Harvard, or Elihu Yale to Yale.”
What Clemson gave was not only money. He gave his life’s work as example for South Carolinians, and he gave a place that he cherished and willed to be preserved — Fort Hill.