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Richard Wright Simpson Richard Wright Simpson

September 11, 1840 — July 11, 1912

Richard Wright Simpson, farmer, lawyer, and author of Thomas Green Clemson’s will, was born on September 11, 1840, at the family’s homestead in Pendleton, South Carolina to Richard Franklin Simpson and Mary Margaret Taliaferro Simpson. 

Family Background

His father was a graduate of South Carolina College and a lawyer who served in both branches of the South Carolina General Assembly as well as a stint in Washington, D.C. as a member of the House of Representatives.[1] He was also a signer of the Ordinance of Secession of the State of South Carolina, indicating a wealthy background typical of an antebellum landowner and a sympathy with the white South’s views on slavery.

When Thomas Green Clemson moved to Pendleton, Simpson was one of the more progressive individuals he encountered as a long-standing advocate for agricultural education in the years preceding the Civil War. Sharing the same ideals, Clemson and Simpson served closely together in the Pendleton Farmers Society, appealing to their neighbors for an agricultural education institution.

Mary Margaret Taliaferro Simpson was a native South Carolinian as well. The elder Simpson and his wife lived on her father’s home place after marrying in 1836. The Simpson farm, originally consisting of two or three thousand acres, was first deeded to the Taliaferro family by King George the Third of England prior to the Revolutionary War.

R. F. and Margaret Simpson had six children - four sons and two daughters. Their children were as follows:

  • John Simpson (Infant child, 1838 – 1838)
  • Taliaferro Calhoun Simpson (1839 – 1863). He later dropped the “Calhoun” and adopted the practice of including “N.” as his middle initial, apparently meant to signify “no middle name.”[2] He was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga, GA.
  • Richard Wright Simpson (1840 – 1912)
  • Mary Simpson (1842 – 1915). She married Captain Thomas Lanier Williams of Greeneville, TN.
  • Anna Tallulah Simpson (1844 – 1891). She died unmarried.
  • John Garlington Simpson (1846 – 1858)

R. F. Simpson’s brother was William Wells Simpson. William’s son, Henry Gordon Simpson, married Frances Tillman, Benjamin Ryan Tillman Jr.’s sister. As Henry Simpson and Richard Wright Simpson were cousins, this marriage established a direct familial relationship between Simpson and Ben Tillman, both influential figures in the founding of Clemson College.

Confederate Soldier

“Dick” Simpson came of age in the countryside of Upstate South Carolina with a comfortable life in his parents’ home. He was educated at nearby Pendleton Academy and Wofford College. Richard and his brother, Tally, completed their senior years at Wofford in 1861 and enlisted in the Confederate Army. Tally would not return from war, a casualty of the Battle of Chickamauga. Richard served as a private in the Confederate army from April 1861 until 1863 when disease forced him into “special duty” until the end of the war.[3] The letters to home written by Richard and Taliaferro during the Civil War were later compiled into a book, Far, far from home: The Wartime Letters of Dick and Tally Simpson, Third South Carolina Volunteers.

The Simpson Family

On February 10, 1863, Simpson married Maria Louise Garlington of Laurens County by way of Halifax County, Virginia. By all accounts, it was a happy marriage that produced ten children:

  • Margaret Garlington Simpson (1864 – 1938). She married Dr. W. W. Watkins.
  • Susan James Simpson (1867 – 1940). She married P. H. E. Sloan, Jr.
  • Maria Louise Simpson (1867 – 1960)
  • Annie Ball Simpson (1870 – 1928). She married Alester G. Holmes.
  • Elizabeth Conway Simpson (1872 – 1948). She married Samuel Maner Martin.
  • Richard W. Simpson, Jr. (1874 – 1953)
  • John Garlington Simpson. (1876 – 1963). He married Lucy Wister Jones.
  • Taliaferro Strother Simpson (1878 – 1941). He married Mary Caldwell Bradfield.
  • Jean Stobo Simpson (1880 – 1971). She married Williston W. Klugh.
  • William Franklin Simpson (Infant child, 1882 – 1882)

Farmer, Legislator, Lawyer

Colonel Simpson returned to South Carolina and his farming life after the war. It was during these exceptionally difficult postwar years that Simpson developed a heart for the destitute farmers of South Carolina. Simpson believed that the world around him had to change to accommodate the conditions brought on by war.

Simpson claimed to suggest that the Pendleton Brigade wear red shirts during a march to Anderson in support of Wade Hampton’s gubernatorial campaign, and “red shirts” consequently spread across the state as a symbol of freedom to white men. To African Americans, the red shirts became a sign of terrorism and cause for fear. Men wearing red shirts sought to intimidate African Americans across South Carolina into voting for the Democrats or not at all. The red shirts became synonymous with the concept of “home rule” in South Carolina.

He represented his contemporaries in the state legislature beginning in 1874, and he ultimately served on Governor Wade Hampton’s staff, ranking as Colonel of Cavalry. His position within Wade Hampton’s cabinet “convinced [him] that changed conditions made necessary a change in our educational system.”[4] He strongly advocated for education as the answer to many of South Carolina’s woes.

During his first term in the South Carolina legislature, Simpson was instrumental in policy-making that ensured the state’s redemption. He won another term in the legislature and became chair of the Ways and Means Committee. In this capacity, he devised a plan to reduce the state’s debt.

Simpson also practiced law at Anderson Court House. He was an attorney for the Southern Rail Road and the Blue Ridge Railway, and he served as the attorney for the Bank of Pendleton.

Simpson was a lifelong member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. He served as a Sunday school teacher for many years. He was also a Mason.

Simpson died in Atlanta on July 11, 1912, of complications from Bright’s disease. He was buried with his wife (d. 1910), parents, and brother near Pendleton.

Simpson Hall North and South on Clemson University’s campus are named in his honor. The Simpson Experiment Station also bears his name, as he once owned land that became part of the station.

The Ties that Bind

Simpson wrote:

A wise historian has said that history ought not be written until one hundred years have elapsed since the event. Be this as it may, it appears to us to be the duty of all good citizens, in passing through life’s toils and pleasures, to preserve the facts and circumstances of history…[5]

Believing in the importance of accurate historical records, Simpson authored History of Old Pendleton District in an attempt to preserve the legacies of prominent area families.

Simpson included a detailed family tree for the Calhoun family and by extension the Clemson family as well. Clemson knew the Simpson family well as Pendleton neighbors and also through mutual committee service with R. F. Simpson in the Pendleton Farmers’ Society, a leading voice on business, education, and commerce. The committee was charged with raising funds for a scientific institution for the purpose of education. The failure of this committee led Clemson to leave the Society, but he did not give up on his dream.

Fort Hill Summit

In the fall of 1886, Thomas Green Clemson hosted a crucial meeting at his home at Fort Hill. Three men were his guests – Benjamin Ryan Tillman, Richard Wright Simpson, and Daniel Keating Norris. It was a curious group: a politician in the making, a local lawyer, and an industrial-minded farmer and businessman. The common factor? All three had worked the land at some point in their lives.

Fort Hill Plantation. Photo, Series 100, Special Collections Library, Clemson University Libraries, Clemson, SC.

No records exist from that day in 1886. The subject matter has been believed to be the creation of an agricultural college in South Carolina to be located upon the very spot where they dined. There are, however, several varying accounts from Simpson and Tillman. The two men would disagree about what happened that day for decades to follow, a situation made even more contentious by the fact that Simpson’s cousin was Tillman’s brother-in-law.

Tillman wrote in 1909 that Mr. Clemson’s ideas “were not clear or well defined as to which course he would pursue but the thought of a great Agricultural and Technical Institution grew on him.”[6] According to him, the idea for Clemson College was born and given life at the Fort Hill summit in 1886 and was a collaborative effort between himself, Clemson, Simpson, and Norris.

Simpson was adamant that the will was the work of himself and Mr. Clemson with no input from any other parties including Tillman. He wrote, “I wish it distinctly understood that neither Tillman or Norris had anything to do in inducing Mr. Clemson to employ me to write his will, nor did either one of them know what was in the will until Mr. Clemson was buried.”[7] Meanwhile, Tillman would insist that all of the gentlemen at the Fort Hill dinner discussed the idea of an agricultural college in detail that evening. He even suggested that he had direct input into the final product of Clemson’s will.

In 1909, Simpson wrote the editor of The State newspaper. He wrote to “take issue with the impressions he sought to make upon the minds of your readers, that he [Tillman] originated the idea of an agricultural College, and that he participated in the preparations of Mr. Clemson’s will.”[8] He felt strongly about protecting the interests of his former client, Clemson, even decades after his passing:

About Nov. 1st, 1886 Mr. Clemson invited Sen. Tillman, Col. D. K. Norris and myself to dine with him at Fort Hill. At that time it was generally reported that Mr. Clemson intended to donate his property or a part of it, to the State for the purpose of founding a College, but no one, as far as I knew, had any certain knowledge of the fact. After dinner when we returned to the sitting room, Mr. Clemson picked up a paper, and handed it to me and asked me to read it, and see if I found any defect in it. I was surprised to find that the paper was a copy of his will (the Rion will) in which he had donated Fort Hill and all of his property, with a few legacies excepted, to the State of South Carolina for the purpose above stated. He asked the other gentlemen to excuse him while we were carrying on this private conversation…At that time there was no discussion of the will itself. On my way back to Pendleton that afternoon I informed Sen. Tillman and Mr. Norris that the paper Mr. Clemson asked me to read was his will, and I also informed them of the contents. My recollection is that neither Sen. Tillman or any of us discussed Mr. Clemsons will, but having heard that he had such a will, we did urge him to do at once what he intended to do after his death, which he declined to do.[9]

Simpson noted that an agricultural institution had always been the intent, especially keeping in mind that the Clemsons’ children had predeceased them.

The early seeds of Clemson University were planted at Fort Hill during a meeting in 1886, but the historical accuracy of Simpson and Tillman’s memories may never be verified completely.

Clemson's Confidante

Following the meeting at Fort Hill, Simpson served as Thomas Green Clemson’s closest friend and advisor in his final years. With weekly visits and correspondence, Simpson spent much time in conversation with Clemson and was actively involved in his business affairs. Simpson lived in a world that consisted of little but Thomas Green Clemson for a year and a half. He characterized his relationship with Mr. Clemson as of a “close and intimate nature.”[10]

Obviously, Clemson’s business kept Simpson quite busy over the last years of his client’s life. The number of hours Simpson spent with Clemson was substantial. Clemson wrote that Simpson “had been kind to him and had assisted him in caring for his business when he ‘had no other friend to help.’[11] Clemson trusted Simpson implicitly.

In his genealogy, Simpson referenced the will of Thomas Green Clemson and wrote, “No man in South Carolina has ever erected a nobler monument to himself than Mr. Clemson in establishing Clemson College.[12] He authored the document that became the foundation of Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina, and served as Thomas Green Clemson’s attorney and adviser for the last years of the diplomat’s life.

Simpson penned a biography of Thomas Green Clemson in 1897, detailed their close relationship:

I was his confidential attorney and managed all of Mr. Clemson’s affairs for two years preceding his death. I visited him once every week, and spent the day with him and he lived the life of a dignified, heart broken hermit.[13]

Simpson appeared dedicated to his client, making the three and a half mile trip to Fort Hill, Clemson’s residence, at least once a week for two years. He kept a diary of his visits to Clemson from October 1887 through April 1888. The notations indicate Simpson even paid bills on Clemson’s behalf.

The Fight for Existence

When Clemson died in April of 1888, wheels were set in motion that sparked a statewide debate – Did South Carolina need another higher education institute? More specifically, did South Carolina need an agricultural college when it already had the University of South Carolina? The primary document up for debate and discussion was Clemson’s Last Will and Testament.

Simpson authored a will that had to be accepted in whole with all stipulations intact. This included the unique structure of the Board of Trustees that specifically stated the Board would forever retain all authority relating to the institution, “nor shall the duties of said board be taken away or conferred upon any other man or body of men,” and the “legislature shall never take away or abridge” its powers.[14] Nothing short of total approval by the South Carolina legislature would be acceptable to Clemson’s memory or Simpson’s task as executor. Simpson essentially became the legal defender of Clemson’s dreams.

While Tillman receives much of the credit for the will’s acceptance by the South Carolina legislature in 1889, Simpson also spent countless hours lobbying, arguing, and negotiating for its passage. Simpson wrote of his negotiations with Augustine T. Smythe, a powerful lowcountry lawyer and legislator:

After all hope was abandoned I decided upon a desperate expedient. I saught Major Smythe and asked him to be one of my attorneys. I reasoned as a lawyer such a case would appeal to his ambition and if I was correct he could not afford to lose the opportunity to distinguish himself by defeating the acceptance of the bequest. When I mentioned the matter to him he looked at me sharply and tried to probe my purpose but I looked innocent and he asked for time to think. I referred him to Orr then also in Columbia. When I told Orr of my plan he excitedly exclaimed that I had won. Smythe accepted and while he voted against the bill, three Senators on the coast voted for it. This was a tremendous surprise to the opposition. No one ever understood why the three coast Senators voted for the college. I watched these three Senators and after passing the bill to accept the bequest they never voted for the college any more…Therefore I say by that management I saved the College.[15]

The Act of Acceptance passed on a tie-breaking vote by Lieutenant Governor William L. Mauldin. Had Smythe’s lowcountry associates voted “nay,” the measure would not have resulted in a tie, thus not affording Mauldin the opportunity to cast the affirmative vote. The ramifications are staggering – without Simpson’s actions, it is possible that Clemson University would not exist as it is known today.

Simpson was involved in every facet of the legislative debates as well:

I was in Columbia lobbying for the measure which was reduced to a bill to accept the bequest and appropriating three thousand dollars to make a practical beginning to carry out the provisions of the will. There was great feeling on all sides and in order to intimidate the legislature a bill of injunction was read out against me to prevent me from disposing of the property until the suit was decided. Judge Simonton (U.S. Judge) of Charleston came up to Columbia to hear the case and grant the injunction. The contest began in the House and waxed heavy and bitter. I sat by our speakers and gave them the facts to answer the unfounded charges brought up by our opponents. This debate continued for several days. During the debate I wandered about everywhere trying to devise a plan to overcome the majority against us in the Senate. We had counted and found we had a clear majority in the House for the college but there was a majority in the Senate against it. Every effort had been exerted to overcome this majority but without effect. And the hopes of the friends of the college were gone.[16]

While Tillman may have taken the lead in whipping the vote in favor of Clemson, Simpson was an active participant in ensuring the passage of the will.

The South Carolina legislature approved the Clemson bequest in 1888, but Governor John P. Richardson would not sign it until the Circuit Court made its decision on Lee v. Simpson, Clemson’s son-in-law’s suit challenging the will. Gideon Lee argued for a proper inheritance for Clemson’s granddaughter, Floride Isabella Lee, in his suit filed on her behalf on November 26, 1888.

Simpson’s role as executor of Clemson’s estate meant that he was deeply involved in the lawsuit as the defendant and a material witness. The court granted Lee an injunction on December 18, 1888, thus barring the state from accepting the bequest.

In May 1889, the Circuit Court ruled in Simpson’s favor. On November 27, 1889, Governor Richardson signed the Act of Acceptance to create an agricultural college at Fort Hill in accordance with Clemson’s wishes. Lee appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court. The ruling was affirmed in April 1890.

By the time the will was upheld by the Supreme Court, Simpson had been arguably the most involved individual in the entire proceeding. Simpson authored the will; Simpson oversaw probate in his capacity as executor; Simpson answered each of Gideon Lee’s claims; Simpson submitted the will to South Carolina’s General Assembly; and Simpson called together the first meeting of the seven successor trustees on May 2, 1888.

Simpson's Board of Trustees

While passage of the Act of Acceptance surely felt like a victory to Simpson and his contemporaries, the real work of building a college from the ground up was just beginning. Simpson was elected the first President of the Board of Trustees on January 20, 1890, a position he would occupy for over 17 years, making him the second longest serving President/Chair the Board of Trustees has had in its history.[17]

In his capacity as Board President, Simpson oversaw the construction of the earliest buildings, welcomed the first students to campus, and presided over ninety-two meetings of the Board of Trustees. As Board President, Simpson was directly involved in the hiring of the first four college presidents, including Henry Aubrey Strode of Virginia, Edwin Boone Craighead of Missouri, Henry Simms Hartzog of South Carolina, and Patrick Hues Mell of Georgia.

Simpson had three sons-in-law serving on the Clemson faculty, and he visited campus frequently during the early formative years. He was a hands-on participant in the establishment of Clemson Agricultural College. Carrying a heavy burden for the college and dealing with declining health took its toll, and Simpson offered his resignation as President of the Board of Trustees in July 1907. It was declined. He tendered his resignation again in August 1907 and was accepted, although the minutes note that “Each individual member of the Board expressed his regrets and paid a tribute to Col Simpson’s services.”[18] He continued to participate as a Trustee after he resigned a leadership role.

A Clemson Gentleman

The Board of Trustees later preserved Simpson’s legacy with a resolution in his honor after his death. The resolution, dated November 19, 1913, characterized Simpson as “one of its most faithful friends” and heralded his “faithful, untiring and devoted efforts to guide the affairs of the College” with “few parallels in the history of South Carolina.”[19]

Clemson College President Walter Merritt Riggs acknowledged Simpson’s heart for Clemson College:

Col. R. W. Simpson was elected President of the Board and served in that position for seventeen years. No man in South Carolina ever loved Clemson College better, or served it more faithfully than did this old Roman, whom Mr. Clemson spoke of in his writings as “my trusted friend.”[20]

His reputation and length of service to Clemson serves as a testament to Simpson’s commitment and dedication to the cause and memory of his employer and friend, Thomas Green Clemson.

His wife wrote of her husband’s involvement with Clemson College:

The family today is indebted to the College for his life with us now. For had it not been for the pledge he made years ago when we were so poor and he was in such miserable health, he would have succumbed long ago. But that College was his life’s work, his theme, his hope and often lifted him from his bed of sickness. Now he realizes his work has been completed by the help of the good Lord. There is still more work for him to do for the College, and he will never lose sight of that work.[21]

In this respect, Clemson University as it stands today is Richard Wright Simpson’s legacy to the state of South Carolina.

Bibliography for Richard Wright Simpson

Simpson’s papers are housed in the Special Collections Department of the Robert Muldrow Cooper Library, Clemson University.

No extended, published biography exists.

Board of Trustees Minutes. Special Collections, Clemson University Libraries.

Clemson University Website

Floride Isabella Lee Documents, Special Collections Library, Clemson University Libraries.

James Corcoran Littlejohn Collection, 1900-1961. Special Collections, Clemson University Libraries.

Photo. The Cincinnati Enquirer.

Photos. Special Collections, Clemson University Libraries.

Richard W. Simpson Papers. Special Collections, Clemson University Libraries.

R. W. Simpson and William S. Morrison, History of Old Pendleton District. Anderson, SC: Oulla Printing & Binding Company, 1913. It includes a detailed genealogy of Richard Simpson. As little has been written about Simpson, this work helps place him in context with his community.

Guy R. Everson & Edward W. Simpson, Jr., Far, far from home (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), xv. It contains the letters written by Richard Wright Simpson and his brother, Tally Simpson, during their time serving in the Confederate Army.

[1] R. W. Simpson, History of Old Pendleton District (Anderson: Oulla Printing & Binding Company, 1913), 5.

[2] Guy R. Everson & Edward W. Simpson, Jr., Far, far from home (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), xv.

[3] Simpson, History of Old Pendleton District, 6.

[4] William S. Morrison, History of Old Pendleton District, 7.

[5] Simpson, History of Old Pendleton District, 3.

[6] Benjamin R. Tillman Account of Origin of Clemson College, Folder 50, Box 3, James Corcoran Littlejohn Collection, 1900 – 1961, Mss 68, Special Collections Library, Clemson University Libraries, Clemson, SC.

[7] Richard Simpson 1904 Account, Box 1, Richard W. Simpson Papers, Mss. 96, Special Collections Library, Clemson University Libraries, Clemson, SC.

[8] Richard Simpson 1909 Letter to the Editor of The State Newspaper, Box 1, Richard W. Simpson Papers, Mss. 96, Special Collections Library, Clemson University Libraries, Clemson, SC.

[9] Richard Simpson 1909 Letter to the Editor of The State Newspaper, Box 1, Richard W. Simpson Papers, Mss. 96, Special Collections Library, Clemson University Libraries, Clemson, SC.

[10] Testimony and Evidence, Folder 20, Box 1, Floride Isabella Lee, By Her Next Friend, Gideon Lee, Complainant, Against Richard W. Simpson, Defendant, 1889 in the Circuit Court of the United States, for the Fourth Circuit-District of South Carolina: Documents, 1856 – 1894, Floride Isabella Lee Documents, Mss 256, Special Collections Library, Clemson University Libraries, Clemson, SC.

[11] The Story of the Clemson Bequest, Folder 27, Box 2, James Corcoran Littlejohn Collection, 1900 – 1961, Mss 68, Special Collections Library, Clemson University Libraries, Clemson, SC.

[12] Simpson, History of Old Pendleton District, 144.

[13] Biographical Sketch of Thos. G. Clemson, Folder 7, Box 1, James Corcoran Littlejohn Collection, 1900 – 1961, Mss 68, Special Collections Library, Clemson University Libraries, Clemson, South Carolina.

[14] Clemson, Thomas Green. “Last Will and Codicil of Thomas Green Clemson.” 26 March 1887. Clemson University. Web. 15 March 2018.

[15] Richard Simpson Autobiography, Box 1, Richard W. Simpson Papers, Mss. 96, Special Collections Library, Clemson University Libraries, Clemson, SC.

[16] Richard Simpson Autobiography, Box 1, Richard W. Simpson Papers, Mss. 96, Special Collections Library, Clemson University Libraries, Clemson, SC.

[17] The Board of Trustees referred to its elected leader as the President of the Board of Trustees until 1975. After that time, the title became Chair of the Board of Trustees.

[18] Board of Trustees, Clemson University, “August 20-21, 1907 Clemson Trustees Minutes” (1907). Minutes. Paper 522.

[19] Board of Trustees, Clemson University, “November 19, 1913 Clemson Trustees Minutes” (1913). Minutes. Paper 345.

[20]Historical Sketch of Clemson College by W. M. Riggs in 1923, Folder 65, Box 4, James Corcoran Littlejohn Collection, 1900 – 1961, Mss 68, Special Collections Library, Clemson University Libraries, Clemson, SC.

[21] Richard Simpson Autobiography, Box 1, Richard W. Simpson Papers, Mss. 96, Special Collections Library, Clemson University Libraries, Clemson, SC.