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President James Monroe visits Charleston

September 3, 2020

President James Monroe enjoyed a popularity second only to that of George Washington. His 1819 Southern tour was to inspect coastal defenses and to enable him to become acquainted with the people of the region. He came to Charleston during “the era of good feelings” and the city rolled out the red carpet for its celebrated guest.

 

En route to Charleston, the president spent the night at the mansion of Jacob Bond I’On in Christ Church Parish in company of Secretary of War Calhoun, his lady and family, Maj. Gen. Thomas Pinckney, Mr. Groveneur, his private secretary and Lt. Monroe, his nephew. On April 26, the distinguished company was escorted to Gordon and Springs (now Clement’s) Ferry and embarked on a barge prepared by the City Corporation and manned by a symbolic 21 members of the Marine Society, with their president steering. The transportation was described as “much to the gratification of the President, who was pleased to pass a very handsome compliment upon the barge and her patriotic crew.”

Upon landing, they were received by a military escort which was soon joined by Gov. John Geddes and his entire suite. At the city lines, the president reviewed troops and received a military salute by the artillery. The distinguished party was then greeted by Intendent (mayor) Daniel Stevens and the city wardens at Meeting St., which was lined with officers of the Society of the Cincinnati, other national societies and throngs of admiring citizens who cheered him all the way to Broad. They proceeded to St. Andrew’s Hall, where “the best taste of the city had arranged things for the distinguished guests.” That night the president dined with Gov. Geddes.

Tuesday morning was devoted to greetings from the mayor and important personages, while in the afternoon city authorities and prominent citizens assembled at the South Carolina Society Hall on Meeting Street then proceeded to City Hall to dine with the president in “becoming style.” On Wednesday, after visiting the library and places of public interest in the morning and attending the theatre in the evening, the president dined with members of the Society of the Cincinnati.

 

On Thursday, April 29, Fred Schwach advertised that the entire state would be fed roasted ox; local newspapers published the festivities. Among them was a visit to the Custom House. From there, accompanied by band music, the president, the governor and prominent military and city officials descended the Exchange’s elegant staircase to board the steamship Charleston for a tour of harbor fortifications. It was a momentous occasion. The president received a 21-gun salute from a cutter in the harbor with more salutes at Castle Pinckney, Fort Johnson and Fort Moultrie.

 

After enjoying “a spread” at Fort Johnson, the entourage returned, anticipating the ascent of a balloon from the city square, but a high wind caused the event to be cancelled, much to the disappointment of thousands of spectators who had come to witness the event. All was not lost, however. In the evening, there was “a brilliant display” of fireworks at the Orphan House enclosure.

The following day, Monroe went on to tour the city’s defense lines and enjoy an invitation-only breakfast at diplomat Joel Poinsett’s home in Cannonborough. Saturday was spent receiving the different societies and attending a “splendid concert and ball” given by the St. Cecilia Society, “which was attended by a very large assemblage of Ladies, to whom the President had the pleasure of paying his respects.”

Sunday, the Monroe attended services at both St. Philip’s and the First Presbyterian Churches. The following morning, Monroe left town and headed for Middleton Place to be entertained by Henry Middleton.

To commemorate the president’s visit, Charleston City Council requested a portrait of Monroe be painted by Samuel F. B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph. The painting hangs in the city council chambers; a replica hangs in the Blue Room of the White House.

 

Gov. Geddes is an interesting case study. He was a Democratic-Republican (Jefferson’s Party) who gained a following among the city’s merchants and mechanics. Perhaps this was because he was the son of Scots-Irish merchant Henry Geddes. Born on Christmas Day in 1777, young Geddes was educated in Charleston and admitted to the local bar in 1797.

 

He was only 20 when he won office as a city warden. He was elected to the S. C. House of Representatives in 1808 and was chosen speaker of the House for consecutive terms from 1810 until he was elected to the state senate in 1816. He served as Charleston’s intendant in 1817-1818 and was elected governor of the state in 1818.

 

By the time Monroe came to Charleston, Geddes had accumulated considerable wealth. In May 1798, he married Harriet Chalmers, a daughter of Charleston artisan Gilbert Chalmers. When she died in 1803, Geddes married her sister Ann. Chalmers deeded the property, now known as the Confederate Home, to Ann in 1805 and when she died the following year, the property passed to Geddes. In addition to properties in town, he owned plantations in St. Andrew’s Parish.

The governor is still remembered for his affaires d’honneur with two (one-m) Simons brothers. Both duels are thought to have been because of political differences. Geddes was a Democratic-Republican. Keating Lewis Simons (1788-1834) on the other hand was a Federalist. In 1823, Keating Lewis Simons and Governor Geddes met on Sullivan’s Island. Simons was wounded and limped the rest of his life. Geddes also fought Edward Simons (1778-1843). This time Geddes was shot in the knee while Edward Simons was unhurt.

 

That same year Gilbert C. Geddes, John Geddes’ 17-year-old son followed in his father’s footsteps and killed Edward Peter Simons (1794-1823). Young Geddes felt that Simons had made remarks reflecting on his father and demanded a retraction. Simons protested that the father should demand satisfaction, not his son. After failing to get a reconciliation, the antagonists met at high noon at Fort Johnson. Each fired four times without wounding his opponent, but on the fifth round, Geddes was shot through both thighs and Simons was shot in the belly. Young Geddes recovered. Simons died the following day at the age of 29.

 

A popular myth is that Governor Geddes sold the Confederate Home because of the expenses incurred when he entertained Monroe. Real estate transactions refute this. Geddes actually sold his Broad Street properties in 1825, long after the president’s visit in 1819. He was not bankrupt at the time. In 1823 and 1824, Geddes had gone on a buying spree and purchased several plantations from his mother-in-law’s estate as well as several plantations from sheriff’s sales.

 

Governor Geddes died in 1828 and was buried at the First Scots Presbyterian churchyard. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is in the popular myth that he sold the Confederate Home building to cover the debts he incurred entertaining President Monroe. Some historians do mention the Simons duels.

 

My appreciation to Bob Stockton and Malcolm Hale for contributing to this article.

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