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Circuit Court Opinions:

Chief Justice Melville Weston Fuller, Lee v. Simpson (1889)

Chief Justice Melville Weston Fuller (1888–1910)

Lee v. Simpson, 39 F. 235 (C.C.D.S.C. 1889) [Fourth Circuit], affirmed, 134 U.S. 572 (1890)

Chief Justice Fuller’s first opinion as a circuit justice involved a dispute over the will of Thomas Green Clemson, who owned a large South Carolina property called Fort Hill. Clemson had long advocated the establishment of an agricultural college for South Carolina, believing that it would help the state’s depressed post-Civil War economy. When his wife Anna Calhoun Clemson (daughter of former vice president John C. Calhoun) died in 1875, he became the sole owner of the Fort Hill property. His will, finalized in 1886 with the help of R. W. Simpson, who became the executor of his estate, bequeathed the land to the state to be the site of the “Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina.”

After Clemson died in 1888, his son in law, Gideon Lee, sued to invalidate the will on behalf of Clemson’s lone surviving heir, his granddaughter Floride Isabella Lee. Gideon Lee was able to drum up some public sympathy by writing letters to the press claiming that his daughter was being deprived of her family’s fortune, but his legal arguments were tenuous. Fuller ruled that Anna Calhoun Clemson had clearly left all her interest in Fort Hill to her husband, making Thomas Clemson the sole owner of the property at the time of his death. There was no basis, therefore, for the assertion that Clemson had lacked the power to bequeath Fort Hill in its entirely to the state.

While the case was pending, the South Carolina legislature engaged in debate over the establishment of a public agricultural college. When the legislature passed a bill to accept the bequest, Governor John Richardson, who was unenthusiastic about the plan, declined to sign it on the grounds of the uncertainty created by the court case. After Fuller’s decision, Richardson signed the bill. In December 1889, the chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court certified that the state had taken all necessary steps to accept the bequest. The Supreme Court affirmed Fuller’s decision in 1890, and Clemson University officially opened in 1893.