John Macpherson Berrien was an eloquent lawyer, a U.S. senator, and the attorney general of the United States during U.S. president Andrew Jackson’s administration. Berrien County, created in south Georgia in 1856, is named for him.
He was born on August 23, 1781, in Rockhill, New Jersey, at the home of his grandfather, John Berrien. His grandfather, of French Huguenot ancestry, was one of New Jersey’s colonial justices and a close friend of George Washington; his home may have served as Washington’s headquarters while he wrote his famous farewell address to the troops. Berrien’s father, John Berrien, had served in the Revolutionary War (1775-83) under Lachlan McIntosh of Georgia. Berrien’s mother, descended from a long line of Scots Highlanders, was a member of the Macpherson family of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, Berrien’s father moved his family to Savannah.
Following preparatory studies in New York, young John Berrien entered the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), from which he received a bachelor of arts degree in 1796 at the age of fifteen. He read law in the office of Joseph Clay Jr., a prominent lawyer and federal judge, before being admitted to the Georgia bar in 1799. Berrien himself became a judge in 1810 after serving for a time as solicitor general of the Eastern Judicial Circuit of Georgia. During the War of 1812 (1812-15), he was a captain in the Chatham Light Dragoons and later a colonel in the First Georgia Cavalry.
In 1822 and 1823 Berrien represented Chatham County in the Georgia senate. In 1825 the Georgia legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate, where he proved himself an eloquent debater on a number of the era’s great issues. His oratorical powers earned him the title “American Cicero,” and Chief Justice John Marshall dubbed him “the honey-tongued Georgia youth.”
After Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828, he chose Berrien as his attorney general. But Berrien suffered a falling out with the president over the Margaret (Peggy) Eaton affair, an episode in which the wife of John C. Calhoun and other cabinet wives refused to associate with the wife of John H. Eaton, Jackson’s secretary of war. Eaton had an affair with Peggy, the daughter of a tavern keeper, while she was married; Peggy and Eaton were married following her husband’s death. Calhoun’s wife referred to Peggy as a “hussy,” but Jackson was convinced that Calhoun had put his wife up to the snubbing. The president and Calhoun argued bitterly about the affair, fueling their already growing differences. The argument splintered Jackson’s cabinet, and Calhoun’s friends on it, including Berrien, were forced to resign in June 1831. Berrien returned to Savannah to enter private law practice with Richard R. Cuyler.
Berrien returned to the U.S. Senate in 1841 and served in that body until 1852, when his bid for reelection was defeated by Robert Toombs. He again returned to Savannah and resumed his law practice.
Berrien had many honors conferred upon him during his long career. In 1830 he received an honorary doctor of laws degree from his alma mater, as well as a doctorate of laws from the University of Georgia, where for thirty years he served as a trustee. Berrien was one of the Georgia Historical Society’s founders in 1839 and its first president. He was president of the Georgia branch of the Society of the Cincinnati, a member of the board of regents of the Smithsonian Institution, and president of the American Bible Society.
Berrien’s first wife, Eliza Anciaux, was the daughter of an army major in the American Revolution; they had nine children before she died in 1828. Five years later Berrien married the much younger Eliza C. Hunter, the daughter of James Hunter of Savannah. The couple had six children before she died in 1852. One of his daughters, Louisa, married Francis S. Bartow, a lawyer, politician, and military officer who was killed in the Civil War (1861-65).
Berrien died on New Year’s Day, 1856, at the age of seventy-four.