Southern History Series: Country Ideology In Colonial South Carolina

South Carolina was the cultural hearth of the Deep South.

In order to understand the culture of the Deep South, it makes sense to start in the Lowcountry and track the spread of this culture into Georgia and North Carolina and south and west into Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, West Tennessee, Arkansas and East Texas.

John Locke has a very interesting relationship with South Carolina. Locke’s patron Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury, was one of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina. He envisioned the colony as his own private utopia and had Locke draft the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina.

If any American colony could be said to have been an experiment in Lockean classical liberalism, then it has to be South Carolina because Locke himself was personally involved in the founding of the colony. And yet, the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina was never adopted in the colony. The colonists resisted the Lords Proprietors and eventually they succeeded in overthrowing the government and South Carolina became a royal colony in 1719. Locke and Shaftesbury only had a minimal influence on South Carolina’s political development aside from establishing slavery and white supremacy.

Locke’s Two Treatises of Government was first printed in America in Boston in 1773 when it was seized on to justify the Boston Tea Party. Colonial Americans didn’t sit around reading Locke. South Carolinians derived their beliefs about liberty and their rights from the British Constitution and the “country ideology” of the mid-18th century British opposition under Prime Minister Robert Walpole.

The following excerpt on the triumph of “country ideology” in mid-18th century South Carolina comes from Robert M. Weir’s book Colonial South Carolina: A History:

“The existential character of the contest also partly accounts for the influence of later British writings. Their roots, too, were in the seventeenth century, and specifically in the 1670s and early 1680s when a series of political crises prompted Shaftesbury – or his associates – to modernize many of Harrington’s concepts. In this form, these ideas were picked up, fused with others, amplified, and popularized by the political opposition during Walpole’s ministry. The resulting “country ideology” – which embodied a profound mistrust of power, and especially of the executive’s putative ability to expand its power by corrupt means – quickly spread throughout the empire. Yet its presence in South Carolina in some ways anomalous, for many of its main themes do not appear at first glance to have been very relevant to local politics. …

Partly because this process was self-reinforcing, and partly because remoteness from the center of real power tended to make colonials fearful of unpleasant surprises, Carolinians found this literature fascinating and persuasive. Indeed, it had a certain plausibility when considered only in the local context. Did the crown not appoint the council? And did it not usually support the prerogative? In addition, to be familiar with this ideology was to be au courant, and to act on its precepts was to behave like some authoritative figures in England argued that patriotic Englishmen should behave. Among these figures were a number of writers, like Bolingbroke and the most popular poet in the eighteenth century, Alexander Pope, who professed to see the salvation of the nation in the virtue of the gentry. Such a notion was obviously congenial to men who were already attempting to pattern themselves on the English country gentlemen in other areas of life. Writings like the Freeholder’s Political Catechism by Bolingbroke and Cato’s Letters by two skillful popularizers – John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon – whose essays dealt with “Publick Spirit,” “the encroaching Nature of Power, [which was] ever to be watched and checked,” and “the important Duty of Attendance in Parliament” – thus became textbooks of appropriate political behavior. One can therefore almost say that if the parliamentary journals and manuals of the seventeenth century provided guidelines for the collective conduct of the Commons as an institution, the opposition writers of the eighteenth century provided guidance for the political behavior of its members as individuals.

By midcentury politically conscious South Carolinians shared a coherent body of ideals, assumptions, and beliefs concerning politics which embodied the central tenants of country ideology. The foundation of all their political assumptions was their conception of human nature, which they deeply distrusted …”

What is country ideology?

South Carolina’s elite modeled itself after the British gentry. They absorbed their fashionable ideology from writers like Bolingbroke, Pope, Trenchard and Gordon in the Commonwealth men tradition.

“Country ideology was a series of ideas expounded in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by English writers such as Henry St. John, Viscount Bolinbroke, Thomas Gordon, and John Trenchard. These men opposed the accumulation of power by the British crown at the expense of the House of Commons, the representatives of the people. A fringe element critiquing the existing order, these writers won few adherents in England, yet their work heavily influenced the political culture of colonial America, where colonists perceived themselves on the margins of empire. The effect of country ideology on South Carolina was different and more pervasive than anywhere else in British North America.

At the heart of country ideology was a profound distrust of human nature. Endowed with reason, man deserved the liberty to chart his own destiny, yet he inevitably hurt others in his quest for fulfillment. Government became necessary to protect liberty, but government was composed of imperfect men who could never be trusted to use power selflessly. Furthermore, power tended to accumulate in the hands of a few men and threaten liberty. Thus the representatives of the people should hold the power of the purse and control taxation. As independent men of property and cultivation, representatives acted in the best interests of their constituents and protected them from the expansion of executive authority.

In other colonies country ideology took hold amid factional strife, as public men brandished these ideas against their opponents. In South Carolina, however, country ideology proved an adhesive that united elite leaders. These men shared interests and fears. Amid general prosperity and mutual economic interests, they feared attacks by foreign powers or inland Native American nations and were nervous about the potential rebelliousness of their slave majority. Service in the Commons House of Assembly allowed them to put into practice this ideology, as they struggled against successive governors who, aided by a compliant Royal Council, seemed bent on aggrandizing their power at the expense of liberty. Factional strife potentially played into the governor’s hands, for he could build power by playing one faction against another. Representatives in South Carolina, therefore, prided themselves on their independence and never formed permanent alignments, unless they united in resistance to arbitrary power ….”

Here are some quotes from the video below on Trenchard and Gordon:

“The commonwealth ideology led to a fierce occupation with independence. Everything depended on it. The true patriot must think his own thoughts, chart his own course, and be beholden to no one. Furthermore, he must be a man of property for property alone could guarantee his personal autonomy. This explained why the commonwealthmen were so distrustful of taxes. The power to tax was the power to take property away – and the power to destroy independence. Parliament alone should exercise that power because Parliament alone represented those who would have to pay.” (The American Founding, 2e, p.63)

“The colonists identified themselves with … seventeenth century heroes of liberty [such as Milton, Harrington, Sidney and Locke], but they felt closer to the early eighteenth century writers who modified and enlarged this earlier body of ideas, fused it into a whole with other contemporary strains of thought, and, above all, applied it to the problems of eighteenth century English politics. These early eighteenth century writers – coffeehouse radicals and opposition politicians, spokesmen for the anti-Court independents and a ‘country’ vision of English politics – more than any other group of writers … shaped the mind of the American Revolutionary generation. To the colonists the most important of these publicists and intellectual middlemen were those spokesmen for extreme libertarianism, John Trenchard (1662-1723) and Thomas Gordon (d.1750).

Trenchard and Gordon “left an indelible imprint on the ‘country’ mind everywhere in the English-speaking world. In America, where they were republished entire or in part again and again, ‘quoted from every colonial newspaper from Boston to Savannah,’ and referred to repeatedly in the pamphlet literature, the writings of Trenchard and Gordon ranked with the treatises of Locke as the most authoritative statement on the nature of political liberty and above Locke as an exposition of the social sources of the threats they faced” (Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, 1992 ed, 35-36)

“The eighteenth century commonwealth men have not survived as great names … but in the fashioning of revolutionary ideology in America they had an influence that surpassed Locke’s. To be sure, they drew upon Locke and others more original than themselves. Indeed, their ideas were not original, and the heart of their political theory closely resembled the great Whig consensus of the century … These ideas were so widely shared in England as to be conventional, but the eighteenth century radicals put them to unconventional uses … While English Whigs and English governments sang the praises of English institutions, English history, and English liberty, the radicals chanted hymns of mourning, dirges for the departing liberty of England and the rising corruption of English politics and society. Within all states, from ancient Rome to the present, they argued, there had been attempts to enslave the people. The history of politics was nothing other than the history of the struggle between power and liberty … Cato’s Letters likens them to fire … ‘it warms, scorches, or destroys, according as it is watched, provoked, or increased. It is as dangerous as it useful … It is apt to break its bounds.” (Robert Middlekauf, The Glorious Cause, 2005 ed., 136-137)

Here are some direct quotes from Trenchard and Gordon’s Cato’s Letters which were so influential in the American colonies and in the founding of the American Republic:


Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as publick liberty, without freedom of speech: Which is the right of every man, as far as by it he does not hurt and control the right of another; and this is the only check which it ought to suffer, the only bounds which it ought to know. …”

“Only the wicked governors of men dread what is said of them; Audivit Tiberius probra queis lacerabitur, atque perculsus est.”

“Freedom of speech is the great bulwark of liberty; they prosper and die together: And it is the terror of traitors and oppressors, and a barrier against them. It produces excellent writers, and encourages men of fine genius. Tacitus tells us, that the Roman commonwealth bred great and numerous authors, who writ with equal boldness and eloquence: But when it was enslaved, those great wits were no more. Postquam bellatum apud Actium; atque omnem potestatem ad unum conferri pacts interfuit, magna illa ingenia cessere. Tyranny had usurped the place of equality, which is the soul of liberty, and destroyed publick courage. The minds of men, terrified by unjust power, degenerated into all the vileness and methods of servitude: Abject sycophancy and blind submission grew the only means of preferment, and indeed of safety; men durst not open their mouths, but to flatter. …”

“But things afterwards took another turn: Rome, with the loss of its liberty, lost also its freedom of speech; then men’s words began to be feared and watched; then first began the poisonous race of informers, banished indeed under the righteous administration of Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Aurelius, &c. but encouraged and enriched under the vile ministry of Sejanus, Tigellinus, Pallas, and Cleander: Querilibet, quod in secreta nostra non inquirant principes, nisi quos odimus, 4 says Pliny to Trajan.

The best princes have ever encouraged and promoted freedom of speech; they knew that upright measures would defend themselves, and that all upright men would defend them. Tacitus, speaking of the reigns of some of the princes above-mention’d, says with ecstasy, Rara temporum felicitate, ubi sentire quae velis, & quae sentias dicere liceat: A blessed time, when you might think what you would, and speak what you thought!”

Listen to this.

It is worth repeating:

“Freedom of speech is the great bulwark of liberty; they prosper and die together: And it is the terror of traitors and oppressors, and a barrier against them …”

If you are reading this passage, then according to the mainstream you are reading “hate speech” on a “hate site” being published by a “hate group.” Yeah, whatever!

About Hunter Wallace 12380 Articles
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Occidental Dissent

1 Comment

  1. “The foundation of all their political assumptions was their conception of human nature, which they deeply distrusted …”

    In church and at Home, I was taught that we’re fallen, sinful and imperfect. People have weaknesses and fallings. We have to accept and deal with it. “Let’s pretend” won’t help.

Comments are closed.