Robert M. Weir, Colonial South Carolina: A History
After rereading Colin Woodard’s book American Nations, I bought Robert M. Weir’s book Colonial South Carolina: A History in order to get a better grasp on the cultural origins of the Deep South. In American Nations, Woodard argues that the South Carolina Lowcountry was the cultural hearth of the Deep South which was itself a colony of Barbados in the West Indies. Much of this narrative is drawn from Weir’s book so I thought it would be interesting to start reading through his sources.
It’s true that South Carolina was settled by Barbadians after 1670 who brought their culture of plantation slavery and white supremacy directly from the West Indies and adapted it to the local environmental conditions of the Lowcountry. It took about thirty years though for South Carolina to emerge as a full fledged Slave Society with an economy based on rice plantations. In the intervening years, South Carolina supported itself largely by enslaving the Indians and selling them into slavery in the Caribbean, by raising cattle and by exporting deer skins and naval stores. While slavery was established in South Carolina from the outset, it didn’t get around to adopting the Barbadian slave code until 1696.
South Carolina began as a proprietary colony. It was envisioned as the private utopia of Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 1st of Earl of Shaftesbury, who was the most important Whig leader in England in his time. Cooper’s secretary John Locke drafted the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina for him and his fellow Lords Proprietors. The document was never adopted by the settlers of South Carolina and the early history of the colony was essentially a power struggle that went on until 1719 between the Lords Proprietors back in England and the original settlers who were represented in the South Carolina Commons House. In 1729, South Carolina became a royal colony after the Commons House triumphed and the descendants of the original Lord Proprietors had become disillusioned with the colony.
The dominant faction in early colonial South Carolina were known as the Goose Creek Men. These men were English Barbadians who dominated the Commons House and essentially made South Carolina in their own image. They established the Anglican Church which they controlled and created a Slave Society modeled on Barbados. The English Dissenters and French Huguenots who settled in the Lowcountry were brought into the fold and worked with them to end the Proprietary government. In such a way, a culture of slavery and white supremacy was established in the South Carolina Lowcountry in which Whites from a wide range of ethnic and religious backgrounds would later participate.
After 1700, the Southern Coastal Plain began to fill up with rice plantations and the local Indians were pushed west against the Cherokees and were also drained out of the Lowcountry through the slave trade with the British West Indies. The Yamasee War erupted in 1715 when the Yamasee Indians and fifteen other tribes attacked South Carolina and attempted to wipe out the colony. 7 percent of White South Carolinians died in the conflict which was twice as devastating as King Philip’s War in New England. It ended in a decisive defeat for the Indians who were driven out of the area.
The Slave Society that developed in the Lowcountry was different in several important ways from its counterpart in the West Indies and the one to the that developed to the north in the Chesapeake. In Virginia and Maryland, the crop that was grown and processed by the slaves was tobacco. In the British West Indies, it was sugar. Sugar and tobacco are more labor intensive crops than rice and slavery in the Lowcountry came to be based on the task system. Slaves were given a task to complete each day by their drivers which was often done by 2 PM in the afternoon. Rice was also grown in the tidal zones of rivers and in swampy areas that were infested with malaria and yellow fever.
As was the case in the British West Indies, South Carolina rice planters lived in an unhealthy disease environment, although the temperate climate of the Lowcountry never took the same toll on the health of Europeans as the tropical climate of Barbados. West Indian sugar planters were far wealthier and owned more slaves than Lowcountry rice planters. They were far more likely to expatriate to England and outsource the management of their plantations to their overseers while the Carolina rice planters expatriated themselves to Charleston where they enjoyed drinking, socializing, playing cards, cockfighting and gambling for much of the year. It was not uncommon for blacks in the Lowcountry to essentially be left alone on the plantations under the supervision of their drivers.
In 1739, the Stono Rebellion broke out which was the worst slave revolt in British North America. This wasn’t anything like a mass uprising and only involved a few dozen slaves. It was dealt with swiftly and harshly and the heads of the rebels later decorated pikes between Charles Town and Beaufort. As Weir notes, it was “almost standard procedure to display the corpses of executed slaves by hanging them in chains at prominent points.” In 1769, a slave woman who was convicted of poisoning her master “was publicly burned at the stake on the greens in Charles Town.” Throughout most of the colonial era, South Carolina had a black majority and slave revolts were taken very seriously.
The practical realities of living in a Slave Society which created a hierarchical, authoritarian culture combined with 18th century English culture made South Carolinians deeply conservative:
“As the quotation from Locke suggests, in committing themselves to these values, South Carolinians were once again following English standards, and that fact alone would have been enough to make them take these ideals seriously, since personal independence and disciplined order were highly valued in the culture of the eighteenth century England. It was, as one acute student of English political culture, J.G.A. Pocock, has observed, “the most classical-minded of English centuries”; order and regularity in everything from architecture to zoology were considered to be the cardinal virtues; and the favorite maxims of the age were those of the ancient poets extolling the benefits of calm rationality.”
The organic culture that evolved in 18th century South Carolina was one that simultaneously valued authority, hierarchy and social cohesion and was fiercely protective of individual liberty. It only makes sense when you realize that South Carolinians valued liberty and equality so much precisely because the vast majority of people in the colony were not allowed to enjoy it.
“Arthur Lee spoke for South Carolina’s leaders: “The Rights and Privileges of the Commons House spring from the Rights and Privileges of British Subjects, and are coeval with the Constitution. They were neither created, nor can they be abolished by the Crown.” Furthermore, “what has prevailed from the Beginning of the Colony, without Question or Controul is Part of the Constitution.” That is, local practice and precedent were integral parts of the colonial constitution which ought to be respected by imperial authorities. …
To support their claims, Americans invoked two constitutions, the provincial and the imperial. Tennyson later spoke of England, the land “where Freedom slowly broadens down from precedent to precedent.” South Carolinians, believing that they shared all the rights of Englishmen, attributed a similar quality of organic growth to their own provincial constitution. They found that imperial authorities disagreed. Similarly, Carolinians eventually contended that the only link between themselves and their fellow subjects in Great Britain was the king, that their own Commons was a small equivalent of the British House of Conmons, to which they were not subject. This, too, they found to be an unacceptable argument in London. Ultimately, therefore, they came to the reluctant conclusion that William Henry Drayton was right, that “Americans can have no safety but by the Divine favor, their own virtue, and their being so prudent as not to leave it in the power of the British rulers to injure them.”
In the middle years of colonial South Carolina when Robert Walpole was Prime Minister from 1721 to 1742, the colony was essentially neglected and allowed to govern itself. It was during this period that the “country ideology” which powered the American Revolution took root.
“The prevailing country ideology of the late colonial period, one should remember, depicted political life as an arena in which public-spirited members of the social and economic elite preserved freedom by combating incipient tyranny. Furthermore, because liberty could be undermined by seemingly innocuous steps, all threats to it – even the apparently trivial – demanded the most vigorous countermeasures. Ordinary political action, popular violence, and revolt were therefore merely different stages of the eternal battle in behalf of freedom. These conceptions meant that prudence was the chief if not the only restraint upon violent political behavior. The very fact, however, that men conceived of politics as the life-and-death struggle of liberty tended to render prudential considerations irrelevant. Thus during the controversy with Governor Thomas Boone in the early 1760s over who was going to control the composition of the Commons House, Christopher Gadsden could declare that “he would rather submit to the destruction of one half of the Country than to give up the point in dispute”; and thus, when the stakes seemed higher on the eve of the Revolution, Carolinians could state they would rather “die the last of American Freemen, than live the first of American slaves.”
After the Walpole ministry and the end of the French and Indian War, Britain attempted to rein the American colonies which set in motion the events that led to the American Revolution. The liberty that Christopher Gadsden and the South Carolina Patriots sought to defend was not the “liberty” of modern day lolbertarianism. Gadsden had written two long essays as “Philopatrios” – a lover of his country – to condemn the British for not dealing harshly enough with the Cherokee Indians at the end of the war. He wanted them to “cut the throats of as many of as they could come up with.”
By this point, Scots-Irish Presbyterians were flooding into the South Carolina Upcountry from the north where they were reproducing the corn-and-cattle economy of Greater Appalachia. The Upcountry in the Piedmont and the Lowcountry in the Atlantic Coastal Plain are separated in South Carolina by a region of pine barrens with sandy soil known as the Sandhills. On the eve of the American Revolution, anywhere from two-thirds to three-fourths of the population of South Carolina lived in the Upcountry. 90 percent of the White population of South Carolina was of British ancestry, but only 37 percent of that was English. The Lowcountry had become its own “little world” where only 20 percent of the White population lived and which was mostly Anglican in a sea of recent immigrants.
In spite of being only a minority of the White population, the Lowcountry continued to dominate the South Carolina Commons House at this time. It was the Lowcountry which revolted in the American Revolution and which sent delegates to the Continental Congress – Thomas Heyward Jr., Thomas Lynch Jr., Arthur Middleton and Edward Rutledge – who signed the Declaration of Independence. Christopher Gadsden was the leader of the Sons of Liberty which was based in Charles Town. The Upcountry was dragged into the conflict which evolved into a civil war between Patriots and Tories.
The American Revolution in South Carolina seems strange at first. South Carolina was the wealthiest of the 13 American colonies. It was a “country of gentry” that identified with the Mother Country. By all accounts, it was thriving under the British Empire. The Cherokees had been subdued on the frontier and the Spanish had been evicted from Florida. The economy of South Carolina was booming and there was no real economic incentive to revolt over a few taxes. Ultimately, the gentlemen of South Carolina revolted over seeing the events in Massachusetts through the prism of the “country ideology” as a conflict between liberty and the tyranny of a corrupt despot who was trampling on their constitutional rights and the fear that swept over the colony shortly before the news of Lexington and Concord arrived that the British were going to abolish slavery and incite the Indians to attack along the frontier.
The Cherokee Indians really were stirred up by the British and attacked the frontier. Slaves were also encouraged by the British to desert their masters although relatively few did so. The conflict devastated South Carolina which was occupied by the British. Guerrilla warfare broke out in the backcountry between Patriots and the British and their Loyalist allies. The state was plunged into debt, but after independence was won it emerged from the conflict with a White population three times the size of the one that had revolted due to a flood of immigration during the war into the Upcountry.
“Restoring law and order turned out to be the victorious Americans’ problem. Between October 1780, when a party of backwoodsmen defeated a large loyalist force at King’s Mountain, to the battle of Eutaw Springs in September 1781, when a bloody draw worked to the Americans’ advantage, units of the Continental Army under Nathaniel Greene and the Carolina Militia under Marion, Andrew Pickens, and Thomas Sumter forced the British to withdraw virtually within the confines of Charles Town. A minister who had fled the Port Royal area and returned at the end of the war left a vivid description of conditions. “All was desolation … Every field, every plantation, showed marks of ruin and devastation. Not a person was to be met with in the roads. All was Gloomy.” All society, he continued “seems to be at an end. Every person keeps close on his own plantation. Robberies and murders are often committed on the public roads. The people that remain here have been peeled, pillaged, and plundered. Poverty, want, and hardship appear in almost every countenance. A dark melancholy gloom appears everywhere, and the morals of the people are almost entirely extirpated.” Revolutionary authorities had recovered most of the state, but portions of it were a wasteland, and whether they would be able to control the populace remained for some time an open question.”
American independence was won at considerable cost in South Carolina.
During the ratification of the Constitution, the Lowcountry tended to support a strong central government because the state was vulnerable to attack from sea by the Royal Navy, the threat posed by slave rebellions and for greater leverage in opening up foreign markets to their exports. There was also the matter of owing the largest debt of any state. South Carolina’s representatives believed the state would come out a creditor rather than a debtor after accounts were settled with Congress. According to Weir, they saw the Congress “as an instrument for the accomplishment of state ends” and “it seems reasonable to assume that the attitude had more to do with perceptions of local military weakness than American patriotism.” They never would have ratified the document either if it hadn’t secured slavery.
Weir explains that the Upcountry was more skeptical of the Constitution because many of the men who fought in the American Revolution had served in the South Carolina Militia with Francis Marion, not the Continental Army. They were “emotionally tied to the state.” Even though the majority of the population was in the Upcountry, South Carolina ratified the Constitution which offered “few advantages for farmers who did not export rice and other staples” because of the disproportionate power of the Lowcountry. He closes the book by noting one of those men from the Upcountry who opposed it joked they were only forced to take it “as we take our wives, for better, for worse.”
There is nothing in this book which suggests that the founders of South Carolina whether it was the earliest settlers of the colony or the Patriots who fought in the American Revolution had any idea that they were fighting for anything resembling our society as it exists today. They fought against the Cherokee on the frontier who fought on the side of the British. They rebelled against the British Empire because they thought it was going to abolish slavery in South Carolina. While they valued liberty and hated tyranny, they unquestionably reserved “liberty” to themselves and their posterity.
I really enjoy reading your website. Thank you.
Great stuff HW