Just as Tidewater was the cultural hearth of the Upper South, Charleston and the regional culture it spawned between the Cape Fear River in southern North Carolina and the Altahama River in southern Georgia was the cultural hearth of the Lower South.
Who were the Founding Fathers of the Deep South? What did they believe? What was their world like on the eve of the American Revolution? How did they differ from the Tidewater patricians like Jefferson and Madison? How did they differ from the Yankees of New England?
The following excerpt comes from comes from John Richard Alden’s book The South in the Revolution, 1763-1789:
“Like the glory of the Chesapeake, the grandeur of the Low Country aristocracy also lingers only in monuments and memory. Dominating the coastal region of South Carolina, southern North Carolina, and northern Georgia, with Charleston as its capital, that aristocracy was also largely middle class in background, but newer and less in debt. European titles were no more prevalent in that region than they were between the Susquehanna and the Dan rivers, although the rank of a landgrave deriving his status from the local Carolina nobility created in the seventeenth century was mentioned by his neighbors at the beginning of the Revolutionary crisis.”
As was the case in Tidewater, the Carolina Chivalry was largely of English and French middle class origin. In both Tidewater and the Low Country, the upper crust of society intermarried and ruled largely through consensus. South Carolina was a “country of gentlemen.”
“In the Low Country, too, there were men and women who could trace ancestry, often by way of seventeenth-century Barbados and Antigua, to English gentlemen and ladies. Some could claim conspicuous European forebears in Scotland and France. On the whole, however, the Low Country patricians were of neither great nor remarkably humble origins, their wealth and social superiority being of comparatively recent coinage. Henry Laurens, son of a saddler risen in the world, and Jonathan Allston, owner a fine estate in northern South Carolina, were self made and very well made men. Their family trees resembled that of George Washington rather than the one of Lord Fairfax.”
This was easily the biggest difference.
South Carolina was the offspring of Barbados. Many of the original settlers of South Carolina came from the overcrowded West Indies and transplanted their culture to the mainland. The Goose Creek men eventually wrested control of the colony from the Lords Proprietors.
“Nor did the Low Country aristocracy condemn commerce, if the person involved in it was engage in large and far-flung operations rather than in retail selling in small quantity. Indeed, many of its prominent planters were, or recently had been, merchants. Henry Laurens traded extensively in slaves, rice, and indigo, and also owned vast quantities of land. Gabriel Manigault, probably the richest man in South Carolina, was engaged in the exchange of goods as well as in agriculture. The patrician class of the Deep South was equally fluid with that of the Chesapeake, welcoming worthy recruits with wealth acquired from commerce, showing an obvious favor to those who had prospered on the land. One of its conspicuous members, Christopher Gadsden, the son of a British naval officer, was in youth a purser, in maturity a merchant rather than a planter.”
The South Carolina social hierarchy was permeable like its counterpart in Tidewater. Charleston was the great city of the Southern colonies and its most powerful merchants like Christopher Gadsden and Henry Laurens played a leading role in inciting the American Revolution.
“The immediate physical background against which the Low Country upper class appeared was less impressive than that of its Virginia equivalent, for its newer homes were of wood rather than of brick and were somewhat less beautiful, though ideally suited to climate. Moreover, the great families commonly maintained two homes rather than one, for they spent a large part of each year in Charleston, the summer and fall, which were unhealthy periods on the plantation. Not without charm, their country houses were comfortable rather than elegant. Their town houses were more attractive externally, and were often elegantly furnished, that of Miles Brewton being admittedly the finest mansion in any colonial city. Travelers noted that the wind blew dust up from Charleston’s sandy streets and that buzzards flew about scavagening; they also observed, however, neat brick sidewalks, a city well kept and gay. Wrote a Yankee sailor who visited Charleston in 1778: “I believe there is a few who now & then go to church but by all the observation I have been able to make I find that horse racing, frolicking rioting gaming of all kinds open markets, and traffick, to be the chief business of their Sabbaths. I am far from supposing there is not a few righteous there but was it to have the chance which Soddom had, that if there were five righteous men it should save the city. I believe there would be only a Lot & family, & his wife I should be afraid would look back.” Pleasures and pieties were not quite the same in Charleston as they were in New England.”
Charleston had a relaxed culture.
The word “gay” is commonly used to describe it. These people were the polar opposite of the brooding, guilt-ridden Yankee. Unlike the Tidewater, the Low Country planters were absentees who lived in Charleston for a large part of the year where they enjoyed life.
“The Low Country patricians are said to have different sharply in physique and temperament from those of the Potomac and the Rappahannock. The males may have been somewhat slighter and more agile. Their women are described as slender and of medium height, with and without bloom upon their cheeks. The men were quick in speech, passionate in temper, proud if not vain, courteous, fond of dress and display, generous in their thinking, and lavish with their substance. They were indeed addicted to horse racing, cockfighting, and gambling, but were also devoted to music, the theater, the dance, and the arts as a whole, evincing cultivated and genuine taste. Ardent and sensitive, they were more inclined to appeal to sword and pistol to settle personal disputes than were the first men of the tobacco country. Their faults were tempered by the affection, good sense, and stability of their women, who presided over happy households.”
The famous honor culture of the Deep South can be traced back to Charleston and the Low Country. Instead of agonizing over the morality of slavery, these were men who fought duels, gambled, drank rum, enjoyed horse racing and cockfighting, socializing at endless balls.
“There may have been more idleness among the Low Country patricians than among those of Virginia and Maryland, for their slaves were proportionately more numerous, their climate less stimulating. In the realm of formal education, however, the Low Country leaders compared quite favorably. Elementary schools were not lacking; and instruction by able tutors was readily available to both sexes in all readily conceivable disciplines and arts. There was, it is true, no college to the southward of William and Mary, although one was often projected, notably in a message sent to the legislature of South Carolina in 1770 by Lieutenant Governor William Bull, who urged the establishment and public support of a College of South Carolina at Charleston and also the founding of several elementary schools in the interior of that colony. This scheme failed to pass into law, partly because a custom had developed among wealthy Carolinians of sending or taking their young men to Europe, especially to Britain, for advanced liberal and professional education. Among the numerous shining lights of the Low Country who studied abroad were John Rutledge, William Henry Drayton, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Arthur Middleton, and John Laurens. There was among these no Jefferson and no Madison, but they and their like were otherwise equals in intellect and education to their correspondents in the Chesapeake society, which nourished but one Madison and a single Jefferson.”
As wealthy Anglicans who identified with the British establishment until the Revolution, more South Carolinians were educated in Britain than in any of the other mainland colonies. The rice lords of the Low Country were less wealthy, less enslaved, less likely to become absentees than the sugar barons of the West Indies. The Tidewater planters were less of all these things than the Carolinians.