"The Problem of South Carolina" Reexamined: A Review Essay

By Haw, James | South Carolina Historical Magazine, January 2006 | Go to article overview

"The Problem of South Carolina" Reexamined: A Review Essay


Haw, James, South Carolina Historical Magazine


SEVERAL GENERATIONS OF HISTORIANS HAVE GRAPPLED with what James M. Banner dubbed "The Problem of South Carolina." "No other southern state," Banner noted some thirty years ago, "appeared quite so dedicated to the preservation of slavery and its distinctive way of life. None responded so dramatically to threats from the North. South Carolina nullified alone and seceded first....In no other state was national authority at such a discount. Nowhere else in the South did the 'fire-eaters' gain such an early ascendancy and maintain such a lasting hold."1

Why was South Carolina the most radical state in the South from the late 1820s until the Civil War? Three decades of research have added significantly to the historical debate on that issue since Banner's classic essay. This article reviews the historical literature, both older and recent, to appraise our current understanding of the "problem of South Carolina."

Most of the factors that shaped antebellum South Carolina's stance have long been recognized, although more recent work has refined their outlines. Economically, South Carolina generally prospered from 1793 to 1819, with a brief interruption caused by the Embargo Act of 1807. Only New York City reportedly surpassed Charleston in the value of its exports in 1816.2 The national depression that followed the Panic of 1819 dealt South Carolina a blow from which it never fully recovered. Long-term economic trends were responsible. The westward spread of cotton across the South resulted in a greatly increased total cotton supply and lower prices. Although South Carolina's cotton production continued to increase, the state "dropped from first to fifth place among cotton-producing states" between 1821 and 1839. Lower prices and eroded upcountry lands meant harder times. South Carolina rice, too, faced increased competition from Asia, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas and began to feel the effects gradually from the 1820s on. The port of Charleston declined in importance as the rise of factories in the North and the replacement of sailing ships by steamships changed ocean shipping routes and made Charleston a satellite of New York and other northern ports in international trade. A shortage of business skills and initiative hampered the city's attempts to improve its position. The nation's fifth largest city in 1800, Charleston ranked twenty-second in 1860.3 Economic troubles partially explain South Carolina's vehement opposition to the protective tariff and less explosive opposition to federally financed internal improvements after 1819. Cotton prices rose from 1833 to 1836, fell with the Panic of 1837, and rose again from 1849 to 1860.4 The latter upward trend fostered confidence in the 1850s that cotton was, after all, king, and a southern nation would be economically viable.

One important consequence of economic difficulties was out-migration. After 1820 increasing numbers of South Carolinians left their native state to take advantage of the rich, virgin cotton lands opening to settlement in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. The movement peaked in the 1830s and 1840s, but continued until the Civil War. Over 200,000 whites-more than 40 percent of all whites born in South Carolina-and more than 170,000 slaves moved west. The white population of the South Carolina upcountry actually declined by one percent per decade between 1830 and 1850.5 At the same time, the state received relatively few immigrants from other states and Europe. "By 1860, 96.6% of South Carolinians were Carolina-born, a degree of insularity unheard of elsewhere" in the South or, indeed, the United States.6

Economic trends, heavy emigration, and light immigration had consequences beyond contributing to insularity. South Carolina's decline relative to the new cotton states and their ports of New Orleans and Mobile "created an atmosphere of injured pride, poverty, and resentment." According to Drew Gilpin Faust, "agricultural decline . . …

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