A School for Politics: Commercial Lobbying and Political Culture in Early South Carolina

By Woods, Michael | South Carolina Historical Magazine, October 1999 | Go to article overview

A School for Politics: Commercial Lobbying and Political Culture in Early South Carolina


Woods, Michael, South Carolina Historical Magazine


A School For Politics: Commercial Lobbying and Political Culture in Early South Carolina. By Rebecca Starr. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. Pp. x, 218. $45.00, cloth.)

Rebecca Starr has chosen a daunting set of tasks. She first seeks to prove the efficacy of the South Carolina lobby, both at home and abroad in England. This premise is then advanced to show the transition of this lobby from a commercial device for the economic benefit of the colony to an effective political action group during the crucial years between 1774 and 1776. Finally, she relates these events to important post-revolutionary political developments in South Carolina. The product of her effort is most impressive.

She begins, as do most British historians, with a survey of recent scholarship. The works of some of the most important colonial historians who have dealt with South Carolina are discussed. Publications by Robert Weir, Peter Coclanis, and Lacy K. Ford among others are particularly relevant to any discussion of pre-Revolutionary Carolina politics, and cogent references to the statistical data presented by Converse D. Clowse are also helpful. In general, her survey of the best secondary sources is enlightening and complete.

The overarching theme presented is that what began as an effort to promote the commercial interests of the colony became the formative experience that produced a unique South Carolina model for politics, one which Peter Coclanis argues has produced results which are visible even today. The hard part is the proof. Professor Starr uses a methodical, painstaking approach to her proof, relying heavily on original source materials. In the process, she takes the "harmony" thesis enunciated so well by Robert Weir to a new level, often using circumstantial evidence to show how the phenomenon evolved. This is accomplished by delving deeply into legislative records and personal correspondence of important operatives on both sides of the Atlantic.

One of the most interesting aspects of this work is the author's analysis of the difference between the political cultures of South Carolina and Virginia. Both were agrarian and dependent on the ability to export staples. It would be easy to assume that like Virginia, Carolina political power was firmly held in the hands of the landed gentry. It is well understood that this was not true. In South Carolina, a ruling oligarchy of planters, merchants, and lawyers centered in an urban Charleston controlled commerce and politics. According to Starr, the explanation for this distinction between the two regions is found in the adroit use of a consensus among the Carolina elite to legitimize their control, while the older, entrenched Virginia aristocracy merely relied on popular deference. The difference is important, because it goes far to explain why Carolinians would be more motivated to enter into a lobbying effort. Unlike the Virginia planter, who "favored" his London or Bristol merchant house with his trade, the Carolina merchant took a more pragmatic approach, one which smacks of realpolitik in modem parlance. The Virginia planter often reacted to adverse political events in England with consternation while questioning the competence or wisdom of the merchant, who was just as often powerless to correct the problem. The Carolinians reacted to such events by enlisting the support of the merchants in forming a commercial lobby to effect change.

Starr recognizes three phases in the development of the Carolina lobby. Some of the evidence produced to establish the origins of these lobbying efforts is at times thin, or, as the author states it, "impressionistic." Nevertheless, her explanations are highly plausible. …

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