In the Great Maelstrom: Conservatives in Post-Civil War South Carolina/James Louis Petigru: Southern Conservative, Southern Dissenter

By Long, Michael E. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, July 2003 | Go to article overview

In the Great Maelstrom: Conservatives in Post-Civil War South Carolina/James Louis Petigru: Southern Conservative, Southern Dissenter


Long, Michael E., South Carolina Historical Magazine


In The Great Maelstrom: Conservatives in Post-Civil War South Carolina. By Charles J. Holden. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002. Pp. ix, 164; $29.95, cloth.)

James Louis Petigru: Southern Conservative, Southern Dissenter. By William H. Pease and Jane H. Pease. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002. Pp. xv, 237; $19.95, paper.)

Understanding political conservatism in South Carolina is essential to understanding the history of the Palmetto State. Two recent works underscore this point and provide us with a framework for comprehending the evolution of South Carolina's conservative political culture. Charles J. Holden, assistant professor of history at St. Mary's College of Maryland has written an enlightening and informative work that provides, for the very first time, an understanding of conservatism from a southern perspective. Professor Holden attributes this lack of understanding to "the intellectual historians who turned their attention away from southern conservatives after 1860 and paid little attention to it until the Southern Agrarian assault on the New Deal of the 1930's" (Holden, p. 4). A second work by Professors William and Jane Pease of the College of Charleston examines the life and legal career of James Louis Petigru, a staunch Unionist who was often at odds with his fellow South Carolinians during the nullification and secession crises that precipitated the Civil War. Petirgu is characterized as "a man who dared to stand alone against passionately committed fellow citizens, who attributed the war they had begun to madness, and who drew warm praise from the enemy. He embodied an idealism that transcended both sides" (Pease and Pease, p. 1).

In his work that is organized into five major chapters, Professor Holden seeks to answer the question of the state's conservatives following the Civil War-"What can we still believe in?" He finds his answer in examining the writings of Frederick Porcher, Edward McCrady, Jr., Theodore Jervey, Jr., and William Watts Ball, all conservatives from established South Carolina families. Holden's in-depth study reveals "how conservatives wrestled to make sense of their world and how they conveyed that sense to others in different ways: as a college professor, as a politician, as a patrician scholar and fiction writer, and as a newspaperman" (Holden, p. 8).

From Porcher's postwar writings, we learn of "the initial conservative attempts to reshape old values within the dominant, free labor, capitalist society and that natural forces and history are the surest guides to determine who in society possessed those superior qualities" (Holden, p. 9). Arguing for a society based on white supremacy, Porcher supported a limited democracy and local rule by the traditional elite.

Edward McCrady was a student of Frederick Porcher at the College of Charleston during the antebellum era. As a state congressman during the 1880s, McCrady won fame "through his open advocacy of disenfranchisement of illiterate white and black voters. McCrady proposed the concept of an 'Eight Box Law' under which voters would be required to read the names of the candidates and offices in order to place the ballots in corresponding boxes. An illiterate voter placing his vote for lieutenant governor in the box marked 'governor,' for instance, could be automatically disqualified" (Holden, p. 10). McCrady's defense of this proposed law prompted an angry outcry from white voters. Although the law was passed in 1882, it was amended to allow election officials to assist white voters.

The harsh political lessons of Frederick Porcher were not lost on Theodore Jervey, Jr., one of the new breed of conservatives to assume power in the state during the 1880s. The writings of Theodore Jervey, Jr. "adhered to the core conservative values of elite rule, white supremacy, and the power of history but he concluded that different strategies were needed after the turn of the century" (Holden, p.

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