Retrospect and Prospect: Some Thoughts on Writing South Carolina History in the South Carolina Historical Magazine

Article excerpt

WERE IT NOT THAT INNOVATION BEGETS INNOVATION, WE might be justified in calling ours the age of innovation, but tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow will probably have successively greater claims to the title. Still, we clearly-and doubtless correctly-see ourselves rushing into a future where change is the chief constant. Paying enormous prices for stock in high-tech companies that have yet to make a profit may therefore not be entirely irrational, and naming an award offered by the American Historical Association to encourage scholarly publishing on the Internet the Gutenberg-e Prize seems appropriate, for the results of the present revolution in communications may well equal those that followed the introduction of printing.

Does this pell-mell pursuit of the future leave history in the dust? Some individuals might answer yes, but persuasive evidence suggests quite the contrary. Take, for example, the current controversy over the Confederate Battle Flag and whether it should continue to fly atop the South Carolina State House. That whole debate hinges on the relevance of history and its meaning to different groups. History as a discipline is also showing extraordinary vitality, not only in the quantity but also in the scope and quality of much that is being written. That this should be true when technology and change command so much attention strikes one as something of a paradox. But historians are, after all, students of change, and their workshop is, to paraphrase an apt description, "the only laboratory we have in which to test the consequences of thought..."1 Moreover, modern technology itself has given historians new tools with which to do their work. The computer, in particular, allows us to control, manipulate, and analyze mountains of data that would have defied us in the past. Investigating previously inaccessible subjects has therefore become possible, and the field has become notably more inclusive in the last thirty years or so. These developments bode well for the future of history as a discipline and for our society-meaning both the South Carolina Historical Society and the larger community of which it is a part-as it turns to the past for a sense of its own identity.

Considerations such as these suggested that it might be useful to shift the focus of my assignment a bit, while the difficulty of choosing the three most significant articles that have appeared in the Magazine during the first one hundred years of publication produced considerable motivation to reinterpret the task. Enough well researched, gracefully written, and substantial contributions crowd these pages that picking a small handful of the most significant becomes what could be euphemistically called a real challenge. My own favorites include a primary document, "Colonel Robert Gray's Observations on the War in Carolina'" which remains good history by a thoughtful loyalist who participated in the Revolution on the losing side, and C. Robert Haywood, "Mercantilism and South Carolina Agriculture, 1700-1763," which historians have cited frequently enough to make it part of the standard literature about South Carolina?2 And there are many more items deserving of at least honorable mention.

To resolve the resulting dilemma, I narrowed the definition of "significant" and imposed some arbitrary limits on the field under consideration. Colonial and Revolutionary subjects took precedence because much of the writing in the Magazine has dealt with them, and I feel most comfortable in assessing scholarship in the area of my specialization. All else being equal, I also decided to opt for older items as a way of calling attention to work published before 1954 when modern computerized data bases, such as American History and Life, began making literature searches much easier. Finally, I decided to construe "significant" as meaning not only important per se but also in some way innovative.

These criteria yielded four choices. …