Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

Political Representation in South Carolina, 1669-1794: Evolution of a Lowcountry Tradition

Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

Political Representation in South Carolina, 1669-1794: Evolution of a Lowcountry Tradition

Article excerpt

WITH THE SETTLEMENT OF THE SOUTH CAROLINA backcountry in the eighteenth century came problems of integrating the west into the established world of the Lowcountry. One of the most difficult issues was political representation. The backcountry had perhaps half of the colony's white population by 1760, more than two thirds by 1770, and almost 80 percent in 1790.1 Yet the back settlers were only nominally represented in the colonial government, and were badly underrepresented in proportion to their numbers after independence. Legislative apportionment was a major political issue from the 1780s until 1808 as the growing backcountry agitated for a greater voice in the state's affairs. Resisting that agitation, Lowcountry leaders articulated a theory of representation that justified their continued political dominance.

Historians have recounted the long battle over legislative apportionment in considerable detail.2 They have established that Lowcountry thinking on representation and the Compromise of 1808 contained the seeds of John C. Calhoun's theory of the concurrent majority and of a political culture that diverged strongly from the rest of the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century.3 How and why the lowcountry's view of representative government developed before 1800 has not been fully explained, however, although scholars like Robert M. Weir and Rebecca Starr have made important contributions to an understanding of that issue.4 This article is a synthesis, an overview of the development of South Carolina's thinking on representation from the founding of the colony to 1794. Much of the story must be drawn inferentially from what South Carolinians did. Although eighteenth-century South Carolina gentlemen generally accepted country Whig political thought, they were commercially minded and practical, not often given to writing treatises of abstract political theory.5

Carolina began as a planned society. Anthony Ashley Cooper, Lord Shaftesbury, and the great natural rights philosopher, John Locke, wrote the Fundamental Constitutions of 1669. They sought to establish a balanced government, resting upon a balance of property ownership between proprietors, a colonial nobility and the freemen, to ensure lasting order, liberty, and the rights of all three groups. When fully implemented, the colony's government would consist of a palatine court composed of the proprietors or their deputies; seven other administrative courts, each consisting of one proprietor or his deputy and six noblemen; a Grand Council of all the proprietors or their deputies and all forty-two noblemen; and a parliament elected by the freemen of the colony that would accept or reject legislation proposed by the Grand Council. This complex system was never fully implemented, and colonists resisted proprietary attempts to impose it. Nevertheless, the Fundamental Constitutions contained assumptions that were reflected in the colony's later government: the idea of a balanced constitution, the ideal of gentlemen leading responsibly in the interest of the community at large, and broad political participation by ordinary freemen. These general ideas were the common currency of English Whigs at the time, and would surely have developed in South Carolina in any event.6 Their specific institutional embodiment in the Fundamental Constitutions and partial implementation, however, provided the colony with a concrete model that helped launch it on its particular political path.

The proprietors` hopes for balance and stability were not realized. "Fierce but unstable factionalism" characterized South Carolina politics in the proprietary period. Ambitious Barbadian Anglicans, led by planters from the Goose Creek area of Berkeley County, clashed with equally grasping religious dissenters centered in Colleton County. Huguenots, whose strength lay in Craven County, constituted a third faction. The proprietors and their successive governors allied with different groups at different times. …

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