Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

A Rule of Law: Elite Political Authority and the Coming of the Revolution in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1763-1776

Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

A Rule of Law: Elite Political Authority and the Coming of the Revolution in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1763-1776

Article excerpt

A Rule of Law: Elite Political Authority and the Coming of the Revolution in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1763-1776. By Aaron J. Palmer. Early American History Series. (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2014. Pp. ix, 318; $149, hardcover; $149, e-book.)

For the past three decades, a generation of scholars has delved deeply into the history of the Lower South-South Carolina, in particular-in the period leading to the American Revolution. Their scholarship greatly enriches our understanding of how and why this region, which had the closest cultural and economic ties to Great Britain, elected to join their northern neighbors and declare independence. As a result, we now have a much clearer picture of the political strategies of the low-country elite. These men dominated South Carolina, controlling its powerful lower legislative house, articulating grievances against the royal governor and imperial authorities, and claiming an ever-increasing share of political control in the colony.

Building on this foundation, Wisconsin Lutheran Collage associate professor of history Aaron J. Palmer argues that the extent of the low-country elite's political power has been consistently underestimated. While many (including this reviewer) have focused on their control over the Commons House of Assembly, Palmer sees their domination extending all the way down to the local level, going even farther than the formal framework of governance. In particular, he highlights the elite's authority over the courts, church affairs, and slavery as buttressing the "rule of law." Moving beyond those scholars who have covered the lower house and appointed offices in considerable detail, Palmer focuses on local affairs and institutions in order to illustrate this group's considerable reach and unassailable power, which enabled them to maintain their supremacy during and after the struggle for independence, assuring that the Revolution in South Carolina would be a conservative one.

Palmer's monograph is a mixed bag. The chapters on elite authority over the courts and the church (chapters 2 and 4, respectively) are the two strongest. Here, the author demonstrates command over a wide range of primary sources. He uses these materials, particularly legal and criminal court records and vestry minutes and other records from the leading congregations in Charleston, to offer important insights on aspects of South Carolina's political culture as well as its religious affairs. These chapters also provide support for the author's thesis that much of the provincial elite's frustration and defensiveness toward British officials stemmed from their contests with placeholders-that is, appointees without local connections who challenged the authority of the low-country leaders both inside and outside of formal governing institutions. …

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