Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

Eliza Lucas Pinckney: The Evolution of an Icon

Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

Eliza Lucas Pinckney: The Evolution of an Icon

Article excerpt

ELIZA LUCAS PINCKNEY IS TODAY PERHAPS THE MOST WIDELY known South Carolinian of the eighteenth century. Her letterbook has become regarded as a Rosetta stone through which scholars and popular writers seek to decode her long-ago world. Aside from Pinckney's carefully crafted letters, which are among the most numerous of any woman's of the colonial era, her contemporary reputation rests on two accomplishments that arguably transformed not only the course of South Carolina's history, but that of the nation as well. The first, her contribution to the establishment of indigo as a fabulously profitable export commodity for the Carolina lowcountry during the 1740s while still a teenager, might well have gone unheralded had she not later married Chief Justice Charles Pinckney, one of Charleston's "lordly planters." The second is her position as a matriarch of one of South Carolina's most distinguished families. Her two sons, General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and General Thomas Pinckney, were military heroes during the American Revolution as well as statesmen and diplomats during the critical years of the Early Republic. The influence of her numerous notable descendants has rippled through the history of South Carolina for many generations.1

Ironically, no image survives of this icon of South Carolina's past. Her early letters suggest a young girl of intelligence and maturity; her later writings suggest a woman of piety; her few surviving possessions suggest a lady of elegance. The Charleston Museum owns a pair of her dainty shoes: blue satin with silver braid, the rage of London in 1770. Ever since her first . mention in the public record in the early nineteenth century, historians have been like Prince Charming in the Cinderella story trying to find the woman who fits those shoes. In consequence of having no guide, every generation has felt free to shape her image to reflect itself.2 She has become a symbol for every age. Her life story, deemed laudable in the nineteenth century, evolved into the heroic in the twentieth. In the beginning of the twenty-first century, her name is becoming part of American popular culture.

All scholarship, lore, and fable about Pinckney begins with her surviving letterbooks. She dutifully copied letters sent to her family, friends, and business associates or made notations about this correspondence in leatherbound volumes. The first set runs from 1739 to 1746, the period when, at about age seventeen, she came to South Carolina with her family from Antigua, conducted her experiments with indigo and other crops, and married Charles Pinckney. The second includes correspondence from 1753 to 1757, when she lived in London with her three children while her husband held the position of commissioner of the colony, an intermediary between South Carolina's provincial government and the Board of Lords of Trade and Plantations. The third begins with Charles Pinckney's death in 1758 and ends in 1762. Pinckney was a widow for over thirty years before she died in 1793 while in Philadelphia seeking a cure for breast cancer. Only a small amount of correspondence survives from this last era.

Although much of the emphasis in Eliza Pinckney' s legend has been her role as mother of two famous sons, the preservation of the letterbook was largely due to the efforts of her daughter Harriott Pinckney Horry. When Horry died in 1830, she presumably passed the letterbook down to her own daughter, also named Harriott Pinckney Horry, who had married Frederick Rutledge, son of John Rutledge, in 1797.3 Passing through the daughters of the family, subsequent generations protected the letterbooks through wars, evacuations, hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods. To trace the chain of custody of Pinckney's papers is to also trace the intergenerational transfer of values, with special emphasis on the importance of the family and of the land, themes central to South Carolina history, that have been passed down like fine coin silver. …

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