Evolution of a Federalist: William Loughton Smith of Charleston (1758-1812)

By George C. Rogers | Go to book overview

IX
THE NEW FEDERAL CONSTITUTION

T HERE WAS AN ECONOMIC CRISIS in South Carolina in 1785. British merchants who had appeared after the evacuation of Charleston in December 1782, remembering the prosperous pre-war years, had given extensive credit on slaves and goods. Farmers and planters contracted large debts which, with the failure of two successive crops in 1784 and 1785, they were unable to honor.1 The backcountry farmer was willing to go to great lengths to avoid being sold out, even to the point of preventing the courts from sitting, but the low- country planter, being a man of property and thereby a respecter of creditors, faced a cruel dilemma. The planter's credit was his honor and the mainspring of the system that supported him. Timothy Ford, a Yankee lawyer just settling in Charleston, wrote:

...this habit of giving & obtaining long & extensive credit implied or begot a great deal of honor & punctuality in dealing -- 'twas the merchants interest to cultivate it because he received a proportional profit on his goods-it was the planters interest to support it because he got goods at his pleasure & paid at his leisure.... His credit of consequence became a very delicate & important part of his interest; & in a degree little inferior to that of the merchant himself. Perhaps the principle of commerce has seldom if ever entered more into the genius of the planting interest.2

Planters, though hard-pressed, could not afford to act like typical debtors.

The South Carolina crisis was set within an international system of arrangements. The merchants had to make remittances to Europe, and the pressure from abroad during 1785 was severe and mounting. An Amsterdam house wrote to its Charleston correspondent "of another victim of American connections"; merchants of real capital in Amsterdam had decided to withhold credits "until they shall be justified in renewing them, by the experience of punctuality and ability in the merchants of your continent to fulfill their engagements."3 An eminent house in London had taken alarm at the talk

____________________
1
Timothy Ford, born 1762 at Morristown, N. J., educated at Princeton, came to South Carolina in 1785 after the marriage of his sister to Henry William DeSaussure, son of Daniel DeSaussure. Ford and young DeSaussure practiced law together. "Diary of Timothy Ford, 1785-1786" SCHGM, XIII ( 1912), 132-133, 193.
2
Ibid., pp. 201-202.
3
South-Carolina Gazette and Public Advertiser, September 29, 1785.

-135-

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