The Charleston Tradition


The Huguenots had fled their homeland after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes deprived them of their right to be Protestants at home. They were admitted because the Proprietors wanted people “skilled in ye manufacture of silkes, oyles, wines, &c.” Soon they outgrew the role assigned them, and their names—Laurens, Poinsett, Legaré—are on every page of Charleston’s history from 1680 to the present day.

Charleston’s aristocracy got its start, however, at the mudsill level. The story of Judith Manigault is essentially that of all the Huguenot families who came to espouse the idea of excellence. Born in Languedoc, France, she had made a daring escape to England via Holland. She married Noé Royer, a weaver, who like Judith had escaped from France in order to gain religious freedom. She and Royer worked the land and cut timber in the swamps and forests; together they operated a whipsaw. For periods of more than half a year at a time, this pioneer couple never saw bread. After the death of Royer, Judith married Pierre Manigault, who also had fled France not many years before. Pierre purchased a small building and took in lodgers. Then, while his new wife managed this humble enterprise, he built a distillery and a cooperage. After a time, he owned warehouses and retail stores in Charleston, and when he died in 1729 his son Gabriel inherited substantial property. Gabriel Manigault developed trade with the West Indies, England, and France. He invested large sums in plantations. When he too was gathered to his fathers, this second-generation Huguenot was one of the three wealthiest men in America. He owned 47,532 acres and 490 slaves. At the age of 75 he enlisted in the Revolutionary forces. Perhaps more important for the cause was his loan to the South Carolina Revolutionary government of $220,000, of which he recovered only about $40,000.

Such was the enterprising breed from which was created the “aristocracy” that Lord Ashley had sought for the province.

In the meanwhile, one casual act by one man, Dr. Woodward, the early arrival who had befriended the Indians, shaped the life of Charleston. In the late 1680s, a Captain John Thurber, master of a New England brigantine, put into Charleston harbor. He became friendly with Woodward and presented him with a packet of Madagascar rice. Fortunately for the city and the generations to come, Woodward planted the rice instead of eating it. In the proper season, the rice sprouted; Woodward gave some of his harvest to friends; they, in turn, planted the rice on their lands; and the city-state had been committed to a way of life.

Rice provided what any great society must have, namely, a firm economic base. Indeed the land of the Carolina Low Country was virtually foreordained to rice growing: the ruling-class mentality, the plantation system from the West Indies, the Negroes to cultivate the land—the seed dropped in fertile social soil. By 1696 the rice harvest was so considerable that there was difficulty finding vessels in which to transport it. Rice built most of Charleston and educated generations of its sons. Rice provided the essential link between city and back country.

Charleston became the capital of the plantations. Its families were country families, but country families were also Charleston families. They spent part of each year—the cool, fever-free months—at their plantations and part in the city. The great work of rice planting went on even in the heart of the city. A story about Daniel Ravenel of Wantoot plantation, whose city house still stands on Broad Street and is occupied by another Daniel Ravenel, illustrates this point. Often during the malaria season Mr. Ravenel’s overseer would arrive, seeking the latest planting instructions. The rugs would be rolled back in the drawing room fronting on Broad Street, across from St. Michael’s Church, and Mr. Ravenel, using chalk, would trace the rice squares on the polished wood floor, indicating which were to be drained, which flooded.

In time the Carolina Low Country became the “Rice Coast,” and the planter ideal, embodied in men like Ravenel, became fixed early in the development of Charleston. The word “planter” was more than a descriptive term—it was an honorable term, almost a title. The ideal involved the whole man, almost in the Renaissance sense. The planter of the eighteenth century was expected to have a splendid versatility, which in fact he often possessed. Planters built houses that rank with the most beautiful in America, raised families on remote sea islands in the midst of African slaves, imported flowering shrubs from Europe and the West Indies, laid out splendid formal gardens, bred race horses, sent their sons to England for their educations, imported European artisans to decorate their homes, prided themselves on their ability as hunters, laid in fine private libraries and actually read the books they bought.

While the families of Charleston thus raised themselves by their bootstraps into a New World aristocracy, they had none of the English notion that business was not an aristocrat’s business. Many of the greatest planters were planter-merchants. They carried on an immensely profitable trade with the Indians. They had a healthy respect for money-making skills.