The Charleston Tradition


All the physical evidence of Charleston indicates a vastly pleasant life among the planters. They built well; they spoke well. Their letters, portraits, houses, churches, silver plate, and furniture all testify to their vigor and sense of style. They were pleased with their progress, and proud. In fact, by 1719, Charleston could rebel against the Lords Proprietors. Her people demanded an end to interference with their political liberties. The city declared itself part of a royal province, and ten years later the declaration became an accomplished fact.

The years after the breakaway from the Proprietary government saw an astonishing prosperity in Charleston, based not only on rice but also on a new plant, indigo. War between England and France brought a boon to the planters, for it meant that English weavers were deprived of their customary supplies of the blue dyestuff from French possessions in the West Indies. In 1749 Parliament granted a bounty of sixpence a pound and very successfully stimulated the production of indigo. One South Carolina historian has estimated that indigo did more to enrich the people of the province than the mines of South America for the king of Spain.

Wealth also came from the forests to the west. Beginning with Henry Woodward, Charleston’s pathfinders had penetrated far into the American wilderness, opening vast areas of the South to commerce. From trading houses on East Bay Street pack trains set out each year, laden with goods for the Indian trade. In the mid-years of the eighteenth century, Charleston exported annually more than 100,000 deerskins from the back country. Such was the prosperity that a new royal governor, arriving in Charleston in 1743 in the midst of a boom, thought the city much too fond of luxury. He expressed concern because “there are annually imported into this Province considerable Quantities of fine Flanders Laces, the finest Dutch Linens, and French Cambricks, Chintz, Hyson Tea, and other East India Goods, Silks, Gold and Silver Lace, &c.”

An English surgeon visiting Charleston twenty years later was impressed to find “about eleven Hundred Dwelling Houses in the Town, built with Wood or Brick; many of them have a genteel Appearance, though generally incumbered with Balconies or Piazzas; and are always decently, and often elegantly, furnished …”

Of the inhabitants he wrote, “Their Complexion is little different from the Inhabitants of Britain, and they are generally of a good stature and well made, with lively and agreeable Countenances; sensible, spirited, and open-hearted, and exceed most People in Acts of Benevolence, Hospitality and Charity. The Men and Women who have a Right to the Class of Gentry (who are more numerous here than in any other colony in North America ) dress with Elegance and Neatness.” The ladies he found to be “fond of Dancing … and many sing well, and play upon the Harpsichord and Guitar with great Skill.” Yet at this time it was only a few miles to the Low Country and a wilderness infested with Indians and alligators.

Charleston was wealthy, with a kind of life no other city in the South save New Orleans was ever to attain. Virginia, for all its glittering plantation society on the James River, was never to know the rich, cultivated city life. Williamsburg was an elegant village but always a village. Richmond’s brief flowering as a city came in the days of the Confederacy. Charleston, however, offered city life from the early days of the eighteenth century. In 1736 this pleasure-loving capital saw its first theater built on Dock Street. And London players crossed the ocean to give the planters and their wives a taste of London drama.

Charleston families sent their sons to England and the Continent to be educated and to “mix with their equals.” General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, writing in 1819, gave this account of Carolinians trained in England: “My father carried his family to England for their education in the year 1753. At that time I remember that … John Rutledge and Arthur Middleton were already there. With me went my brother … Wm. Henry Drayton, his brother, Dr. Charles Drayton … and there afterwards came Thomas Lynch, Paul Trapier, Thomas Heyward, Hugh Rutledge, Harris, Moultrie, Hume, Judge Grimke, Ralph Izard, Jr., Walter Izard, the Middletons and Stead.”

It was an extraordinary group of young men who went to Westminster and Oxford. Not all studied at this famous old public school and university, however. William Bull of Ashley Hall plantation went to the University of Leyden in 1734, becoming the first native-born American to receive a medical degree. Gabriel Manigault, the planter-merchant, sent his son, Peter, abroad to study law at the Temple Bar and to travel extensively on the Continent. Henry Laurens, one of the city’s wealthiest merchants, sent his sons to Switzerland and England to complete their studies.