The Charleston Tradition


Thus the young men of Charleston who were to direct a revolution and govern a new commonwealth were educated as English gentlemen. For a long time, in fact, English rule was sweet, and South Carolina enjoyed a golden age. But the young Charleston men who were received at the great houses of England’s Whig families, who crowded the House of Commons gallery to hear Charles James Fox, Pitt, and Burke, were to learn that important posts in their home province were not for Carolinians but for English placemen. The injustice was keenly resented. One of the few colonials to attain a great place, Charles Pinckney, chief justice of the Province of South Carolina and father of the great Revolutionary leader, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, had his job taken from him by an English political appointee. In this the rulers across the sea made a fatal error; the colonial ruling class developed a profound sense of grievance.

The Stamp Act agitation produced a change in the thinking of the Charleston men. It was a little thing, a stamp embossed on coarse, bluish paper, bearing the device of the English rose, crowned, and surmounted by the motto of the Garter, but it seemed to be a usurpation of colonial authority. There was great debate among the lawyers in the city, and in 1765 the Assembly appointed Thomas Lynch, John Rutledge, and Christopher Gadsden (whose grandson was to negotiate the Gadsden Purchase) to attend the Stamp Act Congress in the North.

The same three men, with Henry Middleton and Edward Rutledge, were delegates to the First Continental Congress in 1774. The selection of an extremist like Gadsden to represent the Assembly was significant. This fiery Charlestonian had been educated in England, had served two years at sea aboard a British war vessel, and had returned to become a wealthy merchant and to become embroiled in a political controversy with the royal governor. Gadsden addressed mass meetings, wrote articles for the Charleston Gazette, and agitated unceasingly. At the First Continental Congress he expounded the view that separation from England was the only course to follow. Rutledge too was educated in England. He was a leader of the moderate faction in Charleston, opposing Gadsden’s Separatist activities. When independence was proclaimed, however, Rutledge was given supreme power in South Carolina as president or “dictator” of the state. He was 37 years old.

War struck Charleston in full fury on June 28, 1776, when a British fleet attacked the hastily constructed palmetto-log fort on Sullivan’s Island, commanding the mouth of the harbor. Local forces collected by Colonel William Moultrie repulsed the British, but the Carolinians suffered, nonetheless. British raiding parties, operating in the Charleston area during the years of the war, burned plantation houses, killed livestock, destroyed churches, carried off furniture and silver plate, and seized Negro slaves to be sold in the West Indies. Then another British squadron, under Lord Cornwallis and Sir Henry Clinton, descended upon Charleston in 1780. Against the advice of General Washington, the city resisted, but in vain, and on May 12 it was forced to surrender. The British took more than 5,400 Continental prisoners, together with all their ammunition and supplies. “The surrender was,” a modern historian writes, “one of the greatest disasters suffered by the Americans during the whole war.” Charleston remained under British rule for two and a half years.

In the postwar era the same families who had led the city in the Revolution still played a large role. Off to the North as representatives to the Constitutional Convention went John Rutledge, Charles Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Pierce Butler. Their work had large influence in giving a conservative hue to the document that emerged. Charles Pinckney, especially, had a profound understanding of statecraft; of the 84 provisions of the Constitution, at least 32 were taken from a draft he had made.

In appearance, at the end of the Revolution, Charleston began to assert its independence of colonial styles. The heavy, squarish English house went out of fashion. In its place came the distinctive tall Charleston mansion of brick or cypress, with piazzas running the length of the building.

Captain Basil Hall, a visitor to Charleston after the war, wrote of “the villas of the wealthy planters, almost hid in the rich foliage,” and of the “light oriental style of building, the gorgeous shrubs and flowers, and the tropical aspect of the city.” It was in these years that Charlestonians turned to planting camellias, oleanders, jasmine, pomegranates, gardenias, fig trees—the floral elements associated with the city in after years.

Another postwar change was the development of the river rice plantation. By 1800 Low Country planters had learned how to harness the tides to do work for them, and rice culture moved from the inland swamps to the swamplands bordering the rivers along the coast. Enormous forests of cypress were felled, miles of dikes erected, and a complicated system of tidal gates constructed.