The Charleston Tradition


The successful clearing of the river swamps meant that more time for leisure was available to the leaders of this agrarian society. The new wealth and the new century brought a new zeal for style, elegance, and fine living, and a new spirit of aristocratic republicanism. The little oligarchy of rice and cotton planters who ruled Charleston found their pleasure at the dancing assemblies, the philharmonic concerts, the Jockey Ball, and innumerable dinners. Charlestonians relished nothing so much as an elegant dinner. Mrs. Ravenel described one dish that perhaps justifies that overworked adjective: it was called “a preserve of fowle,” and the recipe began in this fashion: “Take all manner of Fowle and bone them all.” The recipe then required that a small dove be put into a partridge; the partridge into a guinea hen; the guinea hen into a wild duck; the wild duck into a capon; the capon into a goose; the goose into a turkey or peacock.

Charleston’s ruling oligarchy worshiped or did business in buildings designed by Robert Mills, one of the ablest architects in America; its members could discuss novels with William Gilmore Simms or poetry with Henry Timrod; they could have their portraits painted by Sully, Morse, or Jarvis—all of whom worked in Charleston—or miniatures painted by Charleston’s own Charles Fraser; they could talk finances with Langdon Cheves, president of the Bank of the United States, or regional politics with Robert Barnwell Rhett, editor of the fire-eating Charleston Mercury.

The nineteenth-century planters, noted a French visitor, the Due de Liancourt, were more European in outlook than the northern gentry. But there was more to it than a European outlook. Command over hundreds of slaves on isolated plantations, complete authority and responsibility, gave the planter class in the Low Country a supreme confidence in the rightness of their decisions, a boldness and independence that set them apart. There were many serious men among them, and the city was not always frivolous.

Politics, not business, was the chief interest of the men of Charleston in every period of its history. And there were versatile men, for example, Stephen Elliott, who in one lifetime managed to combine the careers of banker, botanist, planter, legislator, professor, and editor. Elliott was author of the first free-school bill in the South Carolina legislature, served for many years as president of the Bank of the State of South Carolina, shared in the establishment of what is today the Medical College of South Carolina and was its first professor of natural history, published a two-volume study on the botany of South Carolina and Georgia, managed his extensive plantation properties, and, in collaboration with Hugh Legaré, published the Southern Review, a quarterly of distinction.

Legaré served as a diplomat and was elected to Congress. He was attorney general of the United States in President Tyler’s Cabinet and acting secretary of state at the time of his death in 1843. Legaré was a complete classical scholar; Parrington said of him that he had “the most cultivated mind in the South before the Civil War, and one of the most cultivated in America.”

A somewhat similar figure was Joel R. Poinsett, a Charlestonian who was educated in New England and at Edinburgh, a linguist, a student of military science, and a world traveler who went into the remote regions of Russia and western Asia. In his long career Poinsett found time to act as a diplomatic observer for President Monroe; to be chief military advisor for a Chilean revolutionary army in a campaign against the Spanish; to be the first United States minister to Mexico; to serve in Congress and as secretary of war in President Van Buren’s Administration; to serve his state as a legislator and director of a road-building project through the South Carolina mountains; and incidentally to collect the brilliant red blooms, the poinsettia, which have been named after him.

But the hero of Charleston was a man who was not even born there: John Caldwell Calhoun. Son of an upcountry pioneer, Calhoun was an aristocrat only in that he was an intellectual. It was Charleston, the city into which he had married, “whose rapt gaze was most fixed upon him as a demigod.”

For the old city, he was the fulfillment of Lord Ashley’s dream—the supremacy of natural excellence. Calhoun, the tall, gaunt-faced “cast-iron man,” led Charleston when, as one scholar has said, “Charleston ruled South Carolina, and South Carolina shaped Southern policy.” He formulated the city’s political and social philosophy. And it was the supreme achievement of Charleston to impart this philosophy to the Cotton South. While the North moved toward a broader democracy, Charleston, the spiritual center of an agrarian society, stressed the supremacy of excellence and rejected King Numbers.

Such was the strength of the ideal that Lord Ashley conceived and Calhoun developed that all the South, from Virginia to the Rio Grande, was ready to fight a war for it. Charleston was the force that could split the Union. Jeremiah Black, secretary of state in President Buchanan’s Cabinet, acknowledged this power when he said to his assistant secretary, William Henry Trescott of South Carolina: “There, your little state, no bigger than the palm of my hand, has broken up this mighty empire.”