Skip to main content

The Charleston Tradition

May 2024
16min read

In the Low Country of South Carolina, English and Huguenot planters raised up a prosperous American city-state with a high culture and a lasting charm.

From the beginning, Charleston was different. Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, chief among the Lords Proprietors, planned it that way. For his “darling,” as he called the settlement, he had philosopher John Locke prepare Fundamental Constitutions designed to avoid “a too numerous democracy.” This frontier province, the future Earl of Shaftesbury hoped, would be a bulwark of the aristocratic principle in government, a New World version of the England of gentlemen seated on their estates.

In this image was Charleston created by Lord Ashley, the brilliant, suffering genius whose life depended on a gold tube draining a cyst in his liver. Thus begun as a citadel of faith in the primacy of excellence over numbers—on a continent which was to be dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal—Charleston played a unique role in American life until Sherman’s Army of the West swept across the Carolinas in 1865.

The city ordained by Lord Ashley was unique in another respect. Alone among the old cities on the eastern seaboard, Charleston—or Charles Town as it was originally named—was a city-state, a South Atlantic Venice built on mud, cribs of palmetto logs loaded with cobblestone ballast, sawdust, and the wastes of a frontier community, diked and protected against hurricane tides with sea walls of crushed oyster shell known as tabby.

The first settlers sailed from England in August of 1669 aboard three small vessels, the Carolina, the Port Royal, and the Albemarle. The vessels, ranging from 200 to 300 tons, weighed anchor six years after Charles II had given to eight of his loyal supporters “all that territory … called Carolina scituate, lying, and being within our dominions of America, extending from the north end of the island called Lucke Island, which lieth in the Southern Virginia seas … and to the west as far as the South Seas and so southerly as far as the River Mathias which borderth upon the coast of Florida …”

The settlers—some 150 of them—reached the west bank of what is today the Ashley River, across from present-day Charleston.

At this location, Albemarle Point, the settlers lived and suffered for ten years. They might have been massacred, as other settlers were in those grim days, had it not been for one of their number, a surgeon named Henry Woodward. Five years before he had been a member of an earlier Carolina settlement at Cape Fear, and in the interim he had lived for a time among the coastal Indians to learn their language. As interpreter, go-between, and Indian agent, Woodward was an indispensable aid to the settlers of Albemarle Point and, later, of Charleston itself.

One year after Albemarle Point was settled, it was proposed that a new settlement be established across the river on the peninsula between the Kiawah and Etiwan rivers, which had been renamed Ashley and Cooper. Joseph Dalton, a member of the Grand Council, wrote Lord Ashley concerning the proposed site: “It is as it were a Key to open and shutt this settlement into safety or danger; Charles Towne [Albemarle Point] indeed can very well defend itself and thats all, but that [the proposed site] like an Iron gate shutts up all the towns that are or may be in those Rivers.”

As Dalton went on to say, the city’s approaches from the sea are unique. As one traveler was to observe in the nineteenth century, one yields readily to the illusion that the city springs directly from the bosom of the waves. The location of the city, at the meeting place of two great rivers, gave rise quite naturally to the ancient witticism that “the Ashley and Cooper Rivers come together to form the Atlantic Ocean.”

The physical location of a city has an influence on its character. Charleston’s bold front to the sea, where the worst lashings of tide and storm are felt, may have had some part in the shaping of the city’s outlook on life. As for the “Iron gate” referred to by Councilman Dalton, the fleets of Spain, France, England, and the Union were to try to batter their way through and almost always they would fail.

But a city is more than an image in the mind of its founder and a meaningful location. It is the people who settle it, and these were a hardy lot, men of parts, rugged individualists. Some 500 English Dissenters came to the city soon after it was established on its present site. To groups of bold thinkers the religious toleration granted by the Proprietors was a spur to emigration. There were planters from the Barbados in the final year of the 1670s. (There were also Negro slaves from the West Indies, and thus one basic feature of the settlement was established early.) Charleston was an English community, but English colonial, almost West Indian in many ways. Presently others came—Scotsmen, Congregationalists from Massachusetts, Quakers, Sephardic Jews; but the most notable event was the arrival in 1680 of the ship Richmond with the first contingent of French Huguenots, men and women whose descendants were to play an important role in the city.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Charleston in 1860 was everything that aristocratic Lord Ashley might have desired. There was no other civilization like it in the United States. Five years later, Charleston, where the first shot was fired, arching over the bay toward Fort Sumter, went down under the tides of war. It fell to Federal troops as Sherman’s forces swept along the Ashley River. The city itself was not bombarded; Sherman’s troops simply made it militarily untenable by cutting its lines of communication and supply. In the process they destroyed almost every plantation in the area. Only Drayton Hall is still standing; and it would have been destroyed had not its owner turned it into a hospital.

“In our march through South Carolina,” one of Sherman’s soldiers recorded in his diary, “every man seemed to think that he had a free hand to burn any kind of property he could put the torch to. South Carolina paid the dearest penalty of any state in the Confederacy, considering the short time the Union army was in the state; and it was well that she should, for if South Carolina had not been so persistent in going to war, there would have been no war for years to come.” For Charleston, surrender was the beginning of the end. For in addition to the planters, a special breed of adventurous men, rice culture required a system of disciplined labor. When an alligator made a hole in a dike or a hurricane swept away a section of a bank, there had to be an available force of plantation workers to respond quickly and with skill to the instructions of the planter. With the end of slavery went the disciplined labor force. And the general disintegration of Charleston’s economic life after 1865, combined with the successful introduction of highland rice in the Mississippi Valley and a series of disastrous hurricanes on the “Rice Coast,” resulted in the ruin of Carolina’s rice-planting industry by the end of the nineteenth century.

And so it was that Charleston, which had been third in per capita wealth in 1860, sank to the bottom. The beautiful shell remained and may be vastly enjoyed today, for poverty sealed the city against new building as effectively as the ashes did Pompeii. Northern democracy, industrial civilization, the force of numbers—they triumphed at last over the agrarian civilization of Lord Ashley and Calhoun.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.