A Short History of Charleston (before 1860)

A Short History of Charleston Before 1860

Note: The city was originally called Charles Town. In 1720, after the Bloodless Revolution, the spelling was changed to one word, “Charlestown.” In 1783, as a new American city, the name changed to Charleston.

The Colony of a Colony. Unlike most earlier settlers to Virginia and Chesapeake, many Carolina settlers came not from England, but from Barbados, an important distinction. During the English Civil War (1642-51) Barbados became an asylum for Royalists seeking to avoid the conflict, and the violent Puritanism of Oliver Cromwell. After the 1649 execution of Charles I, Parliament sought to punish Barbados for their loyalty to the monarchy by restricting their trade, creating an economic crisis for the small island. To sustain their economy, Barbadians began to rely on trade with the Dutch Republic, until Cromwell and Parliament passed the Navigation Act of 1651, which banned the use of non-English ships to carry English goods. This essentially prohibited all trade with the Dutch, but Barbadian merchants carried on illicit privateering until England invaded the island and the Royalist Barbadian House of Assembly surrendered. The Carolina colony would soon become the “promised land” for many Barbadian merchants and planters.

Charles II

In March 1663, Charles II granted the territory called Carolana to the “true and absolute Lords and Proprietors,” eight men who had been instrumental in restoring him to the throne after Cromwell’s death. There was a strong consensus among the Proprietors that the colony could be more easily, and inexpensively, developed by luring experienced settlers from established Caribbean colonies. To accomplish that goal, they offered large land grants in lieu of providing financing. Three months later, John Colleton of Barbados informed the Lord Proprietors that “many citizens were interested in moving to Carolina.”

The Proprietors also adopted the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, that, they hoped, would establish a “perfect government.” The Constitutions were “a grand and impractical political framework … that envisioned an orderly, quasi-feudal system under their immediate control.” Although never formally adopted, the Constitutions did become the working blueprint for settling and governing the new colony. It offered “religious freedom for anyone who believed in God,” established the Church of England as the tax-supported religion, forbade Catholicism, and permitted freedom of worship to “every church or profession as long as its followers believed in God.” It specifically mentioned “Jews, heathens, and dissenters,” and that attitude of tolerance would have a profound influence on Charles Town. Unlike Boston and Philadelphia, founded by Puritans and Quakers, Charles Town was a private business venture colony, and the promise of religious freedom brought many persecuted worshippers from Europe.

 It also created a system of government by the landed gentry. To vote a man must own fifty acres and to hold a seat in the Assembly, he must own five hundred. All “free settlers over the age of sixteen” were promised 150 acres, and an additional 100 “for every able-bodied servant.” Servants could include family members and “indentured servants.” Every individual who acquired 3,000 acres “would have all the rights of a lord of the manor established by English law.” The Proprietors forbid the enslavement of the local Natives in Carolina but set out specific and strict laws to accommodate African slavery, based on the Barbadian system which declared “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves.”

In April 1670, the first English settlement south of Virginia was established in Carolina, called Charles Town. The Barbadians cast a long shadow and influenced much of the Carolina lifestyle, establishing the model for what became romanticized as “the Old South.” They lived with “a combination of old-world elegance and frontier boisterousness. Ostentatious in their dress, dwellings, and furnishings, they liked hunting, guns, dogs, military titles like ‘Captain” and ‘Colonel’ … They enjoyed long hours at their favorite taverns over bowls of rum punch or brandy.”

Charles Town, 1671

They also had little interest in the Proprietors’ lofty notions of a perfect government, and quickly controlled the colony by dominating the Council and the governorship. John Coming, from England, wrote that “the Barbadians endeavor to rule all.” The Council claimed that since the Carolina charter was issued after the Navigation Act, it superseded that Act and that they “totally disclaimed the authority of the British Parliament in which they were not represented.” So, from the beginning, the landed gentry were already at odds with the British authority to regulate their trade, and their lives. Their argument was that since they were governed without representation in Parliament, the Council felt within their rights to ignore the law and trade as they pleased.

The Bloodless Revolution – Proprietors Overthrown. In 1715, the Carolina Assembly officially asked the London Board of Trade to void the Proprietors’ charter. Forty years into the life of Carolina, the Proprietors had become disenchanted with a colony that “failed to produce the great wealth and prestige they had expected.” That disappointment evolved into apathy and soon, the colonists learned to “survive with minimal assistance … from their increasingly passive proprietors.”

The fate of Proprietary Rule was sealed by two events, the devasting, and almost catastrophic Yemassee Indian War (1715-1718), and the battle against pirates (1718-1719.) Both events “provided the colonists with galling evidence that the men in London had placed personal profit above the public welfare.”

Johnson’s return from Yemassee War

At the end of 1719, the Assembly convened “a convention of the people” and denounced the rule of the Proprietors. They vowed “to get rid of the oppressive and arbitrary dealings of the Lords Proprietors” and declared itself “the government until His Majesty’s pleasure be known.” They officially petitioned King George I to purchase the Carolina colony from the Proprietors.

Governor Robert Johnson, appointed by the Proprietors, refused to acknowledge this new government. In response the Assembly elected General James Moore Jr. as “provisional governor.” During the swearing in ceremony Gov. Johnson arrived and ordered the militia to disperse and the illegal Assembly to desist. The militia “leveled their muskets at Governor Johnson,” which created a standoff. Johnson soon departed for England and for all intents and purposes, the proprietary government of Carolina ended. Even though the first royal governor did not appear for eighteen months, the Provisional Government maintained power and steered the colony into a sound economy. At its heart was the concept that the “Bloodless Revolution,” as locals called it, was to protect the “incontestable right” of Englishmen to be governed “by noe laws made here, but what are consented to by them.”

On August 11, 1720, the Lord Justices of Great Britain declared that the colony “shall be forthwith taken provisionally into the hands of the Crown.” South Carolina’s first rebellion was a polite coup d’état. They did not grab the reins of power by force, nor did they imprison their opponents. Rather, it was a “polite and passive-aggressive course of action that reflected a very British sense of honor and decorum.”

Slave Trade. Carolina lowcountry is often called the “Ellis Island for Africans” due to the number of slaves imported into the state. The main economic reason for the trade was rice, the most profitable crop Carolina produced. The first slave arrived on August 23, 1670, and very quickly, more enslaved Africans flooded the port. Eventually half the population of Charleston was black. With their knowledge of rice cultivation, slaves were needed on the plantations and their labor became essential to the Carolina economy. Between 1670 and 1808, 1,000 cargos of enslaved Africans, about 200,000, entered the port of Charleston, about 40% of the slaves brought into North America. According to According to the International African American Museum, “Nearly 80 percent of African Americans can potentially trace an ancestor who arrived in Charleston.”

In 1690, the first slave code was enacted, based on the Barbadian code which included a provision of punishment for anyone killed a slave. Eight years later, they passed an act that encouraged the “Importation of White Servants.” The fear was that “the great number of Negroes which of late have been imported … may endanger the safety thereof.”

Most slaves who arrived in Charleston were sent to the plantations, to toil in the fields, day after day, year after year, a monotonous, often brutal life. Many Charleston slaves worked as domestics in the homes, with better food, clothing and living conditions, yet had to be on-call twenty-four hours a day, subject to the whims and moods of their owners, some benevolent, some not. Others were hired-out laborers involved in at least various occupations:  bricklayers, blacksmiths, carpenters, tailors, coopers, and manufacturing.

Charleston slave sale

Amid this shared experience in bondage, a new culture was born. In the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia, the Gullah became known as people who clung to aspects of their African heritage, including their crafts and folktales. Their language was English infused with words from their former homes, which some people describe as creole. It survives to this day.

     From 1803 – 1807, South Carolina, alone among the southern states, legalized the reopening of the African slave trade. Almost 40,000 Africans were imported into Charleston during those four years. The United States ended the international slave trade in 1808, but a thriving domestic slave trade grew to meet the demand for labor. Before the Civil War Charleston was the center of urban slave trading with more than two million slaves were sold.

Stamp Act – Townsend Acts. To pay the debt incurred in the colonies during the French and Indian War, in 1765 Parliament passed the Stamp Act and the Sugar Act. The Stamp Act required that most printed materials in the colonies be printed on “stamped paper [an embossed revenue mark] from London.” That included newspapers, legal documents, playing cards and magazines.

Carolina’s response was quick and passionate. John Rutledge, representing the Assembly, wrote to Charles Garth, the South Carolina agent in London (a lobbyist), to oppose the “stamp tax and any other tax by Parliament.” Rutledge claimed the taxes were “inconsistent with that inherent right of every British subject, not to be taxed but by his own consent, or that of his representatives.”

In Charlestown, forty-foot-high gallows were constructed at Broad and Church Streets in front of Dillon’s Tavern and an effigy of Caleb Lloyd, British stamp officer, was hanged. Two thousand people paraded the streets at night and ransacked the house of the British stamp officer, George Saxby, looking for the stamps. Lloyd and Saxby both were forced to resign in fear of their lives. They promised not to perform their duties “until Parliament had addressed colonial grievances.”

Most citizens vowed to not use stamped paper, and for the next few months business in Charlestown ground to a halt. The harbor became clogged with ships which could not get official clearance to leave the harbor. Courts shut down, due to lack of stamped paper, and publisher Peter Timothy announced, “the publication of the South Carolina Gazette … will be suspended.” The Assembly stated: “Sincerely as we are attached to his Majesty, we insist that we are entitled to all inherent rights and liberties of his natural born subjects within the Kingdom of Great Britain.”

Fourteen months after it was passed, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, and Peter Manigault wrote that the news was received with “joy, jollity and mirth.” Charlestown celebrated with ringing church bells, street bonfires, parties, and public celebrations. Despite the colonists’ victory over Parliament, Christopher Gadsden gave a speech under the great oak tree in Mr. Mazyck’s cow pasture north of the city where he warned of “the folly of relaxing their opposition and vigilance, or of indulging in the fallacious hope that Great Britain would relinquish their designs and pretensions.” Hundreds of men gathered hands around the tree and swore resistance to future tyranny. From that moment forward, the oak was called the Liberty Tree.

The next year Parliament passed the Townsend Acts, which placed new taxes on paper, paint, lead, glass, and tea, and any other items that were not produced in North America. It also stipulated colonists were only allowed to purchase goods from Great Britain. Peter Manigault, speaker of Carolina Assembly, wrote to his Massachusetts counterpart, Thomas Cushing, that South Carolina would “join with the agents of the other provinces in obtaining a repeal of the acts of Parliament.”

In the spring of 1769, a group of Carolina men formed an “Association” and pledged to stand against the importation of any product from Great Britain. They threatened to denounce anyone who did not “sign with us.” Their rally cry became “Sign or die!” Many of the gentry leaders were upset by this move, since the leaders of the Association tended to be mechanics, lower born laborers, not gentlemen, who tended to be lawyers and planters.

On July 29, 1769, thirteen merchants, thirteen planters and thirteen mechanics met at the Liberty Tree and created a unified Association, encouraging American manufacturing and prohibited the importation of any European or East Indian goods. They also banned slave importation starting in 1770 and pledged to boycott anyone who did not sign within a month. The Association was to remain active until the Townsend Acts were repealed. Anyone who broke the agreement was to “treated with the upmost contempt.” Anyone who did not join would have their names published in the Gazette. By the end of the year, Peter Manigault reported that only thirty-one merchants had refused to sign with the Association, and many who signed only did so “from fear of communal retaliation rather than conviction.”

The Next Rebellion – Tea Act – American Revolution. In April 1770, Parliament repealed the Townsend Acts. But, to avoid the appearance of weakness, the tea tax was left in place. Merchants in New York, Georgia, Boston, Philadelphia, and Rhode Island abandoned their commitment to the non-importation Association. In a meeting at the Liberty Tree, South Carolina vowed to remain in support of the Association until the tea tax was repealed.

In late 1773 Parliament passed the Tea Act which repealed all duties on tea that was handled by the East India Trading Company but kept the tax on those who purchased the tea. News arrived that “300 chests of tea were on their way to Charlestown” and Peter Timothy in the Gazette urged citizens to “band together to take the necessary steps to prevent the landing.” A group called “Club Forty-Five” met at the Liberty Tree and swore to “defend against the tyranny of Great Britain.” Forty-five skyrockets were fired; forty-five men marched to Dillon’s Tavern where forty-five rum punch bowls and forty-five bottles of wine were consumed.

Exchange Building

On December 1 the tea arrived on the ship called London, and a “mass meeting of all South Carolinians, without exception” was held at the Exchange Building. This marked the beginning of the first of the extra-legal Assemblies that would govern South Carolina until the end of the Revolutionary War. They demanded that merchants stop importing tea, which was then secretly offloaded the tea in the middle of the night and stored in the basement of the Exchange under British guard. A few days later, Charlestown received word that Boston had tossed 342 chests of tea into the harbor, leaving Club Forty-five embarrassed that the local tea had been safely stored away, while Boston had taken decisive action.

Over the next two years, the Association did manage to toss the cargo of several British ships into the harbor, including tea. South Carolina’s extra-legal Provincial Congress recommended that all citizens “diligently train themselves in the use of arms,” and by April 1775, they had seized “800 guns, 200 cutlasses and 1,600 pounds of gunpowder” from British armories in the region.

On March 26, 1776, four months before the Declaration of Independence was signed, South Carolina adopted a new state constitution creating the Republic of South Carolina, which kept the power firmly in the hands of the land-owning gentry class. For the second time in its one-hundred-year-old history, South Carolina had forced a change in their government. By the end of the Revolutionary War, there would be more than 200 battles and skirmishes in South Carolina alone.

Idle and Easily Agitated. In 1800, Charleston was the fifth largest city in America behind New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston, with population of 18,924, which included 10,104 blacks and 8,820 whites. Henry Adams described Charleston that year:

Nowhere in the Union was intelligence, wealth, and education greater in proportion to numbers that in the little society of cotton and rice planters who ruled South Carolina … the society of Charleston compared well in refinement with that of any city of its size in the world, and travelers long thought it the most agreeable in America … Before the Revolution large numbers of young men had been educated in England, and their influence was still strong in the society of Charleston. The younger generation inherited similar tastes.

As the infant United States entered the 19th century, South Carolina was an odd balance of despotism, in their passionate defense of slavery, and staunch proponents of democracy. William W. Freehling described the elites as a” snob not quite at ease with his own snobbishness.” The city physically grew as marshes and creeks on the peninsula were filled and turned into fashionable boroughs. The city began to take on the Federal architectural influence that it still retains in the 21st century. A major construction project filled in the southeastern part of the city, and the subsequent construction of the seawall led to the construction of dozens of fashionable mansions on the Battery overlooking the harbor. Although magnificent structures were being built, a pervasive stench hovered over the city. Most streets were unpaved and unlit, and were fouled with stray animals, dead carcasses, and clogged drains. Garbage piled on the city’s wharves. Hastily buried bodies in the overcrowded graveyards and cemeteries often refused to stay underground.

Eli Whitney’s cotton gin drastically improved the efficiency and profitability, and cotton began to challenge rice as the major crop. Although slave labor had cleaned up the lowcountry marshes, and turned them into arable land, “but the swamp diseases remained.” With malaria so prevalent, most white families fled the area during the warmer months. John C. Calhoun, South Carolina’s leading politician of the antebellum period, held no love of Charleston. He commented that the prevalence of the fever was “a curse for their intemperance and debaucheries.” Thus, large numbers of lowcountry plantations were owned by “absentee planters, managed by white overseers, and worked by many Negroes.” Meanwhile, the ratio of Negroes to whites reached “unsettling proportions.” Eighty-seven per cent of the white households in Charleston owned slaves, while across the rest of South Carolina, that ownership rate was about forty-five percent.

During the antebellum era most slaves lived on plantations and were largely concentrated in places such as the rice regions of the lowcountry and fertile cotton regions of the midlands.

Charleston was considered the “most European of American cities.” It was filled with narrow cobblestone and bricked streets, elegant courtyards, formal gardens, Spanish and French balconies, bookstores, European-style coffeehouses, and planters’ townhouse mansions. It was an enchanting place in which the idle gentry could while away their days, and evenings. Unfortunately, ten blocks away, there was another Charleston of “sordid poverty and unpaved streets, of filthy hovel and crumbing walls.” This was the slums packed with slaves, free Negroes, white mechanics, and rough transient sailors. 

Furthermore, the gentry also knew firsthand the anxiety of slave conspiracy and incessantly guarded against it. Every night curfew bells in St. Michael’s Church warned Negroes without passes to get off the streets. Every night the town guard marched “while planters who left their plantations to escape the dangers of malaria, sat politely in their elegant drawing rooms, listening to the bells that reminded them of other dangers.”

Lowcountry gentry lived by a rigid social code of cultivated gentility. They “despised manual labor, detested moneygrubbers, and hated penny-pinching.” Before the Revolution, many planters had also been merchants, but more foreigners moved to South Carolina from Europe and the North, and they quickly took over the counting houses and mercantile firms. They may have become wealthy, but they were rarely able to break into the Carolina social hierarchy. Established planters looked down their noses at the “new money.”

In an 1808 letter M.I. Manigault wrote, “Idleness is the order of the day here … There is William Heyward, with a fine disposition and an excellent capacity – lounging away his morning … drinking away his afternoons.” This was typical of the lowcountry leisure class which was “dedicated to achieving the exclusiveness and refinement displayed by English country gentlemen.” Expensive Madeira wine and Spanish cigars were the usual accompaniments to horse races, hunting with hounds, and grand dancing balls. It was a life “of taste, of polish, of elegance,” where ladies of dignity and refinement played chess, held elegant tea parties, performed on the piano, and lounged in the “richly furnished library.” The city had an overwhelming number of dram shops, taverns, and tippling houses, used by sailors, workers, and slaves. Many elite citizens complained about these activities as “destructive to the morals of youth.” However, intemperance was not only widely ignored, but often embraced. During the 19th century it was customary for the host to lock the doors of his home and refuse to permit any guest to leave the table until he was drunk. 

William Freehling, in Prelude to Civil War, wrote: “For some gentlemen planters, contempt for work extended to agricultural endeavor … [and] had time to engage in politics, to study, to write.”  Unfortunately, the books in a planter’s library were “more often displayed than read,” except for one notable exception: the medieval tales of Sir Walter Scott, the most famous being Rob Roy and Ivanhoe. The planters delighted in Scott’s tales of “chivalric knights, with their exalted principals, their princely deportment, and their unswerving courage,” and sought to live up those ideals. They also embraced the hero’s passion to defend his honor against any “imagined insult,” no matter how slight.

Denmark Vesey. In 1822, a free black man, Denmark Vesey, was arrested as the ringleader of organized slave rebellion. In trial transcripts he was quoted as saying “we were going to have a war and fight the white people … those that did not join must be regarded as an enemy and put to death.” The blacks recruited for the revolution were instructed to bring “their hoes, hatchets, axes and spades, which might be used as offensive weapons, or as instruments to break open doors.”

His plan was to attack the Meeting Street Arsenal and once these weapons were secured, they planned to kill white slave owners and liberate as many slaves as possible. The last step was to commandeer ships from the harbor and sail to Haiti.

However, the rebellion was discovered by white leaders and over the next seven days, 131 blacks were arrested. Thirty-eight others were sentenced to a prison and whippings. Forty-three were “transported” to another state, and thirty-four were hanged.

The rebellion roiled Charleston society. The discovery that their slaves were willing to murder them while they were asleep in their beds was at first unfathomable, and then horrific. In response to the mounting fears a permanent municipal guard of 150 men was formed and at night, Charleston became virtual armed camp.

Vesey Rebellion

The bells of St. Michael tolled at 9:00 p.m.- a signal for all slaves to return to their master’s homes. Any slave found on the street after that hour without a pass was taken to the guard house “with strong probability of a whipping in the following morning.” South Carolina legislature passed the Negro Seamen Acts. Any free Negro that came into the state on a vessel would be lodged in the jail during the stay of the vessel in port. If the captain would not pay for the cost of board and lodging, the Negro would be sold into slavery.

Calhoun and Nullification.  Nationally, South Carolina’s political power was deeply invested in one man, John C. Calhoun. As one of the Congressional “War Hawks,” he advocated for the War of 1812 and became Secretary of War afterward. He was then elected vice president in 1824 (John Quincy Adams, president), and 1828 (Andrew Jackson).

Calhoun as an elder statesman

Calhoun assumed the mantle of the “leader of the Southern cause” when the Tariff of 1828 was passed by Congress. It became known as the Tariff of Abominations due to the negative effects it had on the Southern economy. Designed to protect industry in the north, the tariff so enraged the South Carolina legislature they denounced it by formal resolution. They also published the “Exposition and Protest,” secretly written by Vice-President John C. Calhoun, which espoused that the States were sovereign before they entered the Union, so therefore retained the power to veto, or nullify, any act of the federal government which violated the Constitution. The States’ Right argument was born and continues to this day.

In October 1832 the Nullifiers won a majority in the state legislature and called a Nullification Convention to resist the Federal tariff. Robert Hayne resigned his seat in the U.S. Senate and was elected governor of South Carolina. Three weeks later Calhoun resigned as Vice-President, and Hayne promptly nominated Calhoun to take over his just-vacated Senate seat. 

Congress passed the Force Act, which authorized the use of military force against any state that resisted the tariff acts. U.S. Navy ships began to intercept Charleston inbound ships to collect customs duties. South Carolina and the United States were on the brink of military engagement when Sen. Henry Clay brokered a compromise bill with Calhoun that slowly lowered tariffs over the next decade. The compromise was accepted by South Carolina legislature and ended the nullification crisis, but not the resentment. The next generation of South Carolina men were baptized with the bitter waters of the Nullification Crisis. Their distrust of the Federal government grew as they realized their interpretation of the Union did not match their Northern counterparts. 

Pushed To Civil War. In May 1856, Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass), called for the immediate admission of Kansas as a free state and denounced “Slave Power” as the political arm of the slave owners. He specifically called out South Carolina senator Andrew Butler (D-SC), who was not attendance, recovering from a stroke.

The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course, he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows … I mean the harlot, slavery.

Mr. Butler’s cousin, Congressman Preston Brooks (D-SC) was enraged, and claimed that he intended to challenge Sumner to a duel. His fellow representative, Lawrence Keitt, advised Brooks that “dueling was for gentlemen of equal statue. Sumner is lower than a drunkard. Dueling with him would only be an insult to yourself.” They decided the most appropriate punishment was to humiliate Sumner with a public caning.

Two days later Brooks strode into the Senate chamber and approached Sumner at his desk while Keitt held the other senators at bay with a pistol. Brooks said, “Mr. Sumner I have read your speech … it is a libel on South Carolina and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.” He then struck Sumner repeatedly with a cane until it broke into five pieces. Several men in the Senate finally overpowered Brooks and disarmed Keitt. Sumner’s injuries were so severe he was out of the Senate for three years recuperating.

Various editorial illustrations of the Preston Brooks’ attack on Sen. Charles Sumner

Keitt was censured and a motion to expel Brooks from the House failed, but he resigned to give his constituents the opportunity to ratify or condemn his conduct. They demonstrated their approval by returning him to office in the special election held on August 1.

South Carolina held Brooks and Keitt up as heroes while Sumner was portrayed as a martyr for the cause of abolition. The event inflamed sectional tensions between northern and southern members of Congress to the point they began to arm themselves while session. The pieces of Brooks’ cane were “begged as sacred relics.” The city of Charleston presented him with a new cane which bore the inscription, “Hit him again!”

Historian Stephen Puleo wrote that, “The caning had an enormous impact on the events that followed over the next four years. … As a result of the caning, the country was pushed, inexorably and unstoppably, to civil war.”