Guest Essayist: Charles F. Vaughan

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The eighth state to ratify the U.S. Constitution, South Carolina, was admitted to the United States May 23, 1788. It was also the first state to secede from the Union. The current South Carolina State Constitution was adopted in 1896.

Albemarle Point, located on the Ashley River, was established in 1670 as the first permanent English settlement in South Carolina. It was under the supervision of the eight lords proprietors who had been granted “Carolana” by King Charles II. Ten years later, settlers moved across the river to the present site of Charleston.

From its very beginning, South Carolina had a constitution in the form of the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina. Although never fully ratified by the colonists and eventually jettisoned in 1698, it did shape political power and land distribution in the colony. Co-authored by John Locke and Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, it was notable for its religious tolerance, providing right to worship to religious dissenters of Christianity, Jews, and Native Americans. It offered sanctuary for groups seeking refuge from religious persecution in Europe. The constitution promoted slavery and an aristocracy which could wield absolute power over their enslaved Africans. This set the stage for the next 200 years.

South Carolina became a Royal Colony in 1729. The colony experienced very minimal royal control, apart from the appointments of Royal Governors. A period of salutary neglect on the part of the British Crown enabled government to evolve in such a way that served the needs of the lowcountry elite. The House of Commons Assembly and Privy Council were modeled after the English Parliament.

Since the colonial period, South Carolina has had seven constitutions, dating from 1776, 1778, 1790, 1861, 1865, 1868, and 1895. The Constitution of 1776 became necessary after Governor Loyd Campbell fled the colony over tensions between the colonies and England. Approved by the Provincial Congress of South Carolina, the Constitution incorporated previous royal instructions but originated from the people of South Carolina. This plan of government was to last until the disputes with Great Britain could be settled. It established a bicameral legislative branch, the General Assembly, with members of the lower house elected by the people, and members of the upper house elected by the lower house. In place of a governor, there was a president, selected by both houses. The president had veto power and could only serve one term in office. The upper house also elected a vice president and a chief justice. The judicial branch remained unchanged from the colonial system.

There existed an unequal distribution of power in the new government, with the upper house dominated by lowcountry elite even though the majority of the white population resided in the upcountry. Representation in the lower house was shared a little more equally between the lowcountry and upcountry.

The Constitution of 1778 created strict property requirements for the franchise. White men had to possess a significant amount of property to vote, and had to own even more property to be allowed to run for political office. In fact, these property requirements were so high that 90 percent of all white adults were prevented from running for political office. The office of president became the governor, whose election remained purview of the General Assembly. The upper house, renamed the South Carolina Senate, was popularly elected. Representation in the legislature was reapportioned so that the upcountry had forty percent of the seats. In 1786 the General Assembly relocated the capital from Charleston to Columbia as a way to express increased statewide unity. The following year the General Assembly banned the importation of new slaves.

On May 23, 1788, South Carolina ratified the United States Constitution. This necessitated a new constitution. In June 1790, a convention of elected delegates from across the state unanimously ratified the Constitution of 1790, which served the state until 1861. Lowcountry elite continued its dominance of the legislature as seats were apportioned on the basis of wealth. The governor, elected by the General Assembly, had no veto power. Voting was limited to white males who had to meet strict property requirements. The General Assembly made all laws and elected all holders of major offices, including governor, presidential electors, U.S. senators, and many local officials. The General Assembly adhered to the notion of aristocratic stability- control by white males who owned land and slaves. This cohesion of political and economic thought would eventually lead many to support secession.

Sectional tensions in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s finally came to a head in November, 1860 with the election of Abraham Lincoln. On December 20, 1860, a special Secession Convention approved the Ordinance of Secession. The 1790 constitution was amended to note the withdrawal from the federal Union. The Constitution of 1861 continued the election of the governor by the General Assembly and did not change much from the 1790 constitution.

At the conclusion of the Civil War, South Carolina had to adopt a new constitution to be readmitted into the Union. The Constitution of 1865 preserved many values of the planter elite. It moved closer to a balance between the lowcountry and upcountry in the Senate. The House of Representatives was apportioned based on white population and taxed land value. Legislators continued to select U.S. senators and presidential electors. The governor was popularly elected to a four-year term and was given veto power. The civil rights of former enslaved African Americans were ill defined.  Passage of strict Black Codes designed to regulate former slaves and election to Congress of former Confederate heroes resulted in Congress ordering the creation of a new constitution.

Congressional Reconstruction led to the Constitutional Convention of 1868. Many whites refused to participate as African American men were allowed to vote for the first time. This constitution is the only one to be submitted directly to the voters for approval. Congress ratified it on April 16, 1868.

It was a revolutionary constitution for South Carolina. Representation in the House was based solely on population. The governor continued to be popularly elected. For the first time, it provided for public education open to all races, granted some rights to women, and replaced districts with counties. Property ownership as a qualification to run for public office was abolished. Race as a limit on male suffrage and Black Codes in the 1865 constitution were also abolished.

Following a series of economic downturns in the state, the Constitution of 1898 was adopted by convention and not submitted to the people in referendum. It instituted Jim Crow laws aimed at disenfranchising the state’s African American population while protecting  the state’s poor, illiterate whites. A poll tax was instituted, and men who paid property tax and were able to write and read the state constitution could vote. Local registrars determined who could vote. The poll tax was abolished in 1951 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 terminated unregulated local voter registration.

The General Assembly maintained its supremacy over the governor and local politics. To dilute the power of the governor, the executive department was split into many local boards and state agencies. The governor was limited to a two-year term with possibility of one reelection.

By the 1960s, the constitution had been amended over 300 times. Throughout the decade, a committee studied the 1895 constitution. In 1970 voters approved changes to five articles. Work continues to reform the constitution and state government. More recent changes have made the executive and judicial branches more independent from the legislative branch and local governments that are more responsive to the people than the General Assembly.

Dr. Charles F. Vaughan us a National Board Certified social studies teacher. A 24-year classroom veteran, Dr. Vaughan currently teaches World Geography and Teacher Cadet at AC Flora High School in Columbia, SC. He earned his Doctor of Education in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of South Carolina. His dissertation, “Official social studies curriculum standards: An analysis of Southern political, cultural, and historical contexts” is a critical analysis of “official knowledge” contained within state social studies standards. 

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