Establishing a republic : the South Carolina Assembly, 1783-1800

Lee, Christopher Frank, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Innes, Steve, Department of History, University of Virginia
Ayers, Edward, Department of History, University of Virginia
Williams, D. Alan, Department of History, University of Virginia

This study examines how South Carolina--the most aristocratic American state--created republican government in the wake of the American Revolution. In 1783, state authorities confronted enormous problems--debt, a ravaged economy, and the legacy of internecine guerilla war. In addition, long-standing conflicts between lowcountry and backcountry awaited resolution. Finally, a representative government had to supersede a monarchical one. Solving these problems was the task, and the accomplishment, of the General Assembly between 1783 and 1800.

Acting mostly in response to citizen's petitions, the Assembly addressed everything from slave behavior and lawyers' qualifications to legal structure and debt. An expanded judicial system for the first time gave people throughout the state convenient access to the courts. A modified tax structure reduced disproportionate levies on the backcountry. The postwar Assemblymen improved transportation to allow the backcountry equal access to markets. They established a dozen colleges and seminaries to educate essential to a virtuous republican citizenry. The result was that, by 1800, white men throughout the state believed that they all stood on equal terms before the law, and that the laws favored no one section or interest. Over rather formidable odds, the Assembly had succeeded in establishing a republic.

Yet, the republican vision was limited in South Carolina. Dominated by the elite of the slave society, the Assembly sought gradual, controlled change that would protect property rights and maintain order. Thus, fiscal measures sought to restore the state's economy and credit. Legal changes gave all citizens equal access to courts but rarely implemented new rules. The Assembly showed interest in economic growth and development, but only so long as it did not interfere with existing property rights. So, too, the parsimonious legislature, while chartering schools and espousing the value of an educated citizenry, never appropriated public funds to support education. Eventually, the republicanism which the Assembly implemented would influence all of America, for in 1861, South Carolina became the state that determined the fate of the nation.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
South Carolina -- General Assembly -- History, South Carolina -- Politics and government -- 1775-1865

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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