The origins of the Lower South
Democracy is presently a major part of the state ideology of the United States. Not only do all major US politicians profess support for democracy, there is also a Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor within the US State Department. Therefore, it may surprise some readers to know that democracy was not always popular in all sections of what is now the United States. In fact, one of the oldest of the British colonies which seceded in 1776 and created the United States was specifically created as a bulwark against democracy. Indeed, though this colony, South Carolina, was founded during the Age of Enlightenment and though its ‘Fundamental Constitutions’ was written by Enlightenment philosopher John Locke (whose writings would have a strong impact on the American revolutionaries of the 1770s), the concepts reflected in the fledgling colony of Carolina were Classical, monarchical, hierarchical and strongly anti-egalitarian. South Carolina would largely remain committed to these principles until 1865, when, as a seceded State within the Confederacy, it was conquered and nearly destroyed by the United States and a much more egalitarian and democratic system was forced upon it. Even after military defeat and occupation though, South Carolinians managed in 1876 to overthrow the imposed order and establish a system similar to their old order. That system survived until the 1960s when once again the United States intervened to impose democracy and equality.
Let us take a look at the anti-egalitarian origins of the Palmetto State and the Lower South which it mothered. The oldest of the Lower South States, South Carolina, has been described as a colony of a colony. It was explored, settled and first governed by British-Barbadians who had previously established a wealthy, populous and influential plantation society in the Caribbean. Those Barbadians took their cultural values and worldview with them to Carolina and spread their culture to the North American mainland, where it flourished. Carolina, like the Caribbean plantation colonies, was a society based on Classical (not Modern) values and hierarchy (not equality). As noted by John Peyre Thomas, Jr’s article The Barbadians in Early South Carolina (first published in 1930 and recently republished in South Carolina and Barbados Connections: Selections from the South Carolina Historical Magazine), South Carolina was founded as a consciously anti-democratic society that firmly rejected equality:
[T]he Proprietors took the first steps to formulate a government for the great province they were to found. Under the leadership of Lord Ashley, not yet the Earl of Shaftesbury, John Locke, the celebrated philosopher, prepared the famous “Fundamental Constitutions” for the government of Carolina, which were formally adopted by the Proprietors in July, 1669. This was an extraordinary scheme of forming an aristocratic government of a colony of adventurers in the wild woods, among savages and wild beasts. One of the reasons given for these constitutions was “that the government of the Province may be made most agreeable to the Monarchy under which we live and of which this Province is a part, and that we may avoid erecting a numerous democracy.” The charter constituted the province a County Palatine. The first clause of the constitution accordingly provided that the eldest of the Lords Proprietors should be the Palatine (that is, the Governor with the privileges of vice-royalty) and upon his decease the eldest of the seven surviving Proprietors should always succeed him. There were to be two orders of nobility besides the Proprietors, namely, Landgraves and Cassiques. Each Landgrave was to have 48,000 acres and each Cassique 24,000 acres. This left three-fifths of each county or 288,000 acres for the people. [Edward] McCrady says [in his book The History of South Carolina Under the Proprietary Government, 1670-1719] that this body of laws never received the necessary assent and approbation of the freemen of the province, and so was never constitutionally of force [though it was not rejected by the people]; but its provisions had an effect upon the institutions of the province and an influence upon the customs and habits of the people.
The anti-democratic ideals upon which both Barbados and South Carolina were established in the seventeenth century found a champion in the nineteenth century statesman and secessionist leader Robert Barnwell Rhett. Rhett came from a prominent (though not extremely wealthy) family which included several colonial governors. He hailed from the Lowcountry of South Carolina, an area which the Barbadians had colonised and which closely resembled the Caribbean in its social order, economy and demographics. History professor and prolific author William C Davis edited Rhett’s previously unpublished memoir and described the South Carolinian on page xvi of his introduction to A Fire-Eater Remembers as ‘a thorough believer in an oligarchy of wealth and intellect ruling the country – as it ruled in his South Carolina – he completely distrusted the idea of majority rule in a democracy….’ On page 114 of his biographical work Rhett: The Turbulent Life and Times of a Fire-Eater, Davis quotes Rhett as saying ’universal suffrage, will give to those who have no property, the absolute control of the property and legislation of the country.’ Rhett continued, ‘the despotism of numbers may be the most terrible that can scourge a fallen people.’ This was an excellent summary of the ideals upon which the government of South Carolina, the culture of the Lower South and the extended Caribbean civilisation were founded.