Politics in Charleston

A portrait of John C. Calhoun in 1845 by G.P.A. Healy.
John C. Calhoun in 1845 by G.P.A. Healy.

National Portrait Gallery

Early in its history, Charleston, South Carolina was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the American colonies. By the mid-1700s, a large French Huguenot community had settled in Charleston, and the city was also the home to the largest Jewish population in the colonies. Charleston was a major American port city as well. Early on it imported slaves and exported indigo and rice; later it exported cotton and imported manufactured goods. Beyond its cultural heritage and economic importance, early in its history Charleston gained the reputation as the home of an independent-minded people. Charlestonians quickly embraced the American revolutionary movement and achieved the first decisive victory of the Revolutionary War at Ft. Sullivan (Ft. Moultrie).

They further solidified their independent-mindedness during the Nullification Crisis in 1832. Congress had passed a protective tariff which Charlestonians deemed a threat to their economy. The South Carolina legislature quickly passed a nullification act, which declared that the federal tariff was null and void within its state boundaries. While this action was not in and of itself a prelude to secession, it was a strong statement that South Carolinians believed that the states held the ultimate power, or sovereignty, of the Union.

South Carolina also opposed any compromises proposed that would balance the interests between slave and free states. The most famous South Carolinian of the first half of the 19th century, John C. Calhoun, opposed the Compromise of 1850 from his deathbed. His successors further opposed any accommodation to the anti-slavery factions during the 1850s. So when Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner criticized fellow senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina for his position on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Butler's nephew, Preston Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina, beat Sumner nearly to death with his cane to avenge his uncle. Brooks instantly became a hero in his home state.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860 on a platform that included not allowing slavery to spread into the territories and a higher tariff, most Charlestonians believed that their liberties were doomed. Many argued that the oppression was not unlike that experienced by their forefathers during the Revolutionary War. Thus, the only solution they could imagine was to sever all ties with the federal government. So, one month after the election, South Carolina was the first state to pass an ordinance of secession.

Seen as traitors to the North and revolutionaries to the South, Charlestonians once again stood defiant and led the way with their political beliefs. Ten additional states followed their lead. Not surprisingly, the first shots of the Civil War were fired in Charleston Harbor, at Fort Sumter, on April 12, 1861. Not surprisingly as well, Charleston became the focal point of numerous Union attacks, although the strategic advantages to capturing the city did not justify the effort.

Last updated: February 3, 2015