South Carolina: Why is the Palmetto State so different?

Historian W. Scott Poole discusses South Carolina – its unique history, interesting governors, and suspicion of the outside world.

Jason Reed/Reuters
Republican presidential nominees participate in a debate in Charleston, South Carolina.

Here is a word you don't see every day: "hotbed."

But it's gotten quite a workout this week in news coverage of the GOP presidential primary in South Carolina.

South Carolina is said to be – or said to be assumed to be – a "hotbed" of the Tea Party, "assorted bigots," secessionists, evangelical conservatism, "religious observance and conscientious voting," and much more.

With all that hotbedness, South Carolina is fortunate it hasn't burned into a cinder.

Every state, of course, is special. (Except for one. My speeding ticket and I know who you are).

But South Carolina is especially special, a place that takes "stateness" to an extreme. It was the first state to leave the union and the place where the Civil War began. Its state flag is one of the niftiest of all. And it even has a major newspaper called The State.

How did a place that's home to fewer than 2 percent of the nation's residents become so unique? I turned to historian W. Scott Poole, an associate professor at the College of Charleston, for some answers.

He's the author of several books, including "South Carolina's Civil War," "The Palmetto State: The Making of Modern South Carolina," and most recently, "Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting."

In our interview, Poole – a South Carolina native – says the state of his state has its roots in an unusually long and intimate relationship with slavery and a long-standing suspicion of the outside world.
 Q: How did South Carolina become so unique in the first place?
A: Looking at a very long historical perspective, South Carolina has been different really since the colonial area. One of the differences is that unlike, say, Virginia, another flagship colony and Southern state, South Carolina was a slave society from the very beginning of its history.
Another difference is how it was shaped by the institution of slavery. If you look at the South as a whole in about 1850, about a quarter of all white families held slaves. But if you look at South Carolina specifically, it's closer to a half, and in some counties, even higher.
Unlike some of the other states that eventually did become part of the Confederacy, such as North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas, slavery was a significant institution in all parts of the state. Slave holding was widespread, and they were purchasing slaves on credit, essentially.
Q: How did that affect politics in the state?
A: There's this sense in South Carolina's political culture of being different, of having different institutions that have to be defended. Whether you're looking at the 19th century or the 1950s and 1960s, or the limited government rhetoric of today, the common thread is defending a set of institutions and a lifestyle that is under threat.
The defense of the slavery and the rhetoric directed against the outside world was particularly intense. Some of my academic work has been on the history of American monsters, how monstrous images shape our history. You can see a lot of examples of that in South Carolina in the 1850s: it's not just that Northern politicians are ideologically different. They're real existential threats; they are literally monstrous.
Q: We don't hear much about the Civil Rights movement in South Carolina. Did it have a major effect there?
A: It was really during the Civil Rights Movement that many whites in South Carolina developed this sense that [they] are the real Americans. The courts don't represent America, the federal government doesn't represent America, and maybe the Constitution doesn't represent America: there is this authentic America that's under threat.
Q: You've had some interesting governors lately, to say the least. How does the current one, Nikki Haley, fit in?
A: She ties things together. She certainly has very strong support from the old conservatism, but she is part of this new wave of younger libertarianism that's maybe less interested in issues of race, at least explicitly, and much more interested in questions of limited government.
Q: Does the focus on South Carolina's political uniqueness miss anything?
A: What does sometimes bother me is the elision of black political culture. People forget about it, ignore it, downplay it, don't understand that it has a separate but very significant history.
Q: Do you think South Carolina gets a bad rap?
A: No. [Poole laughs.] South Carolina's reputation is well deserved in many respects.

Curious for more about South Carolina history? Poole suggests the work of modern historians Walter B. Edgar and Jack Bass. And if you're wondering how South Carolina became the storm center of the Civil War, check the immensely readable "Allegiance: Fort Sumter, Charleston, and the Beginning of the Civil War," by David Detzer, whom I interviewed last summer about the Battle of Bull Run.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor correspondent.

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