The Politics of Taste in Antebellum Charleston


At the close of the American Revolution, Charleston, South Carolina, was the wealthiest city in the new nation, with the highest per-capita wealth among whites and the largest number of enslaved residents. Maurie D. McInnis explores the social, political, and material culture of the city to learn how--and at what human cost--Charleston came to be regarded as one of the most refined cities in antebellum America.

While other cities embraced a culture of democracy and ...

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At the close of the American Revolution, Charleston, South Carolina, was the wealthiest city in the new nation, with the highest per-capita wealth among whites and the largest number of enslaved residents. Maurie D. McInnis explores the social, political, and material culture of the city to learn how--and at what human cost--Charleston came to be regarded as one of the most refined cities in antebellum America.

While other cities embraced a culture of democracy and egalitarianism, wealthy Charlestonians cherished English notions of aristocracy and refinement, defending slavery as a social good and encouraging the growth of southern nationalism. Members of the city's merchant-planter class held tight to the belief that the clothes they wore, the manners they adopted, and the ways they designed house lots and laid out city streets helped secure their place in social hierarchies of class and race. This pursuit of refinement, McInnis demonstrates, was bound up with their determined efforts to control the city's African American majority. She then examines slave dress, mobility, work spaces, and leisure activities to understand how Charleston slaves negotiated their lives among the whites they served.

The textures of lives lived in houses, yards, streets, and public spaces come into dramatic focus in this lavishly illustrated portrait of antebellum Charleston. McInnis's innovative history of the city combines the aspirations of its would-be nobility, the labors of the African slaves who built and tended the town, and the ambitions of its architects, painters, writers, and civic promoters.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Interesting, compelling, and insightful."

"Help[s] unravel the complicated intentions in the cycles of creation and remembrance that have shaped Charleston across two centuries."
Journal of Architectural Historians

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807829516
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 6/13/2005
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 424
  • Sales rank: 987,346
  • Product dimensions: 8.40 (w) x 10.58 (h) x 1.48 (d)

Meet the Author

Maurie D. McInnis is assistant professor of art history at the University of Virginia. She is coauthor of In Pursuit of Refinement: Charlestonians Abroad, 1740-1860.
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Table of Contents

1 A bird's-eye view 17
2 A walking tour 31
3 The public landscape of racial control 66
4 Temples for posterity 90
5 Public art and politics 128
6 Ordering the backlot 160
7 The gothic revival 195
8 Life in the yard 240
9 A love of display 277
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First Chapter

The Politics of Taste in Antebellum Charleston

By Maurie D. McInnis

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2005 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8078-2951-X

Chapter One

A Bird's-Eye View

Most antebellum visitors first saw Charleston from a ship in the city's busy harbor-bustling with cargo vessels, passenger ships, and smaller local crafts-as seen in Samuel Bernard's View of Charleston from the Harbor (fig. 1.1). Revolutionary War-era fortifications like Castle Pinckney ringed the harbor and reminded visitors of the city's prominent role in the conflict. Newcomers were generally not dazzled by first impressions. The low-lying city presented an undistinguished skyline, punctuated only by church steeples. The only way to get a different perspective on the city was to ascend the steeple of St. Michael's Church, which had been, since its completion in 1762, one of the first stops on a visitor's itinerary. Because of its elevated vantage point in the center of the city, one could see not only the metropolis (fig. 1.2), but also the surrounding Lowcountry, the marshy land from whence came Charleston's enormous wealth from rice and Sea Island cotton.

A visitor to Charleston in 1810 who returned in 1860 would, on some blocks, feel as if he or she had never left and, on others, hardly recognize the place. Conflagrations in 1835 and 1838 destroyed hundreds of buildings, necessitating the reconstruction of entire sections of the city. Dozens of new churches stood alongside new buildings for social clubs, cultural organizations, and educational institutions. Municipal buildings were erected to control the poor, the incarcerated, and the enslaved. Near the end of the antebellum period, commercial structures, such as the railway depot, numerous banks, and storefronts, began to assert their presence in the built environment, reminding visitors of the South's aspirations to diversify its economy. There was, concurrently, a boom in residential building with an increase from 2,600 houses in 1800 to nearly 6,700 in 1861.

From the elevated vantage point offered by the steeple of St. Michael's Church, one could see the dramatic changes in the physical appearance of the city. Businesses, previously scattered, began to be concentrated near the wharves and along King Street. Residential properties, which earlier had porous borders of palisade fences, were increasingly surrounded by high brick walls in order to create privacy and control the slave population. In addition to the thousands of new buildings, the city had also changed in more fundamental ways. The literal edges of the city were pushed outward as Charlestonians reclaimed marshland with the building of batteries and the in-fill of low-lying land and creeks. Streets and drainage systems were improved, but by no means perfected; many alleys were straightened and widened. The end result was that by 1860 Charleston was more densely built, ordered, controlled, and compartmentalized-both metaphorically and literally, a "closed" city.

The scale of the physical transformation is particularly surprising given the fact that the city grew only minimally in population during the antebellum period. In 1810 the city had a population of 24,711 inhabitants, over half of whom-13,143-were either slaves or free blacks. By 1860 that number had only grown to 40,522, with over 40 percent African American (table 1). By comparison, in the same period New York City's population had grown from 60,489 to 565,529. While the North was transfigured by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, Charleston was left relatively untouched by those developments. Where there was urbanization, it was predominantly focused toward supporting the agrarian base of the region. As evidenced by the scope of architectural change, however, the city was not physically stagnant. In the antebellum period the cityscape was transformed as upper-class Charlestonians struggled to maintain control over an increasingly mobile social landscape.

Despite the unimpressive skyline, to most visitors Charleston was an exotic place. Its semitropical climate and lush vegetation were intoxicating. The city was to Auguste Levasseur, who was traveling with the Marquis de Lafayette, "a delicious garden" that to another visitor "more resemble[d] a West Indian than an American city." These observers were responding in part to the heady smells that helped mask the pungent odors of nineteenth-century life. Yet despite these elements of "exoticism," visitors from the North and from Europe easily understood the layout of the city because here they encountered an urban plan familiar throughout the western world.

The city's sense of physical regularity was generated, to a great degree, by the flatness of the land onto which the city plan "with tolerable regularity" was imposed, with streets laid at (roughly) right angles to one another. The two principal streets were Broad Street, running east/west, and Meeting Street, running north/south. The original city plan, which had been drawn up in the 1680s, designated that two acres of land should be set aside at the intersection of these two streets for a large Civic Square, where the most important public buildings would be located. This was where St. Michael's Church was built, and the square remained the symbolic heart of the city throughout the nineteenth century. Broad and Meeting, as well as several of Charleston's other major streets, were paved and, until the 1840s, lined with rows of Pride of India trees. The majority of streets, however, were unpaved, and visitors frequently complained of the alternating irritants of shoe-catching mud or cough-inducing clouds of dust.

From St. Michael's Church steeple, a visitor would have been able to see the prominent monuments of the city and get some impression of the residential areas. Charleston had a rich legacy of important colonial buildings, and these usually formed the focus of visitors' comments. After touring the public buildings, which he described as "handsome," James Stuart observed, "All the finest buildings were erected previously to the revolution." J. S. Buckingham decided, in agreement with the residents he had consulted, "that there have been no public edifices erected since the revolution, so good as those constructed before." These included two buildings at the Civic Square-St. Michael's Church and the former South Carolina Statehouse (fig. 1.3), which after the Revolution became the Charleston County Courthouse and also housed, at different times, the Charleston Library Society and the Charleston Museum.

The most densely built and oldest area of the city was to the east (see fig. 1.2). The most prominent edifice-the colonial Exchange Building, which now served as the post office-stood at the termination of Broad Street, and the eastern edge of the city was dominated by Charleston's busy wharves. Here the regularity of the city plan stood in sharp contrast to the visitor's impressions at street level. Strangers entered Charleston at the wharves, and most found it a chaotic scene. Spoken English, French, and Gullah created a cacophony while the "rickety, dark, dirty, tumble-down streets and warehouses," alternating with "mansion[s] of loftier pretensions," had a kaleidoscopic effect. The wharves were dominated by African and African American laborers-loading and unloading ships, working in the warehouses, and driving the drays that transported goods and people to the city-a feature commented upon by virtually every visitor. "Had I not known the reverse," one Scotsman remarked, "the supposition would have been that this was solely a black settlement."

To the south were the older residential areas with densely built, narrow streets, fronted mostly by single houses and a linear array of outbuildings, often encased in high brick walls. The west was much less densely settled since the land soon turned to marsh. On the far western edge, Charleston's Poor House, jail, and Work House (see fig. 7.27) loomed above the swampy land, which terminated with lumber and rice mills. To the north, commercial King Street, described by one resident as a "Turkish Bazaar," was lined with shops and bustling with activity. The most conspicuous structure was St. Philip's (see fig. 4.7), the city's oldest church (built 1711-1723; it burned and was rebuilt in 1835), an impressive building with a triple porticoed front. North of St. Philip's was the area known as the "market," mostly a group of frame buildings, where slaves gathered to sell produce and the goods they made. Farther north on the peninsula, in the area referred to as Charleston Neck, were less densely settled residential areas, home to much of the city's free black population, slaves who "lived out," and wealthy planters.

For all of Charleston's regularity, most visitors focused on three aspects of the city that they found quite irregular: the residential architecture, the city's social structure, and the commitment to slavery. The impression that the city possessed a distinctive physical character was generated, in large part, by its unusual and varied domestic architecture. "In one street you seem to be in an old English town, and in another in some continental city of France or Italy," wrote British actress Fanny Kemble. This variety made Charleston, in her opinion, "highly picturesque," a term she believed could apply "to none other of the American towns." Believing it to be the "oldest" city in America, she was attracted to Charleston's antiquity as a balm to the oppressive "newness" of the "perfect red-brick-and-board fever" she had encountered in northern cities. She wrote of the city as a "well-born and well-bred gentlewoman," having a look of "wealth and importance, a little gone down in the world, yet remembering still its former dignity."

Kemble's impression that northern towns possessed an air of "smug mercantile primness" while Charleston had "an air of eccentricity ... and peculiarity" was due, in large part, to the city's built environment, which was uniquely adapted to life in the local climate. "What gives Charleston its peculiar character," wrote British visitor Basil Hall, "is the verandah, or piazza, which embraces most of the house." These were, according to Hall, "constructed in a light Oriental style" and had the benefit of creating a "shady, open walk." It is, indeed, the piazza (fig. 1.4) that still gives Charleston its distinctive character. The "piazza" was actually the porch, which in a single house stretched along the side of the house, often as many stories high as the house. As the nineteenth century progressed, these became increasingly frequent and more elaborate. Piazzas provided "a lighter and more airy look," concluded Scotsman Peter Neilson; "many of them convey an idea of grandeur."

From the steeple of St. Michael's, Neilson noted the overwhelming residential aspect of the city; the view was, he remarked, "imposing, the city appearing like a regularly laid out pleasure garden, studded with flower boxes." Visitors were struck by the integration of Charleston's houses and gardens, and by the degree to which the latter possessed a "tropical aspect." Another visitor added, "To a person who arrives ... on a moonlight evening in March or April, it seems he has never seen or imagined so delicious a place."

Charleston's unique built environment was matched by a social structure that was unexpected in "democratic" America. "There is no city in America," declared Louis Tasistro, "where the gradations in the great social system are so distinctly marked as in Charleston." On this point virtually all visitors agreed. About whether this was a positive or a negative thing, however, there was great variety of opinion. Tasistro declared that Charleston's planters, whom he noted "ap[ed] European Continental manners," were on par "with the most refined English gentlemen in external polish and address," but this was not seen as a positive attribute; instead, he found them "obnoxious," "indolent," and "unproductive." Many echoed his assessment. Others dissented. In contrast to his usual biting critique of the South, the northern commentator Frederick Law Olmsted acknowledged that among wealthy Carolinians, "let us believe that there is less vulgar display, and more intrinsic elegance, and habitual mental refinement in the best society of South Carolina, than in any distinct class anywhere among us."

Much of this social hierarchy was based on the elite's identification with English culture, even long after the Revolution. The English newspaper reporter William Howard Russell noted the "admiration for monarchical institutions on the English model, for privileged classes, and for a landed aristocracy and gentry." To his mind, these affinities produced a class of planters who were "well-bred, courteous, and hospitable." "A genuine aristocracy," he called them, with "time to cultivate their minds, to apply themselves to politics and the guidance of public affairs." This fondness for British culture was due in part to that fact that both before and after the Revolution, Carolina sent more men abroad to complete their education than any other state. In Britain, Charlestonians were exposed to the trappings of gentility, acquiring the manners and customs noted by outsiders. British traveler Adam Hodgson agreed that many retained "their original attachment to the mother country," and that "their manners are extremely agreeable, resembling the more polished of our country gentlemen, and are formed on the model of what in England we call 'the old school.'" When Englishman J. S. Buckingham lectured in the late 1830s, "God Save the King" was played in his honor. He was introduced as "the distinguished foreigner," a phrase, he declared, that sounded strange because "all around me-the place, the people, the language, and even the object of our meeting-seemed so thoroughly English, that I could scarcely think I was in a foreign land.... There is, indeed, a sincere respect for England and English people, felt by all the more intelligent and opulent classes, and a high veneration entertained for 'the land of their fathers.'"

Both in spirit and reality, Charleston's society was rigidly hierarchical. Contrary to the democratic and egalitarian language employed in republican America, both outsiders and Charlestonians spoke openly of the city's aristocracy, which was comprised of planters and their kin and occupied the attention of the city's visitors. Landed wealth, though not a prerequisite, was linked to high social status. By the antebellum period not all of Charleston's aristocracy were wealthy, but more than nine-tenths had at least some planting interests and over one-half owned large plantations; moreover, almost all were connected to families with large planting interests. Membership in the aristocracy was available only through birth or family association; members of the aristocracy were not self-made.


Excerpted from The Politics of Taste in Antebellum Charleston by Maurie D. McInnis Copyright © 2005 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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