The unanimity and radicalism of South Carolina politics -- culminating in the events of 1860, when it became the first state to secede from the Union -- have long been a subject of interest and controversy. How do we explain the peculiar absence in South Carolina of the open debate and interest-group jockeying that characterized politics in other state legislatures? How did this unique brand of politics originate? Why did it develop in South Carolina and not in the other American colonies?
In A School for Politics Rebecca Starr explores how South Carolina's latent impulse for radicalism was already in place by 1800, an outgrowth of its experience with British imperial politics in the late colonial period. As a producer of vital raw materials--particularly rice, indigo, and hemp--South Carolina was one of Britain's most valuable American colonies. Her lobbyists in Parliament therefore got a closer hearing than, for example, those of Virginia or New York. At the same time, the colony's booming export economy gave rise to a vigorous native merchant community; as junior partners in the Carolina lobby, these merchants and commercial planters learned the skills of aggressive lobbying from their more experienced British counterparts.
This lobbying tradition taught lessons that enabled South Carolina's leaders to maintain social stability in a period that put more "democratic"states in disarray. Taking a hard line with outside powers, they had learned, fostered domestic unity and forced concessions from opponents. Brinkmanship politics kept South Carolina's elite in power. But in the face of growing challenges from a backcountry majority, entrenched leaders found themselvesincreasingly called upon to justify their right to leadership. In moments of crisis, therefore, they had to prove themselves heedless of their private interest -- and often did so by acts that now appear reckless.
About the Author
Rebecca Starr is senior lecturer at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education, United Kingdom.