Sandlapper
The Magazine of South Carolina

South Carolina Yesteryear

South Carolina's Early Statehouse

 

by Dr. Lewis P. Jones

The first statehouse stood on the site of the present courthouse in Charleston. When it burned in 1788, statehouse construction in Columbia - the new capital - had begun.

South Carolina now has its third statehouse. Carolinians must fancy them, since they built their first one even before the place was a state. (That term "state" came officially in 1776.)

On the other hand, officials had needed something of the kind for 86 years and had just "made out" til they finally built a proper edifice for the dignified proceedings which allegedly go on in such structures.

Once their English colonial government had stabilized, the two major governmental bodies were the Commons House of Assembly, a legislative body chosen by those eligible to vote, and the Council, appointed by the crown. For many years the Council consisted of prominent Carolinians. It called itself the "Upper House" but also played the role of being a council of advisors to His Excellency, the royal governor. After 1770, by which time the king had appointed English political hacks to it in return for political assistance, the matter of whether it was really an upper house of a legislative body stiffed up an ungodly row - but that is another story.

On November 22, 1750, in an address to the Commons House of Assembly, Gov. James Glen deplored "in what inconvenient Places both the Council and Assembly meet," observing that "the Courts are kept in Taverns, and the Prisons in private Houses." He urged the members "to remedy these Matters" which were hardly consistent with the dignity which he thought appropriate.

For years, Commons had been meeting in rooms rented from Miles Brewton and his heirs in a residence on Church Street near Tradd in Charleston. Immediately after the governor's nudge, the solons went to work to acquire a home commensurate with their importance. After all, they saw themselves as the equivalent of another House of Commons that happened to meet on the banks of the Thames.

The goal was not new. In 1712 the idea had surfaced but funding was unavailable, both the proprietary government and later the royal government being apathetic about a venture to provide a palace on a frontier. In 1751, however, the House endorsed setting aside $2,000 annually for such construction and later upped it to $2,500. At the same time, they committed themselves to build a new parish church, to be called St. Michael's.

In June 1751, the governor ratified their action when they committed $25,000 for a "State House."

What progress took place was made "with all deliberate speed."

 

Quicksand & Foot Draggers

The site they designated for it was the northwest corner "of the Market Square" - at the corner of Meeting and Broad streets, diagonally across from the planned St. Michael's. One would think they were embarking on an urban renewal project or downtown revitalization with these two new building projects.

A commission appointed to build the statehouse reported March 11, 1752, they had found the ground at the site "so loose and full of Quick-Sands" it would "render it insufficient to support the Weight intended to be laid upon it" unless the "Foundation is Piled" - a situation that would make it cost more than the money appropriated. They suggested, therefore, that "in [their] humble Opinion" it could be built "more commodiously, and in a better Foundation" elsewhere.

Discomforted by such foot draggers, the House appointed another committee to judge the commission's report. (Apparently, "consultants" already had been invented by that era.) The new group, however, agreed the northwest corner was unsuitable because of the poor foundation, and said that "the properest Place" would be across Meeting Street "fronting the South prospect of the said Street," with its portico 40 feet from the portico of St. Michael's. (Evidently this would have been in the middle of a main street, like our present statehouse. Obviously, they did not foresee the tourist traffic during Spoleto.)

The caveats from both groups fell on deaf ears: The Commons directed that it go, by George, where their law had said: to the northwest corner, despite the "loose ground" there. It would cost more - but legislators sometimes work in strange and wondrous ways their blunders to perform.

 

Work Begins

On June 22, 1753, "being also the Day of His Majesty's accession to the Throne," the South Carolina Gazette recorded that the cornerstone duly was laid by His Excellency, with several members of Council, Commons and the commission duly adding some bricks in the approved manner. Disagreement about the location did not impede the social amenities, for they all then "proceeded to Mr. Gordon's, where after Dinner, Toasts suitable to the Day and Occasion were drunk."

Construction was slow. The Commons House, controlling the purse strings, constantly had to cope with cost overruns - a term familiar today. St. Michael's had even greater financial problems, but its developers rationalized that large dimensions were in order so it would "better accommodate a growing Town." Some of the voluntary subscribers to the church fund were irritated when they learned they would have to pay for their pews, as well.

The cost overrun for the statehouse also was justified since the commissioners said the structure should be "convenient & suitable for the dignity of those for whose accommodation it is particularly intended." But the commissioners could not skip the Assembly. They had been "confined to place the Building on a particular spot Ground thro' which runs part of the Moat surrounding this Town" (when it had been a walled city). Not meek, they hoped the dimensions would not be considered too large or "the Ornaments with which it is embellish'd, superfluous, when the flourishing Condition of this Province is considered."

On March 22, 1756, meeting in their room in the house on Church Street, the Commons House voted to move into the new statehouse on March 25, and courteously requested the governor and Council to decide which rooms therein they wished. They also voted to defray the expense of such furniture "as his Excellency the Governor & His Majesty's Council shall think fit...for the New Council-Chamber."

 

Moving In

On March 25 they moved in, although much work remained to be done. Style they wanted; they instructed a committee to send for robes for the speaker and a gown for their clerk. They also spent 90 guineas to buy a "very elegant and superb" silver mace, the symbol of their authority. It was laid on the table before the speaker at every meeting, as was done in the House of Commons in London. It still is done in Columbia - before the House of Representatives, with the same mace.

The building planned for $25,000 already had cost $27,141, and after the House had "removed from the Place they [had] usually sate" before, they had to appropriate another $12,500 to complete it fully.

In 1770, Dr. George Milligan Johnson described it as "a large, commodious Brick Building," decorated with a portico of four columns. It was about 100 feet square and had two floors and an attic. On the ground floor was a courtroom, the secretary's office and an apartment for the housekeeper. On the upper floor were two large rooms of equal size (about 40 feet square) - one for governor and Council, the other "for the Representatives of the People with Lobbies and Rooms for their Clerks." There were two flights of stairs, one to each of the meeting rooms. To Dr. Johnson, the Council chamber "appears rather crowded and disgusting, [rather] than ornamental and pleasing, by the great Profusion of carved Work in it." In 1757, the House paid a bill of $591 for "removing the Public Arms into the State House." This armory was placed in the attic of the building.

 

An Impressive Institution

At the time the House had 45 members, the Council about 12. Furniture came gradually. Impressive was the large governor's chair that was in the statehouse; it is now in the State Museum.

Josaiah Quincy Jr. Was impressed in 1773: "The Speaker is robed in black and has a very large wig of State, when he goes to attend the Chair (with the Mace borne before him) on delivery of speeches, etc." The members were "the best speakers in the province," though Christopher Gadsden he depicted as "plain, blunt, hot and incorrect - though very sensible." Gadsden shocked Quincy with his impropriety when he said, "And Mr. Speaker, if the Governor and Council don't see fit to fall in with us, I say, let the General duty law and all go to the Devil, Sir. And we go about our business."

The members all sat with their hats on and took them off only when they rose to speak. When nothing of importance was before them, they "conversed, lolled, and chatted like a friendly jovial society" - "a very unparliamentary appearance." (He should return to Columbia now.) According to the Massachusetts visitor, "The speaker put the questions sitting, and conversed with the House sitting: the members gave their votes by rising from their seats, the dissentients did not rise."

The names of some of the members of the Commons House of 1756 recur often in Palmetto State history, both colonial and state: Allston, Cordes, Grimke, Guerard, Izard, Lynch, Mazyck, Manigault, Middleton, Pinckney, Pringle, Richardson, Skirving, Wragg. But even in the elegance of their new quarters, they could be considerate. When they were informed in May 1757 that "Mr. Speaker" (as their Journal always referred to him) had "received some Hurt, by a Fall from his Horse," they promptly voted to proceed to "Mr. Speaker's House" and there to carry on the "Public Business." After all, meeting in a residence was not a new venture for these worthies - and since they always referred to themselves as "Gentlemen," they probably left a note telling the Council where they had gone.

 

A Brief Tenure

When Columbia became the state capital in 1786, it seemed the days of the old statehouse were numbered. They were. On February 8, 1788, fire virtually destroyed it. It was recorded as accidental, but some modern scholars have raised interesting questions.

Reconstruction began promptly after the fire, even though work already had begun on the new frame statehouse being erected in Columbia-on-the-Congaree (later to be replaced by the current statehouse). The Charleston structure being built became the nucleus of the Charleston courthouse on that northwest corner. Much expanded, it nevertheless today marks the spot which once was the working place of elegant dignitaries of colonial Carolina - His Majesty's Council and the Commons House of Assembly - plus His Excellency and Mr. Speaker.

My interest in the topic comes from the latest volume of the Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, edited by Terry W. Lipscomb. Such volumes are not supposed to be scintillating, but his prefaces are delightful overviews and summaries of issues contained in the ponderous prose of the Commons. Professors emeriti who have to lean on the scholarly work of former students are torn between sheepishness and pride. The sheepishness soon evaporates and is replaced with pride and respect - both of which I have toward Terry.

 

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