The Compromise of 1808 represented the culmination of efforts by upcountry leaders to secure equitable representation in the General Assembly. South Carolina’s constitution of 1778 allotted 64 of 202 seats in the new S.C. House of Representatives to backcountry districts. The increasing population of the backcountry, however, led to calls for a more balanced distribution of seats.
The 1790 constitution placated residents in the upper part of the state by moving the capital from Charleston to Columbia, but otherwise contained little to appease the upcountry. Property qualifications for public office were strengthened, and no allowance was made for a system of reapportionment or apportioning the House according to population. As a result, upcountry politicians began to organize for more effective change. In 1794 the Representative Reform Association was founded in Columbia. The association created committees around the upcountry, and one member, Robert Goodloe Harper, published An Address to the People of South- Carolina, arguing that the upcountry’s population was woefully underrepresented in the General Assembly. He also hinted that the upcountry would be better off without slavery. Lowcountry opponents seized this last point and contended that backcountry representatives were extremists.
The association undertook a petition drive to compel the General Assembly to consider reapportionment, but reapportionment failed on an almost strictly sectional vote. Upcountry politicians modified their rhetoric and pledged their support for slavery, but it would take a larger shift in the state’s political landscape to effect broader change. Lowcountry politics was driven by Federalist concerns, but Federalist influence declined in South Carolina in the late 1790s. Federalists were not able to make political inroads in the upcountry, and Republicans moved to take their places in state government. Economic changes also helped change the mood. Cotton expansion in the upcountry helped wed the interests of the state’s sections, and also increased the slave population of the backcountry districts.
Change became possible when prominent lowcountry leaders such as Joseph Alston joined the reapportionment cause. Alston, a wealthy planter representing Christ Church Parish, pushed for reform in 1804 and 1807. In both years he argued that the backcountry was sufficiently supportive of slavery as to render previous concerns moot. Furthermore, he argued that reform would remove a major source of contention in the state. Alston succeeded where Harper and his associates had failed. In 1808 the General Assembly passed a constitutional amendment that apportioned the S.C. House of Representatives according to white population and taxation. Thus, one representative would represent 1/62 of the state’s population and one would represent 1/62 of taxes collected, yielding the House’s 124 members. The Compromise of 1808 also allowed for reapportionment to take place once every ten years. Property qualifications for voting were eliminated in 1810.
The Compromise of 1808 settled the issue of representation of the upcountry and helped to unify the state. Ironically, what began as a movement to protect backcountry interests reached fruition only when economic changes in the upcountry meant that upcountry and lowcountry planters found much on which to agree. The lowcountry may have ceded some political control in the Compromise of 1808, but it did so only after the upcountry was certain to protect slavery.
Ford, Lacy K., Jr. Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry, 1800–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Klein, Rachel N. Unification of a Slave State: The Rise of the Planter Class in the South Carolina Backcountry, 1760–1808. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.