During the 1790s and into the first decade of the nineteenth century, the Federalist Party flourished in South Carolina, holding the lion’s share of political power in the state. Based primarily in the lowcountry, Federalism in South Carolina reflected the elitist environment of its leaders. Among the central Federalist figures in South Carolina’s were lowcountry planters such as Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Thomas Pinckney, John Rutledge, Timothy Ford, Ralph Izard, Joseph Alston, and William Loughton Smith. South Carolina Federalists played a significant role in the party nationally as well. Thomas Pinckney was the Federalist candidate for vice president in 1796, while Charles Cotesworth Pinckney stood for the same position in 1800 and was the party’s choice for president in the 1804 and 1808 elections.
South Carolina Federalists were early subscribers to the emerging party’s ideology. In the first federal Congress, Congressman William Loughton Smith emerged as a major spokesman for Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s economic program, which promised security and stability to both national finances and the business classes of the new republic. South Carolina’s Federalists shared the probusiness and procommercial attitudes of their colleagues from other states. However, the primacy of slavery within their state’s society and economy meant that the defense of commercial interests by South Carolina Federalists took a different tone than that of their counterparts from other regions, at times becoming quite defensive toward perceived attacks on slavery. William Loughton Smith, for example, spoke out against petitions sent to the first Congress by Quaker groups that were critical of the institution, asking of the petitioners, “Why did not they leave that, which they call God’s work, to be managed by Himself ?”
Despite this type of regional variation, South Carolina Federalism reflected the interests and goals of the Federalists nationwide. In foreign policy, they favored a pro-British stance (reflecting primarily the commercial and mercantile focus of Federalism). Yet, the 1795 Jay Treaty—despite the fact that it was quite favorable to Great Britain—caused a division within South Carolina’s Federalist Party, with some Federalists (such as John Rutledge) arguing that the treaty conceded too much to England and thus degraded the honor of the United States. Whatever their views on the Jay Treaty, however, South Carolina’s Federalists were uniformly suspicious of France, especially after that nation’s revolution, which had begun in 1789 and took a more radical turn by the mid-1790s. The successful slave revolt on St. Domingue (Haiti) that consciously modeled itself on the ideals of the French Revolution confirmed their belief in the dangers inherent in the radical ideology of France. As tensions between the United States and France rose throughout the decade, special envoys were sent to France by President John Adams to attempt a negotiation of the issues between the two nations. Included in this delegation was Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. In what became known as the XYZ Affair, Pinckney responded to the demands of the French ministry for a bribe to smooth negotiations by angrily exclaiming, “No! No! Not a sixpence!”—a phrase that would become a widely reprinted statement of Americans’ defiance toward what was seen as bullying by European despots. Despite the surge of popularity for both President Adams and the Federalists during the crisis with France, however, the repressive Alien and Sedition Acts passed in 1798 by the Federalist Congress lent strength to the Republican opposition, a trend felt acutely by South Carolina’s Federalists.
National politics were not the only elements threatening the power of Federalism in South Carolina by the end of the 1790s. Party divisions within the state derived much of their strength and focus from the ongoing debate over representation and power between the established parishes of the lowcountry and the burgeoning new districts of the upcountry. The political dimensions of this debate were clear, with the Republican-dominated upcountry districts arguing for an equal share of legislative power with the Federalist-controlled lowcountry. The Compromise of 1808, in which legislative apportionment took into account both wealth and population figures and thus became roughly equal between the two regions, confirmed the eclipse of the state’s Federalists in the face of a growing Republican ascendancy. Signs of this eclipse were already evident by this point, however. The Federalist presidential ticket of Adams and Thomas Pinckney did not carry the state in 1796, a significant blow to the Federalists’ prestige. The national backlash against the Alien and Sedition Acts added further to the Federalists’ decline. By 1804, after the defeat of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney by Republican Thomas Jefferson, Federalism was essentially dead in South Carolina, as it was throughout much of the nation. Yet, during its heyday in South Carolina, Federalism had been the unifying ideology for a powerful planter and commercial elite that had guided the state’s affairs during the tumultuous post–Revolutionary War years.
Elkins, Stanley, and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Kaplanoff, Mark D. “Making the South Solid: Politics and the Structure of Society in South Carolina, 1790–1815.” Ph.D. diss., Cambridge University, 1979.
Phillips, Ulrich B. “The South Carolina Federalists.” American Historical Review 14 (April 1909): 529–43; (July 1909): 731–43.
Rogers, George C. Evolution of a Federalist: William Loughton Smith of Charleston (1758–1812). Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1962.