During the proprietary period (1670–1719), South Carolina governors were appointed by the Lord Proprietors. The next governors were appointed by the British crown from 1719 to 1776. The General Assembly elected governors from 1776 through 1865. From June 30, 1865, through November 29, 1865, the governor was appointed by the president of the United States. Since the end of 1865, governors have been elected by statewide popular vote.
Governors appointed by the proprietors worked with a council that was initially composed of separate groups of proprietors’ representatives, representatives chosen by local officials, and representatives of the people generally. By 1691 the council was reduced to a two-house legislature that, over time, became dominated by the lower house, the Commons House of Assembly. After 1689 the proprietors appointed a governor for Carolina in Charleston and another for the section “north and east of Cape Fear.” Beginning in 1710, a separate governor was continually appointed for North Carolina. An additional governor was appointed in 1682 for a new settlement of Scots, called Stuart’s Town, near today’s Beaufort until it was destroyed by the Spanish in 1686.
The first governors of South Carolina after American independence held the title “President of State.” From adoption of the state’s third constitution in 1790 until 1865, governors were elected by the General Assembly to two-year terms. Until 1812 all governors came from Charleston, the economic and political center of the state. The first governor from the upcountry, Andrew Pickens, was elected in 1816. Nevertheless, due to the under representation of the upcountry in the General Assembly, Charleston and the lowcountry remained the center of political, social, and economic power in South Carolina well into the nineteenth century.
Under the 1865 constitution, the governor was popularly elected for the first time. The governor’s tenure was for a four-year term, but the term was reduced to two years by the 1868 constitution. An incumbent could run for reelection once. These arrangements remained in place until the 1895 constitution was amended to change the term for the 1926 elections to four years without reelection. The governor could not run for a second four-year term until the constitution was amended prior to the 1982 election.
A governor’s power is often measured formally by the occupant’s ability to serve more than one term, to propose a budget, to appoint or remove executive branch officers, and to veto legislation. Based on these measures, the governorship in South Carolina has historically been considered weak. The strength of the typical South Carolina governor has more often reflected informal powers such as the governor’s personality, ability to persuade legislators, and talent for negotiating compromises.
In recent times, the formal powers of the office have expanded into a stronger executive. The second four-year term is one example. After having shared the power to propose a budget with a budget commission or the State Budget and Control Board since 1920, the modern governor of South Carolina is recognized as the source for the new executive budget proposed for the General Assembly.
Appointment and removal powers have traditionally been limited. For example, a governor could appoint magistrates, but based on a popular local referendum and the advice and consent of the Senate. Intervening boards and commissions, typically filled with legislative appointments, hired many agency directors who operated under direction of the board, not the governor. After the adoption by statute in 1993 of a limited cabinet system of government, eleven cabinet officers may now be removed by the governor and two other cabinet officers may be removed for cause.
An item veto gives the chief executive more institutional strength than a general veto. The item veto has been used by governors for removing special provisos, or “bobtails,” from the general appropriations bill. Provisos typically fund a special project as advocated by a local legislator or delegation.
South Carolina’s executive branch reflects the “long ballot” by which many officers are defined in the state constitution and elected statewide in addition to the governor. As of 2004, South Carolinians elect a lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, adjutant general, comptroller general, superintendent of education, and commissioner of agriculture. A sweeping report by a citizens’ panel, the Governor’s Management, Accountability, and Performance Study (MAP) in 2003 proposed the “short ballot” in which only the governor and lieutenant governor would be elected. To further enhance the cabinet-style government, the MAP also recommended that fourteen cabinet departments and clusters should report directly to the governor. A cabinet secretary appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate would lead each cluster.
These recommendations have not been implemented in whole or in part. What is clear is that the governorship of South Carolina is a dynamic office that has changed frequently, and sometimes dramatically, during the past three hundred years. As the biographies of individual governors show, each has faced common as well as unique challenges, often with mixed results.
Edgar, Walter. South Carolina: A History. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.
Jones, Lewis P. South Carolina: One of the Fifty States. Orangeburg, S.C.: Sandlapper, 1985.