South Carolina’s ratification of the United States Constitution in May 1788 was never in doubt. Had there ever been any suspense, it ended in January when the General Assembly, by a 76 to 75 vote, selected Charleston as the site of the ratifying convention, with the backcountry voting 57 to 2 for the losing side. Ratification opponent Aedanus Burke credited the unity of the city, its newspapers, and the open houses kept by merchants to treat delegates for the failure to prevent ratification. But location only determined the size of the Federalist victory. On several occasions during the 1780s, factions from across the state and political spectrum had supported strengthening the national government’s power to regulate foreign commerce. In January 1788 David Ramsay predicted that the Constitution would be “accepted by a very great majority.” Indeed, in the final ratification vote, Federalists (supporters of ratification) routed their Anti-Federalist opponents by more than a two-to-one margin, 149 to 73.
The South Carolina delegation played an active role at the 1787 constitutional convention in Philadelphia. Politically experienced and influential, Charles Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Pierce Butler, and John Rutledge helped to broker numerous compromises and ensured that the final document would serve the state’s economic interests, especially slavery. They secured protections for slave property, the continuation of the slave trade for at least twenty years, and the return of fugitive slaves. In addition, representation in the U.S. House of Representatives would be based on the number of free people and three-fifths the number of slaves. The South Carolina delegation was also unanimous in supporting provisions that prohibited states from impairing the obligation of contracts. Such “debtor relief” had been a fixture in the politics of South Carolina and other states during the years following the Revolution. Federalists had benefited greatly from debt-relief measures in the mid-1780s but would eschew such actions once their crisis had passed.
Since the state’s economic interests were well served by the new document, the most serious debate in South Carolina over ratification would revolve around the contested meaning of the American Revolution, which reflected the political conflicts that had divided the state since independence. In simplest terms, Federalists saw the Constitution as a way to complete the Revolution; Anti-Federalists saw it as a threat to their emerging power. James Lincoln, an Anti- Federalist from Ninety Six District, warned about a change from a “well-formed democratic” government to an aristocratic one and asked what people had been “contending for these ten years past?” In contrast, the lowcountry Federalist Francis Kinloch welcomed the proposed government precisely because he believed that Americans lacked the virtue necessary to maintain a “free form of government.”
Anti-Federalists probably would have opposed any government supported by South Carolina’s delegates at the constitutional convention. The state’s delegation was dominated by influential lowcountry figures. Working behind closed doors in Philadelphia, they had tried to limit the role of the people at large and successfully opposed the popular election of U.S. senators. Anti-Federalists objected to the election of senators by state legislatures and the absence of enforced rotation of officeholders, a principle that had been applied to the state’s delegates to the Confederation Congress and to the South Carolina governor. Federalists countered that under the new government the people were better represented than they had been under the Articles of Confederation. They neglected to add, however, that the Articles had left the central government so weak that it had hardly mattered who was represented.
However predictable the Federalist victory, Anti-Federalists undoubtedly represented a majority of the state’s white population. Representation in the ratifying convention, however, was the same as in the General Assembly, which was skewed in favor of coastal areas. With fewer than 30,000 white inhabitants in 1790, Charleston, Georgetown, and Beaufort were allowed 143 delegates. In contrast, the backcountry had only 93 delegates, even though the region had almost four times the number of white inhabitants. The vote over ratification followed those geographic lines. Support for the Constitution radiated out from the coastal centers of the three lowcountry districts. Parishes around Beaufort supported the Constitution 14 to 0, those around Georgetown by 12 to 1, and Charleston and the surrounding parishes by a vote of 73 to 0. In six other lowcountry parishes the vote was 22 to 15, putting the total lowcountry vote at 121 to 16 in favor of ratification. The backcountry voted 57 to 28 against ratification. Seventeen of the 28 backcountry votes for ratification and only 1 of the 57 votes against came from four election units bordering lowcountry parishes.
The delegates opposed to the Constitution represented about fifty-two percent of the population, those in favor represented about thirty-nine percent, and those not voting about nine percent. Aedanus Burke complained that the Constitution had been ratified even though “4/5 of the people do from their souls detest it.” In addition to the geographic division over the Constitution, there was an economic one. The wealthier the delegate to the ratifying convention, the more likely he was to support the Constitution. The split between Federalists and Anti-Federalists was even greater outside the convention. Backcountry settlers invariably sent the same people to the convention as they sent to the General Assembly, for which there was a property qualification, which meant that many relatively poor people had to vote for people who were better off.
Politically speaking, opposition to the Constitution came from areas that were gaining political power since the Revolution, and for the first time seemed poised to dominate the state. Conversely, support for the Constitution came from those uncomfortable with the political forces unleashed by independence and the defeat of the British. Fearful of additional change, of chaos, and even of anarchy, supporters of ratification saw a strengthened central government as a means to limit further damage.
Bradford, M. E. “Preserving the Birthright: The Intention of South Carolina in Adopting the U.S. Constitution.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 89 (April 1988): 90–101.
Nadelhaft, Jerome J. The Disorders of War: The Revolution in South Carolina. Orono: University of Maine Press, 1981.
Weir, Robert M. “South Carolina: Slavery and the Structure of the Union.” In Ratifying the Constitution, edited by Michael Allen Gillespie and Michael Lienesch. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989.
———. “South Carolinians and the Adoption of the U.S. Constitution.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 89 (April 1988): 73–89.