Governor. Born in Liberty Hill, Kershaw County, on September 11, 1864, Richards was the son of John G. Richards and Sophia Edwards Smith. According to one scholar, Richards experienced “a relatively serene childhood” and enjoyed such genteel pursuits as lancing tournaments and fox hunting. He attended the common schools of Liberty Hill and spent two years at Bingham Military Institute in Mebane, North Carolina, before returning home at age nineteen to manage the family farm. In June 1888 Richards married Betty Coates Workman. The couple had eleven children.
In 1890 Richards supported “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman in his agrarian crusade against the conservative leaders of the Democratic Party, the so-called “Bourbons.” Tillman triumphed, and Richards became a Kershaw County magistrate. After serving for eight years, he won a seat in the state House of Representatives in 1898. Over the next twelve years Richards championed agriculture, conservative budgets, public education for whites, and liquor control. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Richards was a staunch advocate of prohibition.
After an unsuccessful bid for the governorship in 1910, Richards was appointed to the state Railroad Commission, where he sat for twelve years between 1910 and 1926. During that time he shifted his political allegiance from Tillman to Coleman Blease, the victor in the 1910 gubernatorial election. Richards failed to succeed Blease as governor in 1914 and lost a third run for the office in 1918. Finally, in his fourth attempt, Richards won the governorship in 1926.
In office Richards declared war on the board of public welfare, evolution, and the highway and tax commissions, proclaiming the latter to be “a veiled effort to establish an oligarchy.” He urged strict adherence to the Ten Commandments, ordering the state constabulary to close businesses that violated the Sabbath, and he even had golfers arrested for ignoring state blue laws. Appalled, the New York Times editorialized in March 1927, “There is another sport in South Carolina which is not seriously interfered with. This is lynching.” A month later a Columbia Record poll revealed that 249 respondents favored the governor’s position on Sunday activities while 3,943 opposed his interpretation of the Ten Commandments. The legislature and the state supreme court responded by curtailing Richards’s authority, while popular opinion rejected his actions.
By 1928 the governor had abandoned his persecution of golfers and concentrated on rallying support for a $65 million road construction project and the upgrading of public schools. Both of these endeavors were tremendously successful under Richards’s stewardship but were overshadowed by his zealous moral crusade. By the time he left office in 1931, South Carolinians enduring the Great Depression were far more concerned with obtaining the basic necessities of this life than with the narrow moral code of their governor. Retiring to his farm in Liberty Hill, Richards remained a loyal Democrat and supported Franklin Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential campaign, although he simultaneously led opposition in the state to the repeal of national prohibition. Richards died on October 9, 1941, and was buried in Liberty Hill Cemetery.
Cann, Katherine D. “John G. Richards and the Moral Majority.” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1983): 15–28.
McClure, Charles F. “The Public Career of John G. Richards.” M.A. thesis, University of South Carolina, 1972.