Although begun as a literary journal, the Charleston Mercury developed into one of the state’s most radical and combative newspapers.
Although begun as a literary journal, the Charleston Mercury developed into one of the state’s most radical and combative newspapers. In 1821 the New Jersey native and bookseller Edward Morford founded the Charleston Mercury and Morning Advertiser. In 1823 it was purchased by Henry Laurens Pinckney, who transformed the newspaper into a partisan organ for John C. Calhoun. That same year it established a “country” or tri-weekly issue in order to expand circulation. In 1825 the name of the paper was shortened to Charleston Mercury. The newspaper became a strong proponent of nullification in March 1830; it was alone among Charleston newspapers in taking this position, and doing so helped solidify its lengthy antebellum rivalry with the more moderate Charleston Courier.
Although the newspaper changed hands several times through the 1840s and 1850s, the editorial tone remained aggressive and merciless toward its enemies. This occasionally led to flare-ups outside the pages of the newspaper. The coeditor William R. Taber was killed in an 1856 duel by an angry relative of one of the paper’s targets. The Rhett family had been associated with the Mercury since the mid-1840s, and the family bought the paper outright in 1857, with Robert Barnwell Rhett, Jr., assuming complete control of the newspaper the following year. The newspaper called loudly for secession. When that was achieved, the paper turned its attention to criticizing the Confederate government. Personal attacks on Jefferson Davis were matched by attacks on the Confederate Congress for not opposing Davis’s agenda and for conducting a defensive military strategy. The newspaper also complained that government censorship restricted journalists from completely reporting on the war effort.
Rhett prepared for the war better than most editors did by ordering a new press before the start of hostilities. In part this allowed the Mercury to continue publishing when other papers foundered for lack of equipment or resources. The press was moved to Columbia in autumn 1864 but was burned when the city fell. Rhett started the Mercury again after the war, but the newspaper failed in November 1868.
Coussons, John Stanford. “Thirty Years with Calhoun, Rhett, and the Charleston Mercury: A Chapter in South Carolina Politics.” Ph.D. diss., Louisiana State University, 1971.
Davis, William C. Rhett: The Turbulent Life and Times of a Fire-Eater. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.
Osthaus, Carl R. Partisans of the Southern Press: Editorial Spokesmen of the Nineteenth Century. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994.
Prior, Granville Torrey. “A History of the Charleston Mercury, 1822–1852.” Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1946.