The chief theme in the early history of the Commons House was its transformation from an impotent institution to an imperious political body that jealously guarded its immense authority.
(1670–1776). The dominant political institution in colonial South Carolina was the Commons House of Assembly (changed simply to “the Assembly” in 1744). It served as the lower house of the provincial legislature and was the only popularly elected branch of government in the colony. The chief theme in the early history of the Commons House was its transformation from an impotent institution to an imperious political body that jealously guarded its immense authority. Under the Fundamental Constitutions, elected representatives of the people sat together with the nobility and Lords Proprietors in a unicameral assembly (called parliaments). They had the power only to ratify or reject the statutes proposed by the Grand Council. Not until 1692 did the proprietors, responding to increasing complaints by the delegates about their lack of power, allow them to sit as a separate house, to initiate legislation, and to approve tax measures.
Over the next half-century the assemblymen, seeking to make the lower house a mirror image of the English House of Commons, usurped enormous political power from the royal governor and council. By the mid-1700s the Assembly had assumed ironclad control over all aspects of government: initiating laws, appointing revenue officers, establishing courts, supervising the Indian trade, selecting the colonial agent in London, auditing and reviewing all accounts of public officers, overseeing elections, and administering all governmental expenditures. However, the Assembly was not content with just dominating provincial affairs. It intentionally retarded the development of local government by refusing to delegate broad taxing powers to local governmental institutions. Instead, the Assembly appointed commissioners to spend the money it granted and to carry out the minutest details of local administration. In short, the Commons House of Assembly reigned supreme in South Carolina.
The Assembly’s wide use of commissions and its strict control of the expenditures of local government helped to make it the hardest-working legislative body in the American colonies. Moreover, the election law of 1721 required the Commons House of Assembly to meet at least once every six months, usually in the winter and fall when planters were in Charleston for pleasure or business. With sessions lasting several months, coupled with emergency sessions called by the governor, it was not uncommon for the Assembly to sit eight months of the year. No other colonial assembly endured such long sessions. When in session, the Commons House usually met six days a week for at least six hours a day.
The long legislative sessions of the Commons House, along with the fact that members served without pay, effectively prevented all but the wealthiest and most civic-spirited men from serving in that body. Under the Fundamental Constitutions, however, any twenty-one-year-old man with five hundred acres of land could serve in the Commons House of Assembly. Under the king, aspiring assemblymen had to own at least five hundred acres and ten slaves (twenty after 1745) or £1,000 in chattels. Perhaps half the colony’s adult white males met these qualifications for Commons House service. Still, voters, motivated by a negative view of human nature and a desire to control man’s irrational side, elected to the Commons House economically independent (that is, very wealthy), virtuous, and able men. This shared common political ideology (often referred to as “country ideology”), combined with the colony’s unrivaled economic prosperity, the constant threat of a slave rebellion, possible attack by the French and Spanish, the common economic interests between planters and merchants, and extensive intermarriage among them, encouraged a remarkable degree of political harmony to prevail in the Commons House. The lack of political discord, along with capable members committed to voluntary public service, enabled the assembly to effectively administer provincial affairs to the general satisfaction of its constituents. One glaring exception was the enormous dissatisfaction among the numerous backcountry residents who lacked representation in the Assembly until late in the colonial period. Still, the Commons House of Assembly, with its immense authority, relative independence, and general competence, provided an important legacy that later enabled the revolutionary Provincial Congress and the state General Assembly (the linear heirs of the Commons House) to effectively govern South Carolina during the turbulent decades of the late eighteenth century.
Edgar, Walter, and N. Louise Bailey, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives. Vol. 2, The Commons House of Assembly, 1692–1775. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1977.
Knepper, David M. “The Political Structure of Colonial South Carolina, 1743–1776.” Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia, 1971.
Sirmans, M. Eugene. Colonial South Carolina: A Political History, 1663–1763. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966.
Weir, Robert M. Colonial South Carolina: A History. 1983. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
Whitney, Edson L. Government of the Colony of South Carolina. 1895. Reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.