Counties, districts, and parishes all existed in South Carolina after independence from Great Britain. Under the 1778 constitution, the parish and the district were election districts for the General Assembly.
County government in South Carolina represents both the old and the new. It represents the old in the sense that county government can trace its roots to the early colonial period in South Carolina. It represents the new because amendments to the South Carolina constitution passed in 1973 and the Local Government Act of 1975 (also known as the “Home Rule Act”) gave county governments “limited” home rule that granted authority to provide services ranging from animal control to zoning.
In 1682 the Lords Proprietors created three counties, Berkeley, Craven, and Colleton; Granville County was added later. The primary functions of these counties were administering justice, granting land, and the election of representatives. The Church Act of 1706 established the Church of England in South Carolina and also created ten parishes to carry out the church’s work. These parishes obtained a civil function to join their ecclesiastical one in 1716, when parishes became election districts for the colony. Besides serving as election districts, parishes recorded vital statistics, cared for the poor and orphans, provided doctors, and operated free schools.
New parishes were added throughout the colonial period, although the development of parishes in the backcountry did not keep pace with its rising population. In 1770 there were twenty-four parishes, of which only three were in the backcountry. Demands for better government led to the creation of seven judicial districts in 1769 that incorporated all the settled area of the colony. These districts brought some legal services to the backcountry but did not supply all the benefits of the parishes.
Counties, districts, and parishes all existed in South Carolina after independence from Great Britain. Under the 1778 constitution, the parish and the district were election districts for the General Assembly. This gave the lowcountry, with its numerous small parishes, a distinct advantage. Despite having over half the white population in the state, the backcountry received less than half of the seats in the House of Representatives. Although each district or parish was allotted one senator, Charleston had two parishes, inflating its power. A survey of uniform counties within the seven judicial districts was commissioned in 1783. In 1785 the General Assembly created twenty counties and established a small claims court in each county. Nevertheless, the creation of the new counties did not change the role and duties of district courts. District justices continued to hold sessions at district courthouse towns.
By 1800 this early experiment with counties came to an end. Despite serious efforts, counties were unable to establish clearly their identity and utility as extensions of state government. Most of the counties that existed became districts that assumed judicial responsibilities for their geographic areas. Although roughly the same size, these judicial districts had overlapping jurisdictions and responsibilities. It is noteworthy that few changes were made prior to the end of the Civil War. During this period there was little consistency in the manner in which services that had previously been provided by the counties (for example, education and road construction) were delivered. The Compromise of 1808 settled the issue of apportionment. By apportioning seats based on population and tax collection, the lowcountry finally acknowledged the growing power of the upcountry.
After the Civil War, counties in South Carolina underwent a significant transformation. In 1868 the state constitution abolished the parishes and designated judicial districts formally as counties. It also created a three-man board of commissioners in each county. These boards of commissioners had the power to collect taxes and spend revenue for a limited range of services, including roads, bridges, schools, and public buildings. Their authority to tax and spend was limited to purposes specified by the General Assembly. Because of this limited authority, this view of the responsibilities of county government became known as the “county purpose doctrine.” This long-standing doctrine continued until passage of the Local Government Act of 1975.
It was also during this period that Dillon’s Rule became the prevailing principle on the roles and responsibilities of county government. Named for Iowa Supreme Court justice John F. Dillon, a leading authority on municipal government, Dillon’s Rule held that local governments were solely the creature of state government. As such they had no authority beyond that delegated to them by the state legislature. This became the accepted view in South Carolina and served to further limit the authority of county governments to provide services. Combining the county purpose doctrine and Dillon’s Rule resulted in county government being limited to those powers expressly identified by the legislature. Hence, county government had little if any discretion and their very existence relied on the goodwill of the General Assembly.
For a brief period in the late nineteenth century, counties were legislated out of existence. In 1890 the constitutional provisions relating to counties were repealed by the General Assembly. However, the constitution of 1895 re-created counties and specified their duties and powers. In general those duties and responsibilities included the authorization or provision for schools, roads, bridges, and public buildings. Counties continued to have a limited role in local governance, being primarily an extension of state government.
During this period a county’s legislative delegation (the state senator and representatives) was the de facto governing authority for county government. The South Carolina General Assembly could pass legislation directed at any single county. It also annually passed the “supply bill,” the county’s operating budget. The delegation’s power was further enhanced because the General Assembly tended to defer to individual county delegations in all matters related to the counties they represented.
Changes to the state constitution in 1973 (ratified as Article VIII) and passage of the Local Government Act of 1975 changed the landscape of county government in South Carolina by expanding and clarifying its duties, responsibilities, and authority. After these changes, the powers of county government were characterized typically as “limited” home rule because the General Assembly still retained the substantial authority to expand or restrict the powers of county government. For example, through the Local Government Fiscal Authority Act of 1997, the General Assembly clearly defined the limits of county government’s authority to generate revenue to meet local needs.
In the early twenty-first century counties could best be described as general-purpose governments having general powers and providing a range of local services, such as law enforcement, construction and maintenance of roads and bridges, water and sewer service, collection and disposal of solid waste, land-use planning, public libraries, economic development, recreation, buying and selling property, entering into contracts, eminent domain, assessment of ad valorem property taxes, and establishing uniform service charges.
The 1975 statute authorized four forms of county government. The council form vests all responsibilities for making policy and administering county government in the county council. The council has both executive and legislative power. In the council-supervisor form, a supervisor is elected at large. The supervisor is both the chairman of county council and the chief administrative officer of the county. In the council-administrator form, council hires an administrator who is the chief administrative officer of the county and is responsible for all departments for which the council has control. The council-manager form is similar to the council-administrator form with one major exception. In the council-manager form, the auditor and the treasurer may be appointed by council rather than elected. Once appointed, they report to the county manager. As of November 2004, the bulk of South Carolina’s counties had the council-administrator form (thirty-four counties), followed by the council form (six), the council-supervisor form (four), and the council-manager form (two).
Unlike municipalities, created in response to the needs of a group of residents, counties were created as “creatures” of the state. Their power and authority are limited to what is approved by the General Assembly. County governments still provide and support state-level services. However, their powers and responsibilities have also increased so that today in many ways they are similar to municipal governments. As the needs and expectations of the citizens continue to change, county government in South Carolina can be expected to continue to evolve.
A Handbook for South Carolina County Officials. Columbia: South Carolina Association of Counties, 1999.
Hannum, Eleanor. “The Parish in South Carolina, 1706–1868.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1970.
Krane, Dale, Platon N. Rigos, and Melvin B. Hill, Jr. Home Rule in America A Fifty-State Handbook. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2001.
Long, John Hamilton, Gordon DenBoer, and Kathryn Ford Thorne. Atlas of Historical County Boundaries: South Carolina. New York: Scribner’s, 1997.
Stauffer, Michael E. The Formation of Counties in South Carolina. Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1994.
Tyer, Charlie B., ed. South Carolina Government: An Introduction. Columbia: Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, University of South Carolina, 2002.