Country ideology

1680–1740

At the heart of country ideology was a profound distrust of human nature. Endowed with reason, man deserved the liberty to chart his own destiny, yet he inevitably hurt others in his quest for fulfillment.

Country ideology was a series of ideas expounded in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by English writers such as Henry St. John, Viscount Bolinbroke, Thomas Gordon, and John Trenchard. These men opposed the accumulation of power by the British crown at the expense of the House of Commons, the representatives of the people. A fringe element critiquing the existing order, these writers won few adherents in England, yet their work heavily influenced the political culture of colonial America, where colonists perceived themselves on the margins of empire. The effect of country ideology on South Carolina was different and more pervasive than anywhere else in British North America.

At the heart of country ideology was a profound distrust of human nature. Endowed with reason, man deserved the liberty to chart his own destiny, yet he inevitably hurt others in his quest for fulfillment. Government became necessary to protect liberty, but government was composed of imperfect men who could never be trusted to use power selflessly. Furthermore, power tended to accumulate in the hands of a few men and threaten liberty. Thus the representatives of the people should hold the power of the purse and control taxation. As independent men of property and cultivation, representatives acted in the best interests of their constituents and protected them from the expansion of executive authority.

In other colonies country ideology took hold amid factional strife, as public men brandished these ideas against their opponents. In South Carolina, however, country ideology proved an adhesive that united elite leaders. These men shared interests and fears. Amid general prosperity and mutual economic interests, they feared attacks by foreign powers or inland Native American nations and were nervous about the potential rebelliousness of their slave majority. Service in the Commons House of Assembly allowed them to put into practice this ideology, as they struggled against successive governors who, aided by a compliant Royal Council, seemed bent on aggrandizing their power at the expense of liberty. Factional strife potentially played into the governor’s hands, for he could build power by playing one faction against another. Representatives in South Carolina, therefore, prided themselves on their independence and never formed permanent alignments, unless they united in resistance to arbitrary power.

This ideology amplified such political controversies as the dispute over Christopher Gadsden’s election in 1762, when the assembly defended its prerogatives against executive encroachment. It also lay behind the move toward revolution, as South Carolina’s leaders reacted to an outside threat manifested by the British king and Parliament. The influence of country ideology continued into the nineteenth century, when lowcountry and upcountry elites gradually formed common interests and fears that mirrored those of their colonial forebears. Unlike other states, South Carolina did not develop a viable two-party system. Though the state’s leaders often disagreed vehemently and competed in hotly contested election campaigns, they disdained permanent parties or factions and instead united against the perceived arbitrary power of a national government that imposed oppressive tariffs and threatened the existence of slavery.

Ford, Lacy K., Jr. Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry, 1800–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Weir, Robert M. “‘The Harmony We Were Famous For’: An Interpretation of Prerevolutionary South Carolina Politics.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 26 (October 1969): 473–501.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Country ideology
  • Coverage 1680–1740
  • Author
  • Keywords profound distrust of human nature, Commons House of Assembly, did not develop a viable two-party system,
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date December 2, 2022
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 21, 2022
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