General Assembly

1670 –

Much of the evolution of the South Carolina General Assembly revolves around attempts by conflicting factions to preserve or gain an advantage in representation. For example, increasingly powerful Carolina-based leaders struggled with proprietary and royal authorities during the colonial era to establish the dominance of the Commons House of Assembly as a basis for political independence (1670–1776).

Much of the evolution of the South Carolina General Assembly revolves around attempts by conflicting factions to preserve or gain an advantage in representation. For example, increasingly powerful Carolina-based leaders struggled with proprietary and royal authorities during the colonial era to establish the dominance of the Commons House of Assembly as a basis for political independence (1670–1776). For much of the following century, the burgeoning upcountry struggled against an entrenched lowcountry elite to increase its representation and influence in the legislature. In the social, economic, and political fallout during the decades after the Civil War, racial conflict dominated as a white minority struggled to maintain control of the General Assembly against the challenges of Reconstruction and the civil rights movement. After 1965, federally mandated redistricting and the creation of single member districts weakened rural delegations in favor of the state’s expanding urban and suburban population.

In the earliest years of South Carolina, the Lords Proprietors exercised lawmaking and taxing powers granted them by the king of England to establish a New World colony. The proprietors lived in England, so they selected a governor and, along with major resident landowners, a Grand Council to conduct the affairs of the colony. The proprietors retained veto authority over any Grand Council action. The Grand Council consisted of three groups: representatives of the proprietors, ten colonists chosen by leading landowners to act as a kind of upper legislative house, and a lower or Commons House of Assembly, which consisted of twenty members chosen by the “freemen” of the colony. The Commons House could only discuss proposals from other parts of the Grand Council. After 1682, however, all three groups had to approve any act, thus letting the Commons House exercise legislative initiative. This arrangement stayed intact until the proprietors were overthrown early in the eighteenth century by the general dissatisfaction of the Commons House, which was irked that their legislative initiatives were consistently vetoed by the proprietors.

Reestablished as a royal colony in 1719, a new legislative body was created consisting of two houses. An upper house was designated His Majesty’s Council (or Royal Council) and was composed of twelve persons appointed by the king to unlimited terms. The Commons House continued as a lower house, but this time with members elected by the colonists. To qualify as a Commons House member, one had to own five hundred acres and ten slaves or houses and town lots worth £1,000. Only adult white males could serve, and they did not have to be a resident of the parish from which they were elected. To be able to vote for a representative, one had to be a free white male, at least twenty-one years old who professed the Christian religion, a resident for one year, and own a freehold of fifty acres or pay twenty shillings a year in taxes to the colony. The governor was now sent over from England for the term of his service.

The Commons House continued to gain political momentum during the colonial era, especially by insisting on the right to draft bills about money. The colony gradually became an independent place, made rich by self-made men who used the Commons House to promote their interests while protecting themselves against unwanted challenges from the enslaved population or Native Americans.

From 1769 until the start of the Revolutionary War, the Commons House virtually ceased to function as a result of its involvement in the “Wilkes Fund Controversy.” John Wilkes attacked King George III in his newspaper and was charged with criminal libel. Wilkes became a symbol of the importance of a free press, of protection from unlawful arrest, and of the right of the people to elect any person “not disqualified” to Parliament. South Carolinians supported Wilkes, and the Commons House in 1769 authorized money to help him pay his debts–an act that was an affront to the king. In the aftermath, the Commons House deadlocked with the Royal Council, and civil government came to a virtual standstill.

The first state constitution in 1776 established a two-house legislative branch. The lower house, with 202 members, was elected by eligible voters from election districts made up of the parishes of the now disestablished Anglican Church. The lower house elected a thirteen member upper house called the Legislative Council. Both houses elected a president, who served as governor with a veto power, but who could not be reelected. In 1778 a new constitution renamed the president as governor, called the upper house the Senate, and allocated additional lower house seats to the upcountry. Despite having a larger share of the state’s free population, the upcountry only received about forty percent of lower house seats. The political center of government remained in Charleston.

In 1788 a state convention met in Charleston to consider ratification of the new U.S. Constitution. The delegates were selected in the same lowcountry-dominated proportions as seats in the General Assembly. The new constitution was ratified by the convention, with most lowcountry delegates supporting it and most upcountry delegates opposing. Upcountry interests immediately pressed for a new convention to deal with representation issues in the state. In the resulting 1790 constitution, counties became the basis for upcountry representation, while parishes remained the representation basis for the lowcountry. Both houses were elected by the people. The lower house was reduced to 124 members, a number which has continued to the present. The vote was still restricted to white males over twenty-one who owned fifty acres or a town lot. House members had to own five hundred acres and ten slaves; senators had to have twice these amounts. The General Assembly not only made laws, but elected the governor, judges, and many local officials.

In the so-called Compromise of 1808, the representation arrangements were changed so that election districts would have one representative for 1/62 of the state’s population and one representative for 1/62 of its taxable wealth. Each election district would have one senator, except for the city of Charleston which would have two. By recognizing population, the upcountry gained a sixteen vote majority in the lower house and a one vote majority in the Senate. This legislative system continued until the Civil War.

Federally appointed officials temporarily took control of the state after the Civil War. A fresh constitution was devised by whites in 1865, which differed but slightly from the 1790 version. Wealth and population continued as the basis for Senate and House members. Although qualified voters were allowed to elect the governor and presidential electors, the newly emancipated black population was barred from voting. The new General Assembly ratified the Thirteenth Amendment that ended slavery, but refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave civil rights to blacks. In addition the assembly enacted Black Codes that severely limited the rights and privileges of African Americans in the state. In response Congress closed down the state government in 1867 and demanded a new constitution that would recognize the citizenship rights of black South Carolinians.

The constitutional convention in 1868 was composed of seventy-six black and thirty-eight white delegates. Population alone became the basis for representation and the vote was provided for all males, regardless of race. The General Assembly struggled with issues such as funding a system of public education, rebuilding infrastructure, revitalizing the economy, and countering white opposition to Reconstruction. Spurred by the retreat of federal authority in the mid-1870s, white Democrats regained control of the General Assembly in 1876 and a one-party political system gradually emerged as a way to reestablish and ensure white supremacy.

By 1890 South Carolina looked a lot like it would look in 1950. Agriculture had turned into an established sharecropping system dependent on cotton; the building of railroads had created a new “small town” elite; textile mills had begun to migrate south; and Republicans–the hated party of Lincoln–had virtually disap- peared from the state’s political landscape. Under these conditions, political conservatives–the elites and former Confederate leaders– came to prominence, but did little to relieve the discontent of white farmers who fumed over low prices, high interest and freight rates, and suspicion that the Conservatives were using black voters to stifle legislative responses to their needs.

One leader, Benjamin R. Tillman, was able to articulate the farmers’ problems and set events in motion that produced yet another constitutional convention in 1895. The apparatus of government was not changed very much, but the politics were. One purpose was to get around the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave blacks the right to vote. To counter this, white delegates inserted a clause in the new state constitution that limited the right to vote to adult males who had paid a poll tax six months before the election and who were not guilty of certain crimes. The assumption was that most poor persons, especially blacks, could not pay the tax that early and, even if they did, would not subsequently be able to save a receipt to prove it. Even after passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920 extended the vote to women, the electorate in South Carolina remained restricted to “acceptable” whites and blacks.

The continuation of counties as election districts gave rise to a “one county-one senator” system of representation in the General Assembly. The county, not population, was the basis for legislative representation. Each county was also apportioned at least one House member. In 1895 there were thirty-five counties. The number grew to forty-six by 1919. State senators dominated the politics and programs of their county through passage of annual “supply bills,” by which they controlled their county’s budget and most aspects of local government. Since no senator could oppose another’s supply bill without risking opposition to his own, legislative approval for a county’s schools, roads, courts, law enforcement, or other county purposes really rested in the hands of the senator. House members were dependent on what the senator wanted.

As “emperors of a county-based empire,” state senators were extraordinarily powerful political figures well into the twentieth century and the linchpins of the one-party system. Senator Edgar Brown of Barnwell County is perhaps the most potent example of a dominant senator. Speaker of the House Solomon Blatt, also of Barnwell County, advanced rural power in the S.C. House by appointing only one member from each county to a committee, thereby assuring that small counties would outnumber urban counties in most instances. Blatt and Brown were referred to by their critics as the “Barnwell Ring,” but more realistically the reference was to a statewide, rural “ring” that excluded growing urban areas from meaningful political power.

The power of rural delegations faced significant changes as national civil rights policies emerged. First the national Voting Rights Act of 1965 extended full voting rights to every individual regardless of race. An expanded electorate gradually demonstrated political success in gaining minority representation in the General Assembly. John Felder, Herbert Fielding, and I. S. Leevy Johnson, elected to the S.C. House in 1970, and I. DeQuincey Newman, elected to the S.C. Senate in 1983, became the first African Americans elected to the General Assembly in the twentieth century.

Next the county delegation system was fundamentally altered by U.S. Supreme Court decisions that mandated population as the basis for representation and prohibited gerrymandering, the arrangement of political district boundaries for the advantage of a particular interest. New districts with equal population per legislator would now have to be drawn after each national census. In 1971 the House first reapportioned in a plan that retained one representative per county. The tactic did not pass federal courts and the House subsequently reapportioned into single member districts on the “one person, one vote” principle. The Senate in 1968 tried a plan of twenty multimember districts through which each senator represented approximately the same number of people. After the 1970 census, forty-six senators were elected from sixteen districts. After 1980, however, the Senate moved to single member districts.

Election districts are adjusted every ten years to reflect changes in population. The redistricting decisions are in the hands of incumbent state legislators, although their decisions are subject to approval by the U.S. Department of Justice and have typically been challenged in federal courts. Since 2001, Republicans have had a majority in both houses and have allocated important committee assignments by party affiliation rather than by years of service. Legislative party caucuses have become more influential in raising campaign money. In addition to the Republicans and Democrats, African American legislators are organized into a separate caucus. The low number of women elected to the General Assembly continues as a topic of political comment by legislative observers. In 2003 only sixteen members of the General Assembly were women, the smallest percentage of female state legislators in the nation.

Contemporary legislators are aided in their work by increased staff support, computer assisted bill management, and the use of individual offices. Annual sessions begin in January and continue until May or June. Many study committees continue throughout the interim. A new General Assembly is convened every two years after November elections in even numbered years. House members are elected for two-year terms and senators are elected for four years. Each must reside in the district from which elected. House members must be a qualified elector at least twenty-one years of age and senators must be twenty-five years old.

Cooper, William J., Jr. The Conservative Regime: South Carolina, 1877–1890. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968.

Craven, Wesley F. The Southern Colonies in the Seventeenth Century, 1607–1689. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1949.

Edgar, Walter. South Carolina: A History. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

Simkins, Francis Butler, and Robert Hilliard Woody. South Carolina during Reconstruction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1932. Young, Richard D. A Guide to the General Assembly of South Carolina. Columbia: Institute of Public Affairs, University of South Carolina, 2000.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title General Assembly
  • Coverage 1670 –
  • Author
  • Keywords Reconstruction, civil rights, lowcountry elite, Lords Proprietors, Grand Council, Commons House, “Wilkes Fund Controversy.”, so-called Compromise of 1808, Thirteenth Amendment, Benjamin R. Tillman, Fifteenth Amendment, Nineteenth Amendment, “supply bills,”, “Barnwell Ring,”,
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date February 27, 2024
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 4, 2022
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