Throughout royal rule, the council was dominated by a relatively equal number of planters, merchants, and lawyer/placemen who were nominated by the governor and approved by the London-based Board of Trade for their wealth, political connections, and willingness to support English policies.
The Royal Council, the linear heir of the council under the Lords Proprietors, was a twelve-man governing board created in 1720 to serve as an adviser to the governor, as a court of appeals, and as an upper house of the legislature. Throughout royal rule, the council was dominated by a relatively equal number of planters, merchants, and lawyer/placemen who were nominated by the governor and approved by the London-based Board of Trade for their wealth, political connections, and willingness to support English policies. Legislative experience was not an important criterion for appointment to the council. Its members served without pay, and its meetings were held irregularly at the call of the governor.
During the first several decades of royal rule, the council enjoyed a significant increase in its political autonomy and authority. Members were no longer subjected to the frequent arbitrary dismissals that they had experienced at the hands of the Lords Proprietors. A series of weak governors who deferred to the council added to its power and independence, allowing it to elect its own president and permitting it to compile a list of men suitable for replacements. The upper house soon likened itself, in both prestige and power, to the English House of Lords. This comparison was flawed, however, for councillors were not members of the hereditary nobility who held their political posts for life. Still, the councillors vigorously and successfully fought encroachments on their authority in the 1740s and 1750s by both the Commons House of Assembly and governors. The council did make one concession in this political power struggle in 1739, however, when it surrendered its claim to amend money bills in exchange for the right to exclude the governor from its legislative sessions. Nevertheless, by the mid-1750s South Carolina’s upper house carried considerable power and prestige, a highly unusual circumstance at a time when most colonial councils were becoming political nonentities.
The council’s stature dropped precipitously after 1756, however, when Governor William Henry Lyttleton arbitrarily suspended William Wragg from that body for opposing the governor’s unwillingness to defend the council’s right over partial control of the colonial agent. Wragg’s dismissal led to a wave of resignations in the upper house, which quickly gained a reputation for being a “dependent body” whose members were “removable at pleasure.” Consequently, most men of fortune found the council a “contemptible” body, and no amount of inducement could persuade them to serve on it. Instead, the English ministry, in an attempt to create an absolutely subservient upper legislative body that would give unwavering support of its measures during the Anglo-American dispute, selected men to the council who were financially dependent on the crown. Generally these appointees were British bureaucrats (placemen) of mediocre abilities who were more interested in upholding the crown’s prerogative than preserving the colony’s welfare. Their conduct in the council became increasingly counterproductive to effective government. With encouragement from King George III, the placemen-dominated upper house attempted to force the assembly to rescind a £1,500 donation given in 1769 to John Wilkes, an English opponent of the king, by refusing to approve any legislation until the lower house returned the “Wilkes fund” to the provincial treasury. The assembly refused to budge on the issue. This political standoff lasted until February 1775, when the upper house, under enormous political pressure, finally approved a tax bill, the last measure enacted under royal government. For all intents and purposes, though, royal rule had ended in South Carolina in 1770. In its place emerged illegal governing committees organized by leading men increasingly frustrated by the council’s obstructionist behavior. Indeed, William Henry Drayton in his “Freeman” letter of 1774 to the Continental Congress listed the decline of the council as one of his seven major grievances against the crown. When America declared its independence from Britain in 1776, these de facto governing bodies enabled South Carolina to make a smooth transition from royal rule to self-government.
Greene, Jack P. “The Role of the Lower Houses of Assembly in Eighteenth- Century Politics.” Journal of Southern History 27 (November 1961): 451–74.
Krawczynski, Keith. William Henry Drayton: South Carolina Revolutionary Patriot. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.
Sirmans, M. Eugene. “The South Carolina Royal Council, 1720–1763.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 18 (July 1961): 373–91.
Weir, Robert M. Colonial South Carolina: A History. 1983. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.