A Trip to Charleston, SC (First Essay)
Bill Long 9/24/07
Reassessing Charles Pinckney (1757-1824)*
[*Two essays on the "Pinckney Draft" submitted at the Constitutiional Convention are here.]
I had the opportunity of visiting the charming Southern coastal city of Charleston, SC from Sept. 21-24. My major purpose for traveling across country was to attend an autism and law consultation in Charleston on the 22nd. Put together principally by SC attorney and champion of a stunning new autism law in SC, Lorri Unumb, the consultation focused on ways in which we might empower parents/autism professionals to seek passage of legislation shifting costs of treatment for autism (often more than $40,000 per year) from parents to insurance or state sources. More on that in the future...
Whenever possible, I try to extend my stay in conference cities by a few days in order to "get the deep feel" of the place as well as to "find an angle" on the place's history, horticultural resources or other aspect that people might not normally notice about the city. For example, instead of simply eating dinners on the Charleston Peninsula and walking up and down King St. to look at shops, with an obligatory trip to Fort Sumter, I decided to do three things that opened up the history of Charleston to me in very nice ways. I hope to write on each.
First, instead of visiting the two most popular National Park Service sites (Fort Sumter--Civil War and Fort Moultrie--Revolutionary War), I decided to visit the National Park Service site that almost no one visits--the plantation (Snee Farm) formerly owned by the Charles Pinckney families (father and son) from 1752-1817. This and the next essay will speak about that plantation. Second, instead of walking up and down King Street, I made arrangements to meet the urban forester of Charleston, Mr. Daniel Burbage, and learn, through his expert and kindly instruction, the nature of Charleston's "tree" environment. Finally, I visited one of the three Ashley River plantations, Magnolia Plantation, and managed to secure a personal tour from the Director of Gardens and Horticulture, Mr. Tom Johnson. Tom was in charge of the White House gardens under President Carter and brings his extensive experience and expertise to the precious camellia collection of Magnolia Plantation--which he plans to make "camellia central" in the world over the next decade or so. Thus, as I left Charleston earlier today, I did so with the sense that I was immensely blessed and enriched because of learning so from these gracious South Carolinians (Palmettans?)
Meeting Charles Pinckney
Charles Pinckney (1757-1824) has largely been ignored in historical research until the 2004 biography Charles Pinckney: Forgotten Father by SC historian Marty Matthews. On the surface, this ignorance was seemingly strange. Pinckney served four terms as SC governor, was a representative to the Continental Congresss, submitted the "Pinckney Draft" of a new constitution to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 (which has long been considered secondary to James Madison's efforts--more on this below), was Jefferson's first Ambassador to Spain (1801-05), was in the US House of Representatives and served several terms in the SC state legislature.
However, the reasons for ignoring him were probably just as weighty. Very few of his papers survived the great Charleston fire of 1861; he managed to generate ire of Monroe and other prominent Virginians; he had the unattractive habit of extreme self-promotion which angered many others and, possibly most significant, he broke from the family tradition of supporting the Federalist party at the end of the 18th century, which led to his opposing his cousin's bid for the Presidency. In fact, a good case can be made that Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746-1825) never became President in 1800 because of the efforts of his younger upstart cousin Charles Pinckney (the Pinckney of these essays). Finally, Charles Pinckney's extensive public service led to his neglect of his seven plantations which had to be turned over to trustees in 1816 to satisfy numerous debts accumulated during his time overseas and in public service. Thus, Charles Pinckney ended his life in poverty, was buried in a grave that for years wasn't known (most scholars agree he is interred in St. Philip's cemetery in Charleston) and, to add insult to injury, had his home torn down in the Civil War with the massive Calhoun residence being erected on that spot in the early 1870s (16 Meeting Street). Thus, he has almost disappeared "without a trace." His papers were largely lost; his home was razed; his finances disappeared; his family relationships dissolved.
"Rediscovering" or "Reassessing" Charles Pinckney
I knew most of these things only vaguely when I pulled into the Snee Farm Plantation today. To call it a "plantation," however, is overstated. What was at one time 715 acres is now only 28 acres of field and nature trail. The other 687 acres have become developments in Mt. Pleasant, the burgeoning Northern suburb of Charleston. Yet the 28 remaining acres give on enough "to go on" to try to piece together aspects of Pinckney's life from the late 18th-early 19th century. One of the reasons this 28 acres suffices is the extensive archeological work done by the National Park Service in the past 15 years to establish the "layers of life" at the Plantation. Because of their work we know much more about the nature of rice and indigo plantation life in the 18th century (the Snee Plantation was such a plantation), the constructiion of smaller plantation homes in this period, and the likely ways that Pinckney was involved in the life of the plantation.
Let me close this essay with one fact that we know of rice plantation life from the 18th century in the Carolina lowlands. Rice planting was an extremely labor-intensive industry. While most areas in South Carolina had ratios of 2 African-Americans for every 1 White, many areas of the Lowlands had 4:1 and, in some of the Rice Plantation areas, 9:1. Thus, incredibly, a 19th century German tourist upon visiting areas of coastal Carolina recorded in his diary that this part of the US looked like a Black country. The Snee Farm Plantation, for example, had 43 African-American slaves in the late 1780s, while there may or may not have been 1 White overseer at the place.
But what stayed with me about the visit to Snee Farm were not necessarily the layout of the slave quarters or the house, but the sad stories of Pinckney's life. Let's turn to those family/personal dynamics in the next essay.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long