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South Carolina: Too Big to Be an Asylum?

Richard Rapaport

Throughout its history, South Carolina has been America’s agent provocateur, a political troublemaker out of scale with its ranking as the nation’s 26th most-populous state. In 1861 lawyer James L. Petegru, possibly the last sane freeman in antebellum Charleston, commented about his state’s secession from the Union. “South Carolina,” he sighed, “too small to be a republic, too big to be an asylum.”

Petegru’s judgment is as relevant today as it was at Civil War’s start. It accounts for the hubris, arrogance and sheer stupidity that are such key motifs for such modern-day South Carolina politicians as the romance-besotted Governor Mark Sanford, the extremist Senator Jim DeMint, and most recently, the boorish Representative Joe Wilson.

Never let it be said that South Carolina’s politicians are under-reachers. Despite the state’s rank of 47th in both ACT and SAT scores, its leaders hang stubbornly to the belief that they have something important to teach the rest of us. Perhaps they do, but in quite a different way than intended. South Carolina’s mistaken sense of manifest destiny began in colonial times. It resided in such proud achievements as being the British/American penal colony with the highest percentage of slaves, over 40% of the population. Throughout the 1700’s, Charleston was America’s wealthiest city, buoyed by the plantation economy and slave trade. So important was slavery that in 1740 the colonial legislature passed the “Negro Act,” actually forbidding owners from freeing their slaves without official concurrence.

At the start of the Revolution, South Carolina informed the Continental Congress that it would refuse to sign the Declaration of Independence unless slavery was recognized. South Carolina even demanded the right to disregard an embargo on trade with Great Britain agreed to by the other colonies. It was an exemption that allowed South Carolina to maintain its lucrative rice trade and remain among the richest colonies throughout the Revolution.

Particularly chilling about Congressman Wilson’s recent outburst on the House floor was its recollection of a May 1856 incident that foreshadowed the death of civility on the road to Civil War. Several days after Massachusetts’ abolitionist Charles Sumner gave a speech denouncing slavery, he was beaten unconscious on the Senate floor by Congressman Preston Brooks of – where else? – South Carolina.

South Carolina proudly refers to itself as “the birthplace of secession,” the first state to depart the Union following the 1860 Presidential election. Throughout those dark days as one after another Southern State left the Union, a bell christened “Secessia” tolled the news in South Carolina’s capital, Columbia. It was in Charleston that Civil War hostilities actually began when hotheaded South Carolina secessionists shelled Fort Sumter in April 1861.

In many respects, the Civil War has never ended for South Carolina; the State at the same time celebrating its role as the heart of rebellion, and insisting it is the innocent victim of William Tecumseh Sherman’s Army of the West. To this day many South Carolinians blame “Uncle Billy” Sherman for the thoroughness of his army’s arson. Sherman’s response was as tart as it was righteous: “Though I never ordered it, I have never shed many tears over the event because I believe it hastened what we all fought for, the end of the War.”

Reconstruction followed War’s end, and then came the darkest times during which South Carolina enacted the “Jim Crow” laws making life hell for former slaves and their descendants. The sheer inventiveness of segregation in South Carolina was fiendish; in 1915, for example, the legislature passed a law barring white and black textile workers from occupying the same factory spaces. The Klan operated in South Carolina, which practiced American apartheid under the tutelage of arch-racists like Senator Strom Thurman. As late as 2000, the Confederate flag flew over the state capitol in Columbia, its status protected by whom? Then State Senator, Joe Wilson.

With such a malign history, it is downright weird that South Carolinians like Representative Wilson seems convinced that they have some special messianic truth to publicly share with America’s first African-American President. If they do, the message must be a variant on James Petegru’s epithet, something like; “South Carolina, too small to be a Republic, just about the right size for an asylum!”

Richard Rapaport is a Bay Area writer. He can be reached at