Vision for SC’s enlightened development almost doomed from start

in Contributors/Scott Graber/Voices by

It is Wednesday, 6:30 a.m., and I’m on a wooden deck, with complimentary coffee, waiting for the sun- rise above the blue-tinted mountains of western North Carolina. 

I’m at the Pisgah Inn, elevation 5,000 feet, but the sun has not crested a dark ridge just to my left. There are two other people on the semi-dark deck, one who asks, “Are you writing poetry?” 

“No,” I respond. “I’m doing a column for my newspaper back home.” 

“And where is home,” she asks. 

“Beaufort County,” I reply. 

The Pisgah Inn is four buildings clinging to a 1,000-foot-high ledge at Mile Marker 408 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The two-storied buildings are not impressive — we’re not talking about hand-hewn logs or huge stone fireplaces one might find in Montana. 

But those who know Pisgah forgive the 50’s-era architecture because of the magnificent, ever-changing, topographical map-like view that extends 30 miles to the East. A view that infuses a sense of serenity and wonder. 

Below, especially in Minnesota, there is confrontation and convulsion. There has been another killing, another night of anger, tears and calls for justice. All of which reminds me of a book, by my friend Tom Wilson, titled “The Ashley Cooper Plan.” 

This is a book about the founding of South Carolina and the concept of governance envisioned by Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper — a layered society that had the Lord’s Proprietors at the top; followed by a hereditary nobility; then by landowners, then tradesmen and, finally, laborers. 

The Cooper Plan gave governance of Carolina to those at the top, but it came with a concept called reciprocity. Reciprocity meant each class had a duty to the other classes. In the case of the nobility a duty to govern fairly and with generosity — with noblesse oblige. 

Then, in 1690, a surge of “immigrants” arrived in Charleston from Barbados. 

Barbados had an economy based on sugar cane, sugar plantations and slavery. Initially the slaves were Irish; but they tended to die. So when African slaves arrived in Barbados they replaced the Irish and would eventually make up 70 percent of the island’s population. 

The South Carolina Colony — a colony that was raising indigo for British textile makers — had no trouble shifting from wage-paid labor to slave labor and putting them on the bottom rung of it’s “Great Chain of Being.” 

This “Great Chain of Being” was at odds with other American colonists, especially those in New England, that came ashore with compacts that fooled around with the notion that all people were created equal. And slavery worked well with a culture built upon difficult work in flooded fields; then labor on huge cotton plantations requiring the application of marsh mud in winter and weed-chopping in the summer. 

The South Carolina concept of “Being,” its large-tract agriculture and the absolute authority of the plantation elite did not remain solely in South Carolina. As the cultivation of cotton went westerly — to Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi — these same concepts went with it, creating enormous wealth and elaborate moral justifications for the expansion of an economy based on slave labor. And that expansion began to collide with New England’s wage-based labor. 

Many southerners pointed to New England’s mill workers, especially the children in those mills, saying they were no different from slaves. But there was no question that these over-worked, short-lived children were not chattel. They were not bought, sold and mortgaged. 

We all know the history of the compromises that were made to reconcile the difference of opinion. We know about Thomas Jefferson’s belief that slavery had to end; about the Missouri Compromise; about the Dred Scott decision; about the internecine blood-fest that decided the issue in 1865. 

Well, we thought it decided the issue — but iterations of this same debate linger on today. 

As I sit on this elevated deck, looking past Funnel Top Mountain and down upon the fertile plain that is South Carolina, I wonder what might have happened in the slave-owning Barbadians had not left Barbados? If hurricanes and worry about insurrection had not forced them to relocate? 

But the prospect of getting South Carolina’s cotton into the great Triangular Trade Route, an obsession with the accumulation of property, a contempt of centralized government (brought to us by the Scots-Irish), and a belief in firearms to protect that property conspired to end Ashley Cooper’s and John Locke’s vision for South Carolina’ s enlightened development. 

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.