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Seniority brakes freshmen seeking new state constitution

Recently, a group of freshman state lawmakers, including Representative William Cogswell (R-110th District), called for the replacement of the 1895 South Carolina Constitution. This ambitious effort, unlikely to go anywhere in 2018, is a sign of the frustration that these younger legislators have with their “elders” in the General Assembly. As you might imagine, veteran legislators responded almost as enthusiastically as a condemned man would to his impending execution.

While constitutions are not the most exciting of topics, they are important within the halls of government — and not just there since they form the basis for what government can and cannot do for you and me. Every state has a constitution largely modeled along the same lines of the United States Constitution. However, though the U.S. Constitution is only a little more than 4,500 words, state versions are considerably longer. The average length is 26,000 words, with Alabama’s constitution having the dubious distinction of being the longest at more than 172,000 words. State constitutions tend to be incredibly detailed as well. As examples, the Oklahoma Constitution mandates that home economics be taught in high school, while South Dakota has a constitutional provision requiring that the state penitentiary in Sioux Falls must produce twine and cordage for sale. In rather inelegant language, the Kentucky Constitution bans “idiots” from voting.

South Carolina’s Constitution isn’t free of unusual language and provisions it. The constitution requires that officeholders believe in a “Supreme Being,” though a S.C. Supreme Court ruling in 1997 ruled that such a requirement was unconstitutional and thus could not be enforced. However, the General Assembly has never chosen to remove the language from the constitution — surprise, surprise. More seasoned citizens of the state will remember well the days when restaurants could not serve alcohol. From 1973-2005, the South Carolina Constitution had a “mini-bottle” provision, which meant ordering a multi-alcohol cocktail was an expensive experience. The Palmetto State was the last state of the Union to eliminate such a provision. Interestingly, more and more people began moving to Charleston not long after that …

In other words, state constitutions may not be the most glamorous of topics, but they do, matter and have consequences. So, it is not altogether surprising that there have been sporadic calls for nearly a century to revise the current S.C. Constitution substantially, or even write a new one. The current constitution has been substantially revised during the course of the 20th century and in the first two decades of the 21st century, with more than 500 amendments since 1895. The sheer number of amendments became so embarrassing that the approved changes are now incorporated into the text of the constitution so that we do not have a long list of amendments at the end of the document.

If you haven’t given up on this column by now, or fallen asleep, the 1895 Constitution was largely the work of “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, one of the more famous, some would say infamous, politicians in the state’s storied political history. Tillman, who was born in 1847 in Edgefield District, was governor of South Carolina from 1890-1894 and was one of the state’s U.S. senators from 1895 until his death in 1918. Tillman was a part of a faction of the Democratic Party known as the “Bourbon Democrats” who were devoted to the restoration of white political rule. The early 1890s saw Southern states pass a series of laws designed to require segregation and disfranchisement of black voters. Tillman was very much part of that movement.

As he was leaving the governor’s office, Tillman managed to convince the state’s voters, at a time when black citizens had the ability to vote in some counties, to call for a constitutional convention. At that convention in 1895, supporters of Tillman, known as “Tillmanites,” outnumbered all other political factions of the era. The document the Tillmanites produced disfranchised black voters for the next 80 years until federal intervention in the 1960s. However, other legacies continue to exist. Perhaps, the most notable is a General Assembly more powerful than one typically finds in other states.

This power comes at the expense of the executive branch, specifically the governor. Since the late 19th century, the state’s politics have been marked by a relatively small handful of legislators wielding enormous political power. Often, these legislators hail from obscure towns that many people have never even heard of, much less visited. Until the 1960s, the General Assembly essentially controlled counties in the state, as there was no provision for elected county governments.

Another consequence that continues to cause growing pains across the state, including Charleston, is that annexation laws are extremely strict and convoluted to protect rural landowners who fear growing cities. To limit the possible power of the governor even further, the constitution at one point required that voters elect nine statewide positions that made up the executive branch. Voters were even asked to elect the adjutant general until 2014.

So, the frustrations of these freshman legislators are understandable. As Lyndon Baines Johnson once stated though, “power is as power does.” Predictably, more senior legislators have ignored these calls for a new state constitution. To illustrate how partisanship has its limits, even the Democratic legislators have not seized on this issue, as they are apparently comfortable with the current system. So, don’t hold your breath waiting for the new 2018 Constitution, or even 2019 for that matter. And remember the oft-sad reality — today’s freshman legislators are tomorrow’s senior legislators.

Dr. Scott Buchanan is a professor of political science at The Citadel. His research focuses on Southern politics.

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