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The South Carolina Constitution of 1868

By Peg Eastman


Charleston Club House in the aftermath of the 1886 earthquake. Photo courtesy Robert P. Stockton from The Great Shoc


The Charleston Club House, designed in the Italian Renaissance Revival style by Charleston architects Barbot and Seyle, was set back 100 feet from Meeting Street and reflected the wealth of the antebellum city. Formal landscaping included flower beds, meandering walks and five elegant fountains supplied by reservoirs in the upper portion of the building. After the 1868 Constitutional Convention, the building was used as a federal courthouse and later belonged to the German Artillery. The classical masterpiece was shattered beyond repair during the 1886 earthquake, and the site is now a park adjacent the J. Waites Waring Judicial Center, honoring the federal judge who championed civil rights in South Carolina during the segregation era.


After Confederate forces evacuated Charleston on February 18, 1865, Mayor Charles Macbeth surrendered the city to the first Union officer to come onshore. By then the city’s population had shrunk from 40,000 residents to less than 10,000, and a two-year sea-land bombardment had rendered most of the southern half of the peninsula uninhabitable. Union troops found that swathes of the city had been reduced to rubble by the fire of 1861 and an explosion at the Northeastern Railroad depot that occurred as the Confederate troops evacuated.


The Union military began restoring order immediately, and within four months, a number of civilian leaders who had taken the oath of allegiance began the attempt to reinstate civilian government in South Carolina. President Andrew Johnson appointed Benjamin Franklin Perry of Greenville as provisional governor and outlined the requirements for South Carolina’s readmission to the Union: e.g., obtain delegates elected by “white voters who had taken the oath of allegiance” tasked with creating a state constitution (to be approved by the U.S. Congress). Key issues were to “acknowledge the abolition of slavery, nullify the Ordinance of Secession and repudiate South Carolina’s war debt.” This new state legislature contained recent Confederates “most inclined to move forward rather than dwell on the past” (Nic Butler, “The South Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1868”). They met in Columbia on October 25, and within two months had formally acknowledged the end of slavery and ratified the 13th Amendment.


They also passed a series of laws, later known as the “Black Code,” that restricted the rights of African Americans. On January 17, 1866, General Daniel E. Sickles, the Union military commander in South Carolina, issued General Order No. 1, nullifying the “Black Code.”


On April 9, 1866, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and two months later sent out for ratification the 14th Amendment, which gave citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” as well as equal protection under the law. It also gave male citizens age 21 and above the right to vote (except those guilty of “participation in rebellion, or other crime” (Amendment XIV text).


In Columbia, South Carolina, the provisional legislature reconvened and revised the laws known as the “Black Code,” but, like other Southern states, they refused to ratify the proposed 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.


In retaliation, on March 2, 1867, the U.S. Congress passed “An Act to Provide for the More Efficient Government of the Rebel States” to divide the South into five “military districts … made subject to the military authority of the United States” until each state (except Tennessee) ratified the 14th Amendment. Additionally, states were required to allow all male citizens to elect new delegates for new state constitutional conventions.


Concurrently, a new political party was being formed in Southern states: the Republican Party, made up of “formerly enslaved men, black men who had once been free persons of color, and liberal-minded white men.” Mostnewspapers, however, described these Republicans as “scalawags,” white Southerners who were sympathetic to the cause of “native Negroes,” and “carpetbaggers,” recently arrived Northern opportunists desiring to line their pockets at the expense of the defeated (Butler).


On November 19 and 20, 1867, South Carolina held the first election in which African American men were allowed to vote, which decided whether the state would indeed hold the convention. In part because many former Confederates were prohibited from participating, the vote “for a convention” was successful, carried by the new Republicans.


On January 14, 1868, the delegates of this new convention convened in the former Charleston Club, a well-appointed building located on the west side of Meeting Street across from St. Michael’s Church and the South Carolina Society Hall. The majority of delegates were recently emancipated African Americans; white men were in the minority, with a majority of those being Republicans, including Albert G. Mackey (1807-1881), a white Charleston Unionist, who was elected president of the convention.


The convention lasted 53 days, and on March 17, 1868, South Carolina had its new constitution, which among many confirmed S.C.’s membership in the Union and prohibited discrimination based on race or color. In addition, itgave women the right to control their own wealth and to get divorced. It declared the public school system to be available to all citizens, supported the S.C. university and mandated the creation of a normal school for teachers and an agricultural college for farmers and mechanics. Additionally, there were provisions for blind and deaf and mentally ill citizens. Debtors’ prison and property ownership as a qualification for public office were eliminated. It was “the most democratic and equitable of the seven constitutions in the history of this state” (Butler).


As the majority of the electorate were Republicans, the constitution was approved a public referendum on April 14-16, along with the selection of new members for the state legislature and the U.S. Congress.


On May 22, the U.S. Congress ratified the new South Carolina constitution. During the summer, South Carolina’s new General Assembly ratified the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, whereupon President Johnson issued a proclamation readmitting the state to the Union on July 18, 1868.


A hundred and fifty years later, on March 16, 2018, a historical marker commemorating the sesquicentennial anniversary of the closing of the South Carolina Constitutional Convention was unveiled on Meeting Street. But that is not the end of the story. What happened afterward will be continued in the July issue of the Mercury.


My appreciation to Bob Stockton for introducing me to the Charleston Club and the remarkable 1868 Constitution. Reference materials include Nic Butler’s podcast “Charleston Time Machine” and the Zinn Education Project’s online article “Jan. 14, 1868: South Carolina Constitutional Convention.”


Anyone with an interesting Broad Street story for the Charleston Mercury is welcome to contact pegeastman@comcast.net.

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