Jack Bass and W. Scott Poole, The Palmetto State: The Making of Modern South Carolina
I didn’t care for this book.
If you are looking to learn more about South Carolina’s history, you are better off reading the Wikipedia page than Jack Bass and W. Scott Poole’s The Palmetto State: The Making of Modern South Carolina. Do yourself a favor and go straight to Walter B. Edgar’s South Carolina: A History.
Normally, I don’t even bother to mention the liberal bias in these book reviews. I’ve learned a great deal from Wayne Flynt and James C. Cobb who are both raging liberals. I have a very high tolerance for liberal bias so long as I am reading something that is either informative or thought provoking, but this book is a disservice to South Carolina. Basically, the reader is left with the impression that nothing much of significance happened in South Carolina before the Civil Rights Movement.
After I put this book down, I was left with far more questions than answers. This is only a sketch of the history of South Carolina which is 150 years older than Alabama. In spite of the authors, I believe that I know enough about these two states to start comparing and contrasting their historical development. The reason that I focus so heavily on Virginia and South Carolina is because the Upper South and Lower South respectively were largely created in their image.
- South Carolina is the older, parent state. It was founded as a British colony in 1670 whereas Alabama was admitted to the Union in 1819. Bass and Poole acknowledge the Golden Circle thesis.
- As the older, parent state, South Carolina had an extended colonial period and was embroiled in and devastated by the American Revolution. Whereas large scale plantation slavery only lasted in Alabama for two generations (in my area, less than 30 years), slavery lasted in South Carolina for nearly two centuries.
- The South Carolina Lowcountry was dominated by rice and indigo plantations which were never significant crops in Alabama. A different type of Slave Society – one that was more aristocratic – evolved in the Lowcountry which was never reproduced in Alabama. From the beginning, all White men had the right to vote in Alabama whereas democracy was more limited in South Carolina until 1865. After the Fort Mims Massacre, Alabama was Jackson Country. The Old Southwest was and remains the populist heartland.
- Until Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in the 1790s, the South Carolina Upcountry had been dominated by Scots-Irish small farmers. In fact, over half the population of South Carolina was non-English, mostly Scot-Irish, Irish, French Huguenot or German.
- South Carolina and Alabama had similar experiences with Indian wars: the Yamasee War and warfare with the Cherokee in South Carolina and the Creek War in Alabama. The Indians were ultimately driven out of both states.
- Most of the founding settlers of Alabama came from the Piedmont region of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia, although much of North Alabama was settled by Tennesseans and is culturally part of the Upland South.
- The style and form of slavery in Alabama was influenced the most by Georgia and the South Carolina Upcountry.
- Unlike Alabama, South Carolina has been majority black through most of its history. It was majority black from the early 1700s to the early 1800s – the Scots-Irish settled the Upcountry and temporarily changed the racial demographics – and again from the early 1800s to the early 1900s. Many of the Scots-Irish settlers of the South Carolina Upcountry moved west to states like Alabama. In the early 20th century, the Great Migration finally made South Carolina a majority White state, which was almost 70 percent White in 1970.
- In the antebellum era, South Carolina was more heavily enslaved than the rest of the South. Compared to Alabama, it had an insignificant mountain region and population. Basically, South Carolina was one big plantation in the Upcountry and Lowcountry while over half of Alabama wasn’t dominated by the plantation complex.
- Support for secession and the Confederacy was much more unanimous in South Carolina due to the lack of an Appalachian region and population. It was fully integrated into the plantation economy whereas a large swath of North Alabama was not.
- In the antebellum era, the Old Southwest (Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana) was booming while the Southeast (South Carolina and Georgia) was more economically distressed. Soil exhaustion and westward migration meant that South Carolina’s loss was Alabama’s gain. At least until soil exhaustion and westward migration began to drain Alabama’s population off to Texas.
- Compared to South Carolina, Alabama emerged from the War Between the States in better shape. Montgomery and Mobile were barely scathed by the war whereas Charleston and Columbia had been destroyed. Birmingham was created after the war.
- Because of its black majority, South Carolina had a longer and much worse experience during Reconstruction than Alabama.
- After the war, Alabama developed its mineral district and the rise of the iron, steel and coal industries in Birmingham dominated the state in the late 19th/early 20th century. There was no parallel to this development in South Carolina which also industrialized during this period, but lacked Alabama’s heavy industry.
- The rice economy of the South Carolina Lowcountry never recovered from the war. In the late 19th century, rice production shifted to Louisiana where it also remains to this day in Arkansas and southeast Missouri. There was no parallel to this in Alabama.
- Both Alabama and South Carolina developed a large-scale, non-unionized textile industry after the 1880s.
- In South Carolina, there was no equivalent to the rise of the Big Mules in the Birmingham District. In Alabama, the Bourbon-Big Mules alliance succeeding in thwarting the Populists, but in South Carolina the Bourbons were much weaker and lost power to Ben Tillman and Coleman Blease.
- Both Alabama and South Carolina shared the gradual impoverishment of the cotton economy into sharecropping and farm tenancy. The boll weevil arrived earlier in Alabama though.
- Both Alabama and South Carolina began their modern economic turnaround and takeoff in the FDR years during the Great Depression and Second World War.
- In South Carolina, Santee-Cooper (South Carolina Public Service Authority) was the equivalent of the TVA in North Alabama. Like Alabama, South Carolina supported FDR and the New Deal. Gov. James Byrnes was a close associate of FDR.
- In South Carolina, Strom Thurmond led the Great White Backlash into the Republican Party. In Alabama, George Wallace led the Great White Backlash and kept Whites in the Democratic Party until the 1990s. Thurmond played a major role in thwarting Wallace’s presidential ambitions by helping Nixon win in the South.
- South Carolina and Alabama took opposite courses during the Civil Rights Movement. The former chose accommodation while the latter chose confrontation in Birmingham and Selma.
- In South Carolina and Alabama, the demise of cotton was followed by the rise of the forestry industry. Most of the emply “neo-plantations” in rural areas are planted in pines these days.
- In both states, deindustrialization has been going on since the 1970s coupled with the rise of the foreign auto industry in the 1990s. There are fewer, but more high paying manufacturing jobs.
- Both states eventually succumbed to one party rule by the Republicans although this happened more slowly in Alabama due to the populist strain of our electorate.
- In the late 20th century, South Carolina elected a series of New South governors who broke with racial politics and emphasized education reform, but this did not happen in Alabama which still doesn’t have a state lottery.
- South Carolina is more liberal than Alabama because of the huge influx of Northern transplants into Aiken County and the coastal region from Myrtle Beach to Charleston to Hilton Head Island. Pretty much the same thing is going on with retirees in the Florida Panhandle which isn’t part of Alabama.
On a final note, Bass and Poole bring up the fact that 0.5 percent of South Carolinians worked in agriculture in 1999, which accounted for only 0.4 percent of state income and note that “the once-dominant farm economy has eroded almost to memory and imagination.” Clearly, South Carolina has come a long way from the days of the Golden Circle.
The Alt-South needs to engage much more with this reality. In the 21st century, we live in a version of the South that traces back to the Second World War and the problems of deracination, alienation and obesity we are dealing with and reacting against are a product of this era.