Atlantic History Charleston
by
Emma Hart
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0193

Introduction

The fourth largest city in the mainland British colonies, Charleston was the major urban center in the plantation South until the late 18th century. By the 1790 United States census, its population stood at almost 16,000 individuals, one-half of whom were enslaved Africans. The historiography of the city has, until the 21st century, proceeded along two common themes. First, in the course of the 20th century, a group of scholars looked at Charleston as the center of free white power and merchant-planter entrepreneurship in the Lower South. From such works we derive our image of Charleston as a city of wealthy patriarchs—of cultural refinement, display, and power, and of great moneymaking activities by the leading white colonists of the 18th century. As historians and archeologists since the 1970s have appreciated, however, Charleston was equally important as a major center of black life in the early American South. Much work in the latter part of the 20th century has thus sought to uncover the town’s role in perpetuating slavery, in shaping the experience of enslaved peoples, and in the creation of a free black community. Having these two themes as the major lines of inquiry into the history of the city has produced a very particular image of Charleston and its place in the early modern Atlantic world. Early Charleston is portrayed as a city of planter-merchant patriarchs and enslaved people who together directed the town into the service of the larger plantation economy of which it was a component. Whereas studies of northern port cities, like New York and Philadelphia, have emphasized the dynamic roots of industrialization and the radical politics of artisan revolutionaries, Charleston is more often portrayed as the antithesis of the typical American urban character—a place where patriarchy and slavery flourished to create a city that could only be destined for economic decline in the 19th century. Reinforcing this image is the fact that work on colonial South Carolina often fails to distinguish between the urban and the rural, with the town being viewed as a natural extension of the plantation economy (or a “city-state”), rather than a distinct entity with particular urban characteristics; while Charleston has not lacked historians, it has lacked urban historians. This means that many of the books listed here do not address Charleston explicitly, but nevertheless place the town at the heart of discussions about South Carolina society, politics, and economy.

General Works

Historians have often treated Charleston as a city-state. Weir 1997; Greene, et al. 2001; and Waterhouse 2005 all reflect this tendency, discussing aspects of Charleston’s economy, political scene, and social life in the course of addressing larger themes in South Carolina’s history, like slavery and plantation agriculture. Rogers 2002 and Rosen 1997 do focus specifically on the history of the city, devoting most attention to the planter-merchants and the enslaved people who were associated with the plantation economy, yet lived in the city. Hart 2010 presents a different perspective by focusing on Charleston as an urban entity and exploring in more depth the free whites and enslaved people who were not directly engaged in the plantation economy. Fraser 1991 offers the most long-range perspective on the city, with his history of all three centuries of its existence.

  • Fraser, Walter J., Jr. Charleston! Charleston! The History of a Southern City. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.

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    Highly readable survey of the history of the town from the very first moments of settlement through the latter 20th century. Possibly the most comprehensive overview of Charleston’s history available.

  • Greene, Jack P., Rosemary Brana-Shute, and Randy Sparks, eds. Money, Trade, and Power: The Evolution of Colonial South Carolina’s Plantation Society. Carolina Lowcountry and the Atlantic World. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.

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    A recent volume of collected essays that deals with multiple aspects of the economic, cultural, and political scene in colonial South Carolina and Charleston. An invaluable guide to some of the more recent research on the region and its city. Some essays focus specifically on the city and most mention it in discussion.

  • Hart, Emma. Building Charleston: Town and Society in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic World. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010.

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    Recent study of Charleston’s colonial era that looks at the town’s growth through the lens of British Atlantic urbanism. Uses discussion of consumerism and the built environment to examine the rise of an urban middle class and to challenge the prevailing image of the town as primarily an extension of plantation society.

  • Rogers, George C., Jr. Charleston in the Age of the Pinckneys. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.

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    A study of colonial Charleston life from the perspective of a prominent and elite family. Incorporates much useful narrative on the growth of the city, its architecture, economic life, and the cultural life of elites. A good introduction to the city, but lacks substantive discussion of the contribution of free and enslaved black people.

  • Rosen, Robert N. A Short History of Charleston. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

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    Very readable overview of Charleston’s history from founding through the 20th century. Incorporates a well-informed discussion of the colonial city’s elites and enslaved people, and sets this period within a broader sweep.

  • Waterhouse, Richard. A New World Gentry: The Making of a Merchant and Planter Class in South Carolina, 1670–1770. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2005.

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    An erudite study of the emergence of South Carolina’s elites with a very good chapter that concentrates on how Charleston sponsored the creation of an elite Anglicized culture that gave the social group its distinctive identity.

  • Weir, Robert M. Colonial South Carolina: A History. 2d ed. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

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    The definitive scholarly survey of South Carolina’s colonial era. An excellent overview of all aspects of the region’s Atlantic era based on an up-to-date discussion of the historiography.

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