In 1929, Gaffney, South Carolina native W.J. Cash wrote his seminal book The Mind of the South. Every subsequent attempt to understand the mind (and soul) of the South necessarily starts with this book. It has been so since it was written and will probably continue to be so for generations to come. It is that good.
The title and premise of Cash’s book is that there is a distinctive Southern mind, as there clearly is, and I believe that there is also a ‘sub-species’ native to the Palmetto State that we could call the South Carolina mind.
Along with many historians, I have long been intrigued by the distinctiveness of the South Carolina mind, as it is surely a product of our state’s peculiar and unusual history. We really are different.
The South Carolina mind is inexorably linked to ‘the South Carolina problem’ – a term that periodically crops up among historians writing about our nation’s history from colonial days until today. The ‘problem’ takes many forms but essentially it relates to some peculiar problem or set of circumstances that are rooted in our state’s unusual history.
Usually, but not always, it has some connection to race, as South Carolina has historically been second only to Mississippi in the percentage of its population that was African American. A second aspect is related to our once extraordinary wealth. On the eve of the Revolution, South Carolina as a state was filthy rich – 9 of the 10 richest men in the colonies were South Carolinians. Charleston enjoyed a per capita wealth five times that of Boston, six times that of New York and seven times that of Philadelphia. That’s rich.
The Civil War, started and fueled by South Carolinians, swept away most of this fabulous wealth and accompanying influence and plunged most of our state – black and white – in to a rancid swamp of poverty, ignorance and racism that we only began to crawl out of in the 20th Century with the advent of air conditioning, television and the civil rights movement.
From my limited perspective, these issues of race, wealth and loss are the three dominant influences that have gone to shape the tragic side of the South Carolina mind.
But this tragic side is only one side of the mind of South Carolina. Now hear me loud and clear – there is another good side of the South Carolina mind. My family and I have loved this state for going on nine generations and I will fight anyone that challenges us a warm, decent, caring, intelligent, patriotic, compassionate, and determined people – the finest that God saw fit to put on this earth. This is who we are – and I could write a book about our stellar qualities – the good side of the South Carolina mind.
Our state’s history – who we are – is a combination of both of these two sides. It is these two sides, and the interplay between them, that has produced what I believe to be the three distinctive qualities that go to make up our unique mindset.
First is independence. Above all else, we are independent and fierce in defense of our independence. We hate anyone who tries to tell us what to do – from our Colonial relatives in England, to 100 years later the new ‘rulers’ in Mr. Lincoln’s Washington, to virtually anyone today who tries to tell us what to do. This applies in politics, in business or in the pool hall. We are independent and quick to fight to defend our independence.
Our independent steak has its own flag, the bright yellow flag with the coiled rattlesnake proclaiming ‘Don’t tread on me.’ It is called the Gadsden Flag after Christopher Gadsden, a wealth Charleston shipper and patron of the radical mechanics faction during the American Revolution. Today, The Tea Party loves our flag.
Second are the blinders about race. Different citizens of our state often have radically different perspectives about the same events and ‘facts’. I consider myself reasonably sensitive to the perspective of black South Carolinians and thus I was both surprised and amused a few years ago by the response of an elderly African American gentleman to a talk I was giving about our state’s history.
After making what I thought were suitably sensitive comments about the historic horrors visited on African Americans in our state, I was gushing about the rich, complex, multi-lawyered nature of our history. I compared studying our history to peeling an onion, always with another layer underneath. And in the words of my elderly friend, “Yes, and every layer makes you cry even more than the last.” My view was of a mixed and complex history; his was a simpler view of generations of nearly unmitigated pain and suffering.
And third, we as a state are still dealing with people that can only be called just plain crazy. When my and our forbearers were filing into Institute Hall on Meeting Street in Charleston that fateful afternoon of Dec 24, 1860 to start our own country, noted Unionist James L. Petigru uttered his now famous description, “Poor South Carolina, too small for a Republic and too large for an insane asylum.”
It was true then and it is true today – there is a deep, often times vivid streak of just pure lunacy among our citizens.
I am absolutely sure that some of our legislators of today are just as sincere and just as guided by their honest principles as their secessionist predecessors were 150+ years ago – I really do believe that. But, whether it was legislators of that day that were starting a war or our current day politicians proposing bills of nullification or new laws allowing certified insane people to legally buy a gun (as long as it’s not a hand gun) – some of our so-called leaders are just crazy. Petigru would recognize the pattern. There’s really no two ways about it; some were crazy then, some are crazy now.
My wife (also a fiercely proud native of South Carolina) has a saying for this: in other places, they hide away their crazy in the attic; here we put it on the front porch in a rocking chair and give it a drink.
Yes, there is a South Carolina mind. It’s who we are; it’s what makes us unique and it’s what makes our politics – and most everything else in our state – so very, very interesting.
Phil Noble has a technology firm in Charleston and is co-founder of EnvisionSC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and see his other columns at www.PhilNoble.com