Commons House

Sometime after the creation of the Mayor’s Walled City Task Force in the summer of 2005, I set a research goal for myself. If one were going to write a proper history of urban Charleston’s colonial fortifications, I thought, one should read through all the surviving legislative records from that era. Since the City of Charleston was not incorporated until 1783, there was no City Council during the colonial era, and thus the duty of building, maintaining, and dismantling the urban fortifications was performed by the provincial legislature.  More specifically, the Commons House of Assembly, the forerunner of the modern state House of Representatives, did the bulk of the legislative work. Since the “Commons” administered the disbursement of money from the treasury (through the Public Treasurer or Receiver, of course), the surviving journals of the Commons House contain more evidence of the rise and fall of the “Walled City” than any other source.

We are fortunate that nearly all of the handwritten journals of South Carolina’s Commons House of Assembly—dozens of leather-bound volumes spanning the years from 1692 to 1775—have survived into the twenty-first century. There are a few small gaps here and there, of course, and unfortunately the most egregious lacuna is the missing journal of 1718–1719. In that long-lost journal would be the records of the trial of the pirate Stede Bonnet and his crew as well as the records of the bloodless Revolution of December 1719. All of the surviving Commons House journals can be found at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History (SCDAH) in Columbia. Approximately one half of these journals have been published (see the Selected Bibliography page), but the rest are accessible only at SCDAH.

After nearly four years of work, I am proud to announce that I have now read through all of the surviving journals of the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly, 1692–1775, and transcribed all of the materials therein relating to the urban fortifications of colonial Charleston. Along the way I lost track of how many volumes and pages I had read, but I can say with confidence that this task involved tens of thousands of pages of rather dreary legislative proceedings. From this work I have amassed more than 400,000 words of raw notes ( typed into my trusty Apple laptop) relating to Charleston’s fortifications. Adding in materials transcribed from other primary sources (mostly colonial statutes and Journals of the South Carolina House of Representatives, 1776–1794), I now have approximately 500,000 words of raw notes.

So what’s next on the research front of this Task Force? Now I’m now reading through all of the surviving journals of the His Majesty’s Council for the Province of South Carolina, 1721–1775. This branch of the colonial legislature served as a sort of “privy council” for the governor, advising him on various projects and policies. While the journals of the Council are not as numerous as those of the Commons, they do contain some unique information relating to the fortifications of urban Charleston. So far I’ve read through these journals up to 1743, and I hope to complete this task by the end of 2010.

From all of this evidence derived from primary sources, a book-length treatment of the history of Charleston’s colonial fortifications will eventually be distilled. I promise.

This week, while re-reading the 1706 journal of the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly, I came across a bit of colorful text that had previously escaped my attention, and I thought others interested in Charleston’s early fortifications might find it interesting.On 7 March 1705/6, at the opening of a new legislative session, Governor Nathaniel Johnson delivered a speech in which he reminded the House of its duty to provide for the proper defense of the young colony. As was customary, the House then appointed a committee to draft a formal reply to the governor’s speech, and on 12 March they presented their draft before the full House. After it was read and approved, the Speaker of the House, Lt. Col. William Rhett, affixed his signature to the message and then ordered it to be sent to the governor. Among the obligatory formal language contained in the reply, the House expressed its concurrence with the governor’s concerns about the state of the fortifications, and included this metaphorical phrase:

It is no Doubt a Duty which we owe to God and ourselves[,] to the present Age and to Posterity[,] to Improve the Opportunity God gives us of ffenceing [sic] our Vineyard; and makeing [sic] the Hedge about it as Strong as we can.

At this time, Charleston (then called Charles Town) was a heavily fortified, walled settlement. It was the political capital of the infant colony, the sole port and market, and the store of nearly all the provincial armaments. In comparing the town (and, by extension, the colony) to a vineyard surrounded by a hedge, the members of the Commons House used their linguistic skills to help us, more than 300 years later, to understand the importance and value of their efforts to defend the once struggling colony that we now take for granted.