This examination of 440 plantation owners who owned 100 or more slaves in 1860 is a revealing assessment of the character and lifestyle of the last generation of antebellum planters in South Carolina. Though titled as a “sociological study,” The Last Foray is by no means a dry academic treatise but a highly readable and engaging treatment of the subject, offering many interesting vignettes of individuals who exemplified this economic class. Four chapters cover the areas of education, public office, religion, and general culture. The book also includes a section of brief biographical sketches of all its subjects, including several women.
In his introduction, Chalmers G. Davidson writes that “a life of inactivity” was entirely possible for this well-to-do economic class who, to succeed as planters, had no real need to pursue education or cultural interests, to engage in public service, or to participate in the religious life of their communities. These notably well-educated and cultured individuals, however, were dutiful in many field of public service, following the tradition of noblesse oblige characteristic of the previous generation of planters. As to their “private morals,” there were only two subjects of Davidson’s study who had reputations as reprobates, and he noted that there is “traditional or legal evidence” that only about a dozen of these men kept black mistresses, adding that “in no instance” was this practice condoned by their neighbors. “Purity of character” was an attribute frequently found in their obituaries.
The South Carolina antebellum planters, Davidson observed, were “a remarkably homogenous group,” and two thirds had the advantage of a classical, college education, being graduates of English and European institutions, as well as South Carolina College, the College of Charleston, Princeton, Brown, Yale, and other schools. A majority of the planters also took part in areas of public service for which there was little monetary remuneration. These wealthy men, who could have easily avoided such service, accepted positions and appointments as school, charity and road commissioners, justices of the peace, and magistrates. Many saw service in the state legislature, and some rose to higher office in the state or federal government, although it appears that none could have been described as “career politicians.”
As for religion, Davidson asserts that “Not only did the planter and his family attend divine services but they almost universally provided preaching for the slaves,” plantation chapels being the rule rather than the exception. With few exceptions, planters were active as vestrymen, and in many religious and charitable organizations, and they contributed to the establishment of a number of churches.
Davidson begins his chapter on “General Culture” with a quote from the autobiography of Joseph LeConte, a brilliant professor of the antebellum period at South Carolina College. Reminiscing about the great planters, LeConte wrote, “Nothing could be more remarkable than the wide reading, the deep reflection, the refined culture, and the originality of thought and observation of them.” Many of the South Carolina planters were also physicians and scientists, proponents of scientific agriculture, historians, patrons of art, and writers, and quite a few could boast fine libraries. Davidson’s findings about these men are in accord with LeConte’s observation, and with that of another antebellum contemporary in South Carolina, the prominent Presbyterian clergyman James Henley Thornwell, who described the signers of South Carolina’s 1860 Ordinance of Secession, the great majority of whom were planters, as “sober, grave and venerable men.” Thornwell praised the members of the Secession Convention as “a noble body,” and noted that “all their proceedings were in harmony with their high character.”
In 1866, Gabriel Manigault, a Lowcountry planter and attorney, offered a similar assessment of this class as it existed before the war, and though he was writing specifically about his own region, it is evident from Davidson’s study that the same could have been said of the great planters in the rest of the state. In his essay “The Low Country of South Carolina” (published in the periodical The Land We Love) Manigault wrote: “Among the white population there, as elsewhere throughout the world, too many who had enjoyed the advantages of education, of good society, and the opportunities of moral and religious improvement, were neither well informed , well bred, nor virtuous. Yet nowhere could you more easily find cultivated intellects, pure morals, elevated sentiments, a fervent piety and a strong sense of duty, among either sex.”
Davidson’s purpose in writing The Last Foray was “to discover what the planter did for—or to—his section with the power and position acquired through his economic preeminence.” This scholarly and and well-researched study (unfortunately out of print) presents a true picture of the planter class in antebellum South Carolina.
About the author:
Chalmers Gaston Davidson (1907-1994), a native of Chester, South Carolina, was a history professor at Davidson College in North Carolina. He was educated at Davidson College, Harvard, and the University of Chicago, and was the author of numerous articles and books focusing on the history and culture of the Carolinas.