Inside the South Carolina Mind

Inside the South Carolina Mind

In 1929, Gaffney, S.C., 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 peculiar and unusual history.

Often, 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.

The Civil War, started and fueled by South Carolinians, swept away all 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 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 one part – repeat one part – of the South Carolina mind.

Now hear me loud and clear – there is a good side, and ‘another side’ of the South Carolina mind. I and my family have loved this state for going on nine generations and I will fight any man 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

And, it is the interplay of these two sides of the South Carolina mind that have played out in our history and defines who we are.  This interplay has created three distinct qualities that blended together to define who we are and how we look at the rest of the world.

First is our 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 who we surpassed in wealth and splendor, to 100 years later the new ‘rulers’ in Mr. Lincoln’s Washington, to virtually anyone today who tries to tell us what to do. We are independent and ready to fight to defend this 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 wealthy Charleston shipper and patron of the radical ‘mechanics’ faction of revolutionaries. The Tea Party loves our flag.

Second is that we wear 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 I was thus both shocked and amused a few years ago by the response to a talk I gave about our state’s history by an elderly African American gentleman.

After making what I thought were suitably, sensitive allowances for the horrors visited on African Americans in our state, I was gushing about the ‘rich, complex, multi-lawyered nature’ of our history. I compared learning 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 simple view of generations of nearly unmitigated pain and suffering.

And third, we as a state have had political leaders that can only be called ‘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 of our state, “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 predecessors were 150+ years ago when they indulged in that greatest of all lunacies, the Civil War – I really do believe that.

But, whether it was legislators of that day that were starting a war or our current day politicians passing bills of nullification and new laws allowing certified crazy people to legally buy a gun (as long as it’s not a hand gun) – Petigru would recognize the pattern … some of our ‘leaders’ are just plain crazy. There’s really no two ways about it. Some were then, some are now.

My wife (a native with deep family roots in the Upstate) has a saying that we in South Carolina don’t hide our crazy in the attic, we put it on the front porch 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 politics in our state so very, very interesting.

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  • commented 2017-02-18 19:01:31 -0500
    Phil, this is a beautifully described articulation of the South Carolina psyche. THANK YOU. My husband and I are Yankees (Yonkers, NY and Cincinnati, respectively), but have spent 25 years in SC. Your wife’s quote is perfect.