Most South Carolinians find the past fascinating and believe that some understanding of history helps shed light on current issues and challenges. So over the past 180 years, what political positions have South Carolina’s leaders assumed and defended as they grappled with the contentious matters of their day?
South Carolina politicians nullified federal tariff laws in 1832, but they agreed to a compromise and withdrew their ordinances of nullification after President Andrew Jackson — a South Carolina native — threatened to invade the state, hang the nullifiers and execute the federal statutes by armed force. In the meantime, the architect of nullification, John C. Calhoun, resigned as vice president and was elected to the U.S. Senate by the S.C. Legislature. South Carolina lawmakers led by Sen. Calhoun went on to proclaim that the enslavement of Africans and their descendents was a “positive good.”
After Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860, South Carolina’s political leadership convened in Charleston to support secession from the Union, complaining that the non-slaveholding states “have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery.” And the secessionists went on to condemn the voters in those states who had elected as chief executive a man “whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” The Civil War that ensued cost the lives of thousands of South Carolinians.
In the 1895 state constitutional convention, U.S. Sen. Benjamin R. Tillman fashioned an elaborate set of restrictions on voting that disfranchised black voters. The six black delegates (out of 160 delegates) refused to sign the document.
South Carolina’s General Assembly in 1920 declined to ratify the 19th amendment to the U. S. Constitution to guarantee women the right to vote. But “swiftly” recognizing the error of their ways, the Legislature reversed itself in 1969 and ratified the amendment nearly five decades after it went into effect.
The same Legislature that decided women should not vote also decided they should not serve on juries. Changing course once again, legislators decided in 1967 that women could serve as jurors and not cause themselves or the legal system irreparable harm.
After the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1944 that the all-white Democratic primary elections were unconstitutional, South Carolina Democrats led by Gov. Olin D. Johnston tried to evade the decision by converting the Democratic Party into a private organization. They failed.
Led by Gov. James F. Byrnes, South Carolina retained the nation’s most accomplished constitutional attorney, John W. Davis, in an attempt to maintain “separate but equal” in public education. The state failed in the U. S. Supreme Court in 1954 in the case that came to be known as Brown v. Board of Education.
U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond delivered the longest oration in Senate history (24 hours and 18 minutes) in opposition to the Civil Rights Bill of 1957. He failed, and it passed.
Sens. Thurmond and Johnston voted against the proposed Civil Rights Act of 1964. It passed.
Sens. Thurmond and Donald Russell voted against the proposed Voting Rights Act of 1965. It passed.
The State of South Carolina challenged the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the U.S. Supreme Court in South Carolina vs. Katzenbach. South Carolina lost.
Sen. Thurmond voted against the proposed Medicare program in 1965 while Sen. Donald Russell supported it, and it passed.
Gazing into the future through the same political lenses worn by generations of luminaries like John C. Calhoun, Benjamin R. Tillman, and Strom Thurmond, Gov. Nikki Haley in 2013 rejected federal support for Medicaid expansion that Congress had passed and largely funded as part of what has commonly come to be called Obamacare. Not to be outdone, some current conservative legislators have decided that it might be feasible and constitutional to nullify Obama-care within the Palmetto State.
Given the benefit of historical perspective, should we have expected a different decision?
Are many people surprised that nullification of a federal law passed by Congress, signed by the president, and upheld by the Supreme Court has been resurrected by some politicians?
No, not here in South Carolina.
Rest assured, however, that within a few years thousands of South Carolinians will be fully included in this federal initiative that much of the state’s political leadership strongly opposed and bitterly denounced — before they belatedly realized that the state’s participation would make South Carolina a healthier and better place for everyone.
William C. Hine, Ph.D., taught history at South Carolina State University for many years.