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Part social history, part family biography, a fascinating true account details the lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, who, in the late 1820s, renounced their elite social position and became advocates of women's rights and leaders in the anti-slavery movement, forever changing the course of history.
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Mark Perry's books include Conceived in Liberty, a main selection of the History Book Club. An award-winning writer, he has written on history, the Middle East conflict, and American foreign policy for numerous magazines and newspapers.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"They shall be your bondmen for ever ..."
There was nothing outwardly ostentatious about Charleston society. To primp and preen over their wealth, to lord their position over their "lessers," or to condescend to snobbery—the province of the newly rich—would have never occurred to John Faucheraud Grimké or the other gentlemen sons of South Carolina's great families. Such behavior would have been unseemly, undignified. White Charleston society was instead a world apart, a community of wealth, custom, and privilege built on the English model. Its oldest families, who were descended from the original settlers brought to the Carolinas from Britain in 1669 under the watchful eye of Lord Proprietor Sir Anthony Ashley-Cooper, had become the denizens of a new class of cotton, indigo, and rice wealth. Endowed with such a distinguished pedigree (their ancestors had been sent to the New World by their king, Charles II, himself), they affected what they believed to be the aristocratic manner of their British cousins. Their belief in their way of life, and in their right to live that life as they pleased, formed the central tenet of their faith.
Along the Ashley and Cooper rivers (which join, Charlestonians say, "to form the Atlantic Ocean"), the Pinckneys, Gaillards, Alstons, Draytons, Smiths, Laurenses, Lowndeses, Middletons, Hugers, Rutgerses, and Grimkés built homes with tall wooden doors and ornate black iron gates, behind which well-attired slaves served cool drinks or tended gardens that imitated those ofEngland's noble estates. Everything about Charleston bespoke its standing as the South's greatest city—if not in size, then in status and stature. By 1800, with a population of twenty thousand—a mere 150 years after its first one hundred families landed at the spit of land named Oyster Point—Charleston was the South's premier port and America's fourth-largest urban area. Its harbor was crowded with ships bound for Britain, France, the Northern states, and Africa. Charleston exported tobacco, rice, cotton, indigo, and lumber and imported textiles, furniture, and slaves.
A visitor to Charleston in 1800 would have been impressed by the city's understated magnificence; it was as subtle and majestic as any midsize British town but without the seedy clutter. It was only a short carriage ride from the outskirts, down the tree-lined cobblestoned streets and past the homes of Charleston's most affluent citizens, to the center of the city, which was located on a flat peninsula. There, Charleston's banks, dry-goods stores, artisan shops, and law, municipal, and state offices were grouped along two dozen streets that led down to the city park, near the "battery." Young men and women, courting, strolled each summer evening along the waterfront, often accompanied by servants. There were benches in the park, set among oak, maple, and cypress trees planted by the first settlers. If laughter was heard, it was restrained; the more boisterous voices, from the docks, were muted by the long row of offices on the southern side of the city center. On the other side of the city, separated from the affluent homes by a creek, a small group of middle- and lower-class homes jutted up against the modest post office. Nearby were the slave pens, to which men, women, and children from Africa were brought after being quarantined and before being sold to the wealthy planters and those in need of house servants.
One of Charleston's best-known and best-appointed offices (in a nondescript brick building just two blocks from the slave pens) was managed by John Phillips and John Gardner, Rhode Island-born entrepreneurs who hired the captains and leased the ships that transported the slaves to Charleston. In just four short years, between 1803 (when Charleston reopened its overseas slave trade after a legislated hiatus that dated from the end of the American Revolution) and 1807 (when America's international trade in slaves was stopped forever), the firm of Phillips & Gardner reaped a windfall in profits from its imports. In that period, nearly forty thousand Africans landed on Charleston's shores, to be dispatched inland by wagon or sent north along the middle Atlantic coast aboard ships to their new masters. Charlestonians were careful in their trade. Arriving slaves were quarantined for ten days on Sullivan's Island, outside Charleston Harbor, before being transferred to the slave pens. By 1810, the flood of overseas slaves had ended, but the effect was permanent: a majority of South Carolinians were now black, and parts of the state were so inundated by the trade that whites made up only a small portion of the population.
The large home of Judge John Faucheraud Grimké and his wife, Mary Smith Grimké, on Front Street, was a short drive from Saint Philip's Church. When the services ended, the judge and his children, in separate carriages, would ride back to their home and receive guests, as was their Sunday custom. Sometimes, in the evening, the Grimkés would join other parishioners in a special prayer service, or else take part in an event at the central venue of Charleston's civic life, the Old Exchange Building, which looked out over the harbor. The Old Exchange served as the setting for the city's political activity, hosting a regular round of lectures, campaign speeches on patriotic or religious themes emphasizing "right thinking" and "correct morals," and appropriately noncontroversial public discussions about local matters. The Grimké family spent other Sunday evenings calling on close friends at plantations along the Ashley River, northwest of the city, where the Middletons and Draytons had palatial homes. But even as a child, Sarah Grimké, the judge's second daughter and sixth child, preferred teaching Sunday religious classes for slave children to making social visits with her family to Charleston's elite. Sarah was a gifted teacher, though she was frustrated by the fact that she was forced to give her lessons verbally, since Charleston's slaves were forbidden to learn how to read. More comfortable with children than with adults, the nervous young woman became an excellent storyteller. She was at ease with her young charges and believed that their innocence was God's way of reflecting the original state of man.
Christmas, Easter, and Independence Day were the most important holidays in Charleston. For South Carolinians, July 4 was particularly special, and the city took great pride in its festivities. Charleston had suffered grievously during the American Revolution, when the British Army had imprisoned the sons of some of the city's great families in the "dungeon" (preserved for posterity as a museum beneath the Old Exchange Building). On Independence Day, families from South Carolina's up-country plantations would come to Charleston to enjoy the city fair and watch the fireworks that the municipal committee put on around the harbor. The citizenry relived the day when American troops had reoccupied Charleston after Washington's stunning victory at Yorktown. Charlestonians and their up-country "cousins" spread their picnic blankets in the park and greeted old friends as children played and gawked at the soldiers of the South Carolina Militia, resplendent in their uniforms. The militia was the pride of Charleston, a permanent symbol of its contribution to the founding of the young Republic. But even as Charleston celebrated its independence, it took pride in vestigial evidence of its colonial past—streets, lined with trees and six-foot-wide brick walks, that were still named George and King.
The highlight of each July 4 came when Charleston's families gathered in Battery Park to witness the firing of the set of cannons that looked out over the harbor. Just as they had once been fired to stave off Blackbeard, whose pirates had threatened the city in 1718, and the British invaders, whose ships had been spotted outside the harbor in 1780, so now they memorialized the birth of independence, sending their shells out into the middle distance, toward the walls of the fort that guarded the city. This seemingly impregnable gray eminence blocking Charleston Harbor was named for Thomas Sumter, a dashing Revolutionary War cavalryman and friend of John Grimké's. Sumter and Francis Marion, another famous partisan, were the state's premier heroes and, as the "Gamecock" and the "Swamp Fox," the twin icons of its legendary struggle with royalty, having fought the British from their low-country lairs in a series of hit-and-run cavalry raids. Fort Sumter was as much a symbol of Charleston's fighting spirit as the city's homes were symbols of its elegance—and it seemed no less invincible than South Carolina society. Both would stand forever. When the firing of the militia's artillery stopped, and the last of the shells had burst out over the fort, the applause of the onlookers rang into the night, and Charleston's families turned for home, secure in their independence and confident in their future.
* * *
The Grimkés and others like them practiced an easy patriotism born of the certainty that no one, ever, could question their right to command the society that their ancestors had created. So assured were they in their position that in 1810, when Sarah Grimké was eighteen, the state legislature (called the House of Commons in a bow to English pretensions) passed legislation granting all white males the right to vote, well in advance of similar measures passed by legislatures in the rest of the country. The real reason for such liberalism was that in South Carolina, the right to vote meant little. Through a series of legislative sleights-of-hand, the administration of the state was firmly controlled by a small group of rich and influential low-country planters, a class to which John Grimké and his family belonged. The legislation merely ensured that the House of Commons would retain its monarchial privileges, claiming the right to appoint all the state's judges, presidential electors, and officeholders, including the governor. The institution of slavery was jealously guarded by the House, since nearly all of its members owned slaves. South Carolina was the nation's only true "slavocracy."
South Carolina's constitution was derived from a unique document of colonial history. "The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina" was written by Lord Ashley with the help of his personal secretary John Locke. The aristocratic Locke was a learned but unpretentious empiricist Englishman who won immortality by helping to create that most breathtaking of all beliefs, the notion that the people had a right to choose their own government. The constitution drafted by Ashley and Locke was nonetheless at some remove from true republicanism: while it emphasized religious tolerance, which appealed to the French Huguenots (one of Charleston's most prominent lineages), it also established an economic system that encouraged large land grants, which appealed to its English-descended gentry. (Locke, known for his suggestion that some revolutions were necessary, was much less revolutionary than Americans then believed: he held considerable stock in the Royal Africa Company, whose business was the slave trade.) South Carolina's government elected legislators who institutionalized the status of South Carolina's small but affluent nobility. Charleston's citizens constantly celebrated their independence, their love of liberty, and their individual self-reliance, though in fact they were the least disposed to grant those same privileges to anyone else. Charleston was not a city of immigrants, of huddled masses, or of oppressed yearning to be free, nor was it destined to become one. After the initial influx of Huguenots and Englishmen, the town fathers had enacted strict citizenship laws that choked off the flow of new settlers (excepting slaves from Africa), even as they insisted that theirs was a friendly city that would welcome anyone.
For these reasons, Charleston was an anomaly, different not only from the rest of America but even from the rest of the South. During the crush of westward settlement that marked the opening of cotton lands following Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin, in 1794, Charleston's elite remained remarkably unaffected by the new South's cotton wealth. Life went on as before, with the exception that those low-country planters who refused to cash in on cotton began to live on borrowed time and borrowed money. But if a handful of Charleston's elite families started to lose their riches, they nevertheless retained their power in the state and city, and their status as South Carolina's leading citizens. The silent, all-knowing, even self-deprecating style that the members of Charleston's elite feigned in imitation of their London cousins stayed firmly in place; they were guaranteed their continued high standing by a system that was, as one aging and disenchanted Charlestonian would later bitterly reflect, "rocked in the cradle of wealth."
Nothing intruded on this easy life. The national government was far away, and the state government solidly in the hands of the ruling class; even slavery itself, while an ever-present reality, seemed a distant concern. In truth, the heads of Charleston's most affluent families had little contact with any but the most trusted of their slaves—those who cooked the family meals or raised the family's children. Few heads of such families ever lowered themselves to the direct, day-to-day management of their plantations. That was left to overseers. Only on rare occasions, when their lives or livelihoods were threatened by precipitously falling profits or, even more unusually, rumors of a slave insurrection did Charleston's ruling fathers intervene in the daily existence of their chattel property.
White women, the ruling matrons of Charleston society, had much more contact with slaves than their husbands, but that contact was of a particular kind. Although white women might be considered the "mistresses" of their domain, they were in fact as dependent on black domestic servants as their husbands were on overseers. House slaves invariably knew more about raising children and disciplining them than the Huger, Pinckney, Smith, or Grimké women, since such matters were left almost exclusively in their hands. So it was, on both counts, that the young male and female progeny of Charleston's elite were planted and pruned to imitate this life-style, trained not as enterprising and creative innovators wedded to the idea of progress, but as "managers" of a status quo that was as fanatically defended as it was universally unquestioned.
In the early 1800s, the Grimké family grew and prospered. John Faucheraud Grimké was as talented and innovative a businessman as had been his paternal grandfather, the silversmith John Paul Grimké. Originally from Alsace-Lorraine and German by birth, the first American Grimké had spoken with a German accent and added an é to his name, giving it a French cast. His decision to change the family name, if only slightly, was intended to appeal to the sensibilities of Charleston's mo...
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