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Antebellum South Carolina is typically defined by historians as South Carolina during the period between the War of 1812, which ended in 1815, and the American Civil War, which began in 1861.

After the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, the economies of the Upcountry and the Lowcountry of the state became fairly equal in wealth. The expansion of cotton cultivation upstate led to a marked increase in the labor demand, with a concomitant rise in the slave trade. The trans-Atlantic slave trade, or international buying and selling of slaves, was outlawed by the United States in 1808, as of which date South Carolina was the only state that had not already prohibited the importation of slaves. After that date there was a burgeoning domestic or internal, national slave trade in the U.S.

In 1822, free black craftsman and preacher Denmark Vesey was convicted for having masterminded a plan to overthrow Charlestonian whites. In reaction, whites established curfews for black people and forbade assembly of large numbers of blacks; the education of slaves was prohibited.

In 1828, John C. Calhoun decided that constitutionally, each state government (within their state) had more power than the federal government. Consequently, if a state deemed it necessary, it had the right to "nullify" any federal law (the Tariff of 1828 and the Tariff of 1832) within its boundaries. Calhoun resigned as Vice President, as he planned to become a South Carolina Senator to stop its run toward secession. He wanted to resolve problems which were inflaming his fellow Carolinians. Before federal forces arrived at Charleston in response to challenges of tariff laws, Calhoun and Henry Clay agreed upon a Compromise Tariff of 1833 to lower the rates over ten years. The Nullification Crisis was resolved for the time being.

The cotton gin's effect in South Carolina

In 1786, leaders of the state agreed to ease tensions between Upcountry and Lowcountry citizens by moving the capital from Charleston to a location more convenient to both regions. With the capital in Charleston, Upcountry citizens had to travel two days simply to reach state government offices and state courts. The town of Columbia, South Carolina, the first city in America to take that name, was planned and erected. In 1790, the state's politicians moved in, although state offices remained in Charleston until 1865. The Lowcountry and Upcountry even had separate treasury offices with separate treasurers. In 1800, the Santee Canal was completed, connecting the Santee and Cooper Rivers. This made it possible to transport goods directly from the new capital to Charleston. In 1801, the state chartered South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) in Columbia.

Settled first because of its coastal access, the Lowcountry had the greater population. It had achieved early economic dominance because of wealth derived from the cultivation of both rice and long-staple cotton, a major crop. This was easier to process by hand than short-staple cotton. In the Upcountry's soil, only short-staple cotton could be cultivated. It was extremely labor-intensive to process by hand.

In 1793, Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin made processing of short-staple cotton economically viable. Upcountry landowners began to increase their cultivation of cotton and to import increased numbers of enslaved Africans and free blacks to raise and process the crops. The Upcountry developed its own wealthy planter class and began to work with Lowcountry planters to protect the institution of slavery.

The state's over-reliance on cotton in its economy paved the way for post-Civil War poverty in three ways: planters ruined large swaths of land by over-cultivation, small farmers in the upcountry reduced subsistence farming in favor of cotton, and greater profits in other states led to continued departure of many talented people, both white and black. From 1820 to 1860 nearly 200,000 whites left the state, mostly for Deep South states and frontier opportunities. Many of them took enslaved African-Americans with them; other slaves were sold to traders for plantations in the Deep South. In addition, because planters wore out new lands in-state or moved rather than invest in fertilizer or manufacturing, South Carolina did not begin to industrialize until much later.

The Nullification Crisis

The Compromise Tariff of 1833
An image of The Compromise Tariff of 1833 that would lower rates on tariffs over 10 years in an agreement between John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay.

In 1811, British ships plundered American ships, inspiring outraged "War Hawk" representatives into declaring the War of 1812. During the war, tariffs on imported goods were raised to support America's military efforts. Afterward, as the North began to create manufacturing centers, Northern lawmakers passed higher taxes on imports to protect the new industries. Because the South had an agricultural economy, it did not benefit from the tariffs and believed they interfered with the South's trade with Great Britain and Europe based on cotton and rice.

In the 1820s, many South Carolinians began to talk of seceding from the union to operate as an independent state with trade laws tailored to its own best interests. Even South Carolina-born John C. Calhoun, who had begun as a Federalist favoring a strong centralized government, began to change his views. He believed rights of his home state were being trampled for the "good" of the North, though he also recognized the political dangers of secession. In 1828, Calhoun decided upon the primacy of "states' rights", a doctrine which he would support for the rest of his life. He believed that constitutionally, the state government of each state had more power within that state than did the federal government. Consequently, if a state deemed it necessary, it had the right to "nullify" any federal law within its boundaries.

To most South Carolinians, this sounded like a reasonable compromise. Some in the state, such as Joel J. Poinsett, novelist William Gilmore Simms, and James L. Petigru, believed that while a state had the full right to secede from the Union if it chose, it had no right, as long as it remained part of the Union, to nullify a federal law. The federal government believed the concept of nullification was as an attack on its powers. When in 1832, South Carolina's government quickly "nullified" the hated tariffs passed by the full Congress, President Andrew Jackson declared this an act of open rebellion and ordered U.S. ships to South Carolina to enforce the law.

In December 1832, Calhoun resigned as Jackson's vice president. He was the only vice president to resign until Spiro Agnew did so, 141 years later. Calhoun planned to become a senator in South Carolina to stop its run toward secession. He wanted to work on solving the problems that troubled his fellow Carolinians. Before federal forces arrived at Charleston, Calhoun and Senator Henry Clay agreed upon a compromise. They had often worked effectively together before. Clay persuaded Congress to pass the Compromise Tariff of 1833, which lowered the tariff gradually over 10 years (see copy on the page). The passage of this tariff prevented armed conflict.

The debate about the relative importance of states' rights versus federal power became a dividing line between the North and South. The political discussion was related to the differing rates of growth of the regions. Increased immigration to the North had meant a faster rate of growth in its population and gave it an advantage in representation, despite the 3/5 compromise that allowed the South to use its enslaved population in figuring Congressional representation.

The 19th century religious revival in the South had first been led by Methodist and Baptist preachers who opposed slavery. Gradually they began to adopt the Southern viewpoint. The Methodist and Baptist churches grew as their preachers accommodated slaveholding as a principle of continuity. Southern slaveholders looked to the Bible for language to control slaves. Southern slaveholders generally saw abolitionists as dangerous, self-righteous meddlers who would be better off tending to themselves than passing judgement on the choices of others. Pro-slavery apologists argued that the Northerners had no place in the debate over the morality of slavery, because they could not own slaves and would therefore not suffer the societal impacts that manumission would mean to the South.

The effect of bloody slave rebellions, such as the Vesey revolt of 1822 and John Brown's massacre at Harper's Ferry in 1859, was to reduce moderate abolitionists to silence, particularly in the South. These events inflamed fears and galvanized Southerners into an anti-abolitionist stance that effectively ended reasoned debate on the issue. South Carolinians had earlier tolerated slavery as a necessary evil. In an evolving concept, they came to proclaim slavery a positive good, a civilizing benefit to the enslaved, and a proper response to the "natural" differences between whites and blacks.

Apologists such as Thomas Harper argued that the wage-employee system of the North was more exploitative than slavery itself. A powerful minority of slaveholders had begun arguing that every white man should be legally required to own at least one slave, which they claimed would give an interest in the issue and instill responsibility. The Charleston Mercury denounced the slave trade; a number of newly captured slaves were imported into Charleston against federal law.

The Vesey Plot and the Indian Removal Act

Since colonial times, South Carolina had always been home to a sizable population of free blacks. Many were descended from enslaved mulattoes freed by their white fathers/owners. Others had been freed for faithful service. Some African-Americans purchased their freedom with portions of earnings they were allowed to keep when being "hired out". As long as there had been free blacks, they made the white population nervous.

In 1822, a free black craftsman and preacher, Denmark Vesey, was convicted of having masterminded a plan for (both enslaved and free) African-Americans to overthrow Charlestonian whites. Afterward, whites established curfews and forbade assembly of large numbers of African- Americans. They prohibited educating enslaved African-Americans, as they believed slaves' learning to read and write would make them unhappy and less compliant. Free African-Americans posed a challenge to slavery by their very presence. South Carolina leaders prohibited slaveholders from freeing their slaves without a special decree from the state legislature. This was the same path that Virginia had taken when its slaveholders became uneasy about freedmen.

Like Denmark Vesey, most of South Carolina's free blacks lived in Charleston, where there were opportunities for work and companionship. A free African-American subculture developed there. Charlestonian blacks held more than 55 different occupations, including a variety of artisan and craft jobs. Some African-Americans, such as Sumter cotton gin-maker William Ellison, amassed great fortunes. He did so in the same fashion that most wealthy whites had — by using the labor of black slaves.

As settlers pressed against western lands controlled by Native Americans, violence repeatedly erupted between them. Andrew Jackson came to the Presidency determined to pave the way for American settlers. In 1830 he signed the Indian Removal Act, by which he offered Native Americans land in unsettled areas west of the Mississippi River, in exchange for their lands in existing states. While some tribes accepted this solution, others resisted. By this time, the Cherokee Nation had been mostly pushed west and south out of South Carolina into Georgia.

The Mexican–American War

South Carolina strongly supported the Mexican War, as its leaders believed success would allow acquisition of additional lands open to slavery. They hoped for slaveholding states to acquire greater power in the U.S. Congress. The State raised a regiment of volunteers known as the Palmetto Regiment. The Palmetto Regiment was prepared and trained for the Mexican–American War by cadets and faculty at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina in Charleston. The Citadel created a training system which is known today as boot camp or recruit training, to prepare the men for combat. The Citadel cadets who trained the Palmetto Regiment were known as drillmasters, a term which later evolved into drill instructors. Under Pierce M. Butler, J.P. Dickinson, and A.H. Gladden, the Palmetto Regiment's flag entered Mexico City before any other.

As the Mexican War drew to a close, the introduction of the Wilmot Proviso in the U.S. Congress raised sectional tensions, this time over the issue of slavery. Introduced by a northern congressman as a rider on a war appropriations bill, the proviso specified that slavery would not be permitted in any territory ceded by Mexico. In the debate which followed, both national political parties split along sectional (regional) lines. The South had furnished more men for the war (435,248 versus the North's 22,136) and expected this sacrifice to be rewarded with new slave states carved out of the conquered lands. Although twice passed in the House of Representatives, the proviso was defeated in the Senate. However, the contention over extending slavery into new American territories was far from over; ultimately it was one of the causes of the Civil War.

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