Americana: South Carolina

The Weight of Grain
April 26, 2011 to May 21, 2011

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

This is perhaps the most recognized sentence in American history, but its origins are more obscure. At first glance, this powerful statement appears infallible, but nowhere in the initial draft of the Declaration of Independence was slavery condemned, abolished, or even addressed. Why? Certainly not all the founding fathers condoned this atrocity.

While records of the drafting of the Declaration of Independence are few, vague, and steeped with controversy, there is one view that offers a startling reason for this selective erasure—a view that points to South Carolina. While penning the initial draft of the Declaration in June of 1776, Thomas Jefferson outwardly attacked the slave trade, but not the ownership of slaves on this new land. Ultimately all references to slavery were erased before the final draft was accepted. This was a condition required by Edward Rutledge and Arthur Middleton of South Carolina, amongst others.

The colony of Carolina, named for King Charles I, was founded in 1670 by wealthy British slave owners traveling from nearby Barbados. In 1729 North and South Carolina split into two separate colonies and Charleston was founded as the capital of South Carolina. Because of the mild climate and proximity to the water, South Carolina's soil proved incredibly fertile. Rice and indigo, two crops brought to America by the slaves themselves, quickly became the most profitable export commodities of the thirteen original colonies. By 1755, South Carolina was exporting more than 200,000 pounds of indigo annually—more than enough to provide all of Britain's aristocracy with this expensive blue dye. In 1770 the price of a young male slave in South Carolina was the equivalent of twenty-seven dollars, less than the cost of a vat used to process the indigo plant. The indigo plant that, in essence, kept slavery legal for another one hundred years was ironically used to paint the doorframes of houses that were sanctuaries for slaves during the Civil War.

As both its industry and population grew, colonial South Carolina became ever more dependent on slavery to sustain its level of progress. As a result of these two crops South Carolina became the most powerful and stable of the thirteen colonies, with a population of around 124,000 by 1770, more than half of which were slaves. This prosperity, coupled with the fact that the port of Charleston quickly overtook Boston as the largest trade port of the colonies, made the inclusion of South Carolina in the Declaration of Independence a great priority. Without South Carolina's support it is possible that the American Revolution would have had a drastically different outcome.

Before America won its independence it was already founded on vague language that favored economic progress at the expense of millions of lives. Today this strategic edit to a document that claims to protect the rights of all peoples remains itself erased from popular knowledge. The Weight of Grain investigates selective memory and selective records of history—records of events that would be easier to forget than to confront. It does so by displaying a physical, tangible mass that stands in for a forgotten, intangible history; it stands as a monument to the nameless 645,000 slaves brought through South Carolina who suffered so that America could prosper.

David Kasprzak

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