Books and Borrowing 1750-1830

I’d Rather Charleston: A Trip to South Carolina and the Charleston Library Society

Last year, I was lucky enough to be awarded a SGSAH visiting researcher grant to fund a three-month placement at the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello in Virginia. Whilst I’ll spend the majority of my time in Charlottesville, the nearest city to Monticello, I’m also taking advantage of being ‘stateside’ by making a number of trips to subscription libraries and archives elsewhere on the east coast of the United States, in Charleston, New York and Philadelphia. In a series of blogs for the Books and Borrowing project, I’ll provide readers with a brief guide to the variety of libraries I visit, their histories and records and how they relate to my own project and that of the Books and Borrowing.

We’ll first begin with a trip to the tropics of South Carolina and its most populous city, Charleston, and its subscription library, the Charleston Library Society. Dubbed the South’s oldest cultural institution, the Charleston Library Society is the United States’ third oldest subscription library founded in 1748. It still exists as a private members society in its own premises on King Street, where it has been since 1914. For much of its history, and like many other subscription libraries, the Charleston Library rented spaces in existing civic institutions, and at the end of the eighteenth century it occupied a room in what is now the Charleston County Courthouse.

Its location in an Atlantic-sea port meant that the Charleston Library Society faced numerous other dangers ranging from fire, earthquake and hurricane to revolution and civil war. A catastrophic fire in 1778 destroyed nearly all of the 5,000-6,000 volumes then in the library. Only 49 books survive from the library’s earliest collections but a number of these, such as Horace Walpole’s Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard the Third (1768) and William Robertson’s History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V (1769), contain sizeable amounts of marginalia. War has also left its mark in the library’s institutional records. During the American War of Independence, no meetings of the Library Society were held between 1780 and 1783 whilst British troops controlled Charleston and the library’s records remained locked in the city’s courthouse.

The building of the Charleston Library Society on King Street, Charleston

Despite these travails, the library has an excellent range of surviving institutional records, including circulation books, catalogues, minute books and letter books, and the history and readers of the Charleston Library have been the subject of work by James Raven, Isabelle Lehuu and Sean Moore.[1] Accessing some of these institutional records, it was startling to see, despite differences in geography and politics, how similar the Charleston Library seems to be to other British subscription libraries active in the same period. Of course, this was partly the intentions of the library’s proprietors, to cultivate an exclusive space of cultured and elite learning that relied upon access to the latest publications from London. The library hired a British book agent for expressly this purpose.[2]

As was common elsewhere, the members of the Charleston Library constituted the city’s social and civic elite and the library was used by individuals of various political persuasions. All four of Charleston’s signers of the Declaration of Independence were library members, Thomas Heyward (1746-1809), Thomas Lynch (1749-1779), Arthur Middleton (1742-1787) and Edward Rutledge (1749-1800), but loyalists were also library members.[3] Amongst these included Robert Wells, a local printer and bookseller who was also a library committee member from at least 1759 and was responsible for the publication of the library’s rules and by-laws in 1762.[4] My future research will be concerned with discovering just how the library was able to moderate political disagreements between its members, and how the library managed its proceedings through periods of political turmoil.

The back yard of the Aiken-Rhett House looking towards the house. The kitchen and the slave quarters are on the left, with the stables and carriage house on the right.

For both potential loyalists and patriots, the inherent value of the subscription library’s social space lay partly in its exclusivity which was maintained through social and economic barriers to entry. Within a colonial port city like Charleston, one dependent upon a slaveholding plantation economy, the library was further removed from the majority of Charlestonians. The city served as the pre-eminent port for the entry of imported slaves into mainland North America in the eighteenth century, and by 1740 enslaved persons of colour in Charleston outnumbered whites by a ratio of two to one.[5] Charleston’s extraordinary array of surviving historic mansions provides a reminder of the hierarchies central to the city’s eighteenth-century society. One of these, the Aiken-Rhett House, now administered as a house museum by the Historic Charleston Foundation, includes the outbuildings that once housed the house’s enslaved servants, with the high walls surrounding the property providing both privacy and serving as an impenetrable barrier to keep the enslaved workforce in. As such, although the Charleston Library Society seems to share many similarities with British subscription libraries of the same period (in the nature of their collections and the manner in which the library was administered), it was located within a very different context, one in which the regulated social space of the subscription library may have helped Charleston’s increasingly homogenous planter class forge even closer connections together.

[1] James Raven, London Booksellers and American Customers: Transatlantic Literary Community and the Charleston Library Society, 1748-1811 (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2002); Isabelle Lehuu, ‘Reconstructing Reading Vogues in the Old South: Borrowings from the Charleston Library Society, 1811-1817’, in Shafquat Towheed and W. R. Owens, eds, The History of Reading, Volume 1: International Perspectives, c.1500-1990 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp.64-83; Sean D. Moore, Slavery and the Making of Early American Libraries: British Literature, Political Thought, and the Transatlantic Book Trade, 1731-1814 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[2] Raven, London Booksellers and American Customers.

[3] I am grateful to Debbie Finn for providing this information.

[4] Christopher Gould, ‘Robert Wells, Colonial Charleston Printer’, The South Carolina Historical Magazine, 79.1 (January, 1978), pp.23-49; Charleston Library Society, MS.29, Series IV, No. 2, Committee Minutes, 1759-80, 1783-91; The Rules and By-Laws of the Charleston Library Society… (Charlestown: Robert Wells, 1762)

[5] Moore, Slavery and the Making of Early American Libraries.