It’s Election Day 2015, and thousands of Charlestonians have cast ballots for a new mayor of our fine city. For the past forty years, Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. has held that office, but his long tenure is coming to an end. At this historical juncture, I thought this would be a fitting time to look back at the evolution of that office.
Many people in our community, and indeed some beyond South Carolina, attach considerable political clout to the office of Charleston’s chief executive, but that hasn’t always been the case. Over the past 232 years, our city’s executive office has evolved from a nearly powerless, part-time, unsalaried intendant, to a powerful, full-time, salaried mayor. What’s the difference between these two titles, and how did the office of Charleston’s executive evolve into a more powerful position? To answer these questions, we have to look back to the eighteenth century, during Charleston’s fledgling colonial days.
It is important to remember that for the first century of its existence, Charles Town was an unincorporated community without any sort of municipal government. In an era before running water, street paving, sanitation, and modern public health concerns, what did you need a municipal government for anyway?
Because Charles Town was the capital of South Carolina and the seat of our provincial government, however, our colonial legislature enacted a few laws for the basic administration of the town. From time to time, the legislature made provisions for such things as a town watch, defensive fortifications, public wells, and primitive sewer drains.
In June of 1722, under the stern guidance of Governor Francis Nicholson, our provincial legislature ratified an act to incorporate Charles Town as “Charles City and Port.” This law set up a “common council” to govern the city and appointed William Gibbons “mayor” of the new city.
Back in England, however, King George’s legal advisors were appalled by the hereditary nature of these city offices, and the 1722 incorporation of “Charles City and Port” was canceled by our British superiors. When news of this de-incorporation reached South Carolina in early October 1723, the name of our capital immediately reverted to the humble appellation, “Charles Town.”
A generation before the American Revolution, there was one more significant step towards the better management of urban Charles Town. In 1750, our provincial legislature ratified an act for the better regulation of Charles Town, and created a board of commissioners of streets. These street commissioners were responsible not only for clearing, filling, repairing, and draining the town’s urban thoroughfares, but they were also empowered to contract with scavengers to begin weekly curbside garbage collection. As mundane as these tasks may seem, they represent the first tentative steps toward a separate municipal government for Charleston.
The City of Charleston was finally incorporated shortly after the American Revolution. On the 13th of August 1783, the South Carolina General Assembly ratified an act to incorporate the city and create a system of municipal government composed of a city council and an intendant. The Wardens were to be elected by the citizens of their respective wards (there were thirteen wards in 1783), on the first Monday in every September. Then after the Wardens had been elected and sworn in, the citizens would return to the polls to select an intendant from among the thirteen newly elected Wardens. This second election was supposed to take place on the second Monday of every September, but in reality it usually took a few days longer to organize the election.
So this was the basic outline of Charleston’s new municipal government in 1783, but it’s important to remember that the city’s charter has been amended a number of times over the past 232 years. We’ll come back to that topic in a moment. But first, let’s address the obvious question: Why in 1783 did our civic leaders choose the title “Intendant” rather than the more common title “Mayor”?
The title “Mayor” came to England from France by way of the Norman Invasion in 1066, and by the early 12th century it was being adopted by municipalities throughout the realm. A mayor could be strong or weak, or simply a public relations figurehead, depending on the community’s political traditions.
When English settlers came to the New World to establish colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they frequently used the title of “Mayor” for their municipal executives. In contrast, the title “Intendant” is more commonly used by French and Spanish municipalities, both in Europe and in their former colonies the New World.
In fact, Charleston is one of a handful of communities in the United States to use the title “Intendant.” Curiously, if you look around for other examples, you’ll find early municipalities in both South Carolina and Alabama with intendants rather than mayors. Most of those communities have since adopted the more common title “Mayor” now, but the evidence suggests some sort of trend after the American Revolution.
It’s my educated guess that by adopting the title of intendant rather than mayor in 1783, the civic leaders of Charleston were expressing a desire to cast off English and British traditions. By adopting a title more often associated with municipal governments in France, our new ally during the war for independence, Charleston was attempting to forge a new tradition in civic administration.
So what exactly did our city intendant do? The 1783 act to incorporate Charleston did not define the scope of the intendant’s powers, nor did it prescribe any specific duties. By looking back at surviving records from the first few decades after the city’s incorporation, however, it appears that the intendant functioned merely as the presiding officer at City Council meetings, acting as a sort of master of ceremonies, if you will.
The intendant collected no salary for this duty, nor was he provided with a physical office separate from the rest of his fellow council members, who also served without pay. The only phrase relative to his duties in the 1783 act of incorporation related to term limits. According to that law, “No person shall be eligible to serve as intendant for more than three years in any term of five years.”
While it carried some degree of prestige, the office of intendant was not something that men actively campaigned for. In fact, before the 1830s, the idea of campaigning for elected office was considered crass and inappropriate for a gentleman. Because these elected offices offered no salary, they were essentially open only to gentlemen with private wealth. In the mindset of these Charlestonians, the notion of being paid for such municipal service conjured up images of influence peddling and prideful vanity. No, Charleston of the late eighteenth century was not quite ready for the questionable ethics of later American politics.
As I mentioned earlier, the city’s 1783 charter has been updated many times over the years. In December of 1808, for example, the South Carolina legislature ratified an act to alter and amend the city’s charter, specifically addressing one small aspect of its electoral process.
Up to this point, the city’s intendant had been selected by the citizens from among the small pool of men elected to serve as Wardens. According to the 1808 act, however, the intendant was to be elected “from among the Corporators of the City of Charleston.” That is to say, the citizens of Charleston were to elect an intendant on the third Monday in September, regardless of whether or not that man had been elected a Warden on the first Monday of September.
Furthermore, this 1808 law prescribed an enlargement of the intendant’s powers. Specifically, it endowed him with “all of the powers . . . incident to the office of justice of the quorum.” A Justice of the Quorum was similar to the more familiar title of Justice of the Peace, a very low-level judicial appointment, but a Justice of the Quorum had the authority to preside over local tribunals composed of multiple Justices of the Peace.
Another noteworthy amendment to Charleston’s city charter came along in December of 1817. By this time the citizens were unhappy with the inconvenient tradition of choosing the city’s Wardens and its intendant at separate elections spaced two weeks apart. According to this 1817 act, however, these elections would henceforth take place on the same day. Furthermore, citizens were now empowered to select both the wardens and the intendant by “general ticket,” meaning a resident would cast votes for all the wardens composing City Council, not just the for a representative from his respective ward.
At that time, election reform was brewing in South Carolina. In 1810, the state amended its constitution to allow all free white men over the age of 21 to vote. Accordingly, the 1817 revision of Charleston’s city charter granted suffrage to all free white males. It did, however, require men to register with the city treasure at least one month prior to the election. While this small requirement may seem logical to modern voters, many would-be-voters in Charleston’s 1818 elections were quite upset about this novel requirement when they were turned away from the polls for failure to register.
Nearly forty years after the incorporation of Charleston, the relative merits of the office of city intendant came into question. In the summer of 1822, local authorities were alarmed by the discovery of a planned uprising among members of the city’s enslaved and free black populations, ostensibly led by a free carpenter named Denmark Vesey. Modern scholars are divided over the question of whether such a plot actually existed or whether the authorities exaggerated the matter in order to tighten restrictions on the black population.
Regardless of this academic controversy, the drama that unfolded in the summer of 1822 exposed a weakness in the city’s government. Because of the scale of the threat, the governor of South Carolina took control of the situation and activated the local units of the state militia to stand guard in Charleston. Meanwhile, the city’s own government—the intendant and City Council—played a very minor role in the entire affair.
In the heat of the crisis, many citizens clamored for a more active and stronger municipal government. The solution, many argued, was to attach a salary to the intendant’s office, as a means of requiring a greater degree of diligence and commitment from the city’s executive office. In response, on the 6th of August 1822, Charleston’s City Council ratified an ordinance granting an annual salary of $3,500 to the intendant.
Almost immediately, however, many citizens began clamoring for a repeal of the intendant’s salary. Some argued that the sum was far too large, while some argued that any salary attached to an elected office was the first step toward an unscrupulous, greedy, and corrupt government.
In the end, popular opinion won the day, and on the 17th of October 1822—shortly after the annual municipal elections—the city council repealed the salary ordinance of 6 August, and the office of intendant returned to its former, humble, voluntary station.
Twelve years later, in the spring of 1835, another crisis brought attention back to the matter of our city government. A major fire on the 16th of February destroyed a significant portion of the city, including the majestic colonial church of the parish of St. Philip. Once again, officials at the state level, rather than our local government, took charge of the relief efforts. Charleston’s intendant and City Council weren’t completely powerless, but they lacked the degree of commitment that citizens of the 1830s were growing to expect from their elected leaders. Consequently, many citizens began clamoring once again for a stronger municipal government that would offer more support and leadership.
In response to these appeals, the city added a referendum to the usual municipal elections of early September 1835. The ballot simply stated that the referendum was “on the question of having a Salary attached to the office of Intendant.” Despite ardent appeals for a more powerful and more accountable executive, the 1835 referendum question was rejected by a large majority.
But all was not lost. Public discussion of a salaried intendant resurfaced in the spring of 1836, and on the 7th of June citizens gathered for a large public forum on the matter. Their stated goal was to transform the role of the passive intendant into a more active and accountable office—a chief executive of the city corporation, with an appropriate salary.
The pro-salary movement gathered steam through the summer of 1836, and City Council scheduled another referendum on the topic for August 8th. Less than a year after the defeat of the same proposal, the 1836 referendum won by a large majority, and on the 24th of August, the city ratified an ordinance granting a salary of $4,000 to the intendant.
At the usual annual election on 5 September 1836, Robert Young Hayne was elected Charleston’s first salaried intendant. Three months later, the state legislature ratified an act to rename the officers of Charleston’s city government. The old titles of “Intendant” and “Warden” were formally changed to that of Mayor and Aldermen. Significantly, this law also abolished the limit on the number of terms the mayor could serve. The stage was set for 40-year-tenure of Mayor Riley.
The change from intendant to Mayor was not simply a matter of nomenclature. It was also a reflection of the growing expectations of the American public. Citizens were beginning to require more accountability, transparency, and vision from their elected representatives.
Charleston’s 1836 transformation from weak intendant to strong mayor set in motion the prototype for our city’s modern mayors. The salary attached to the new office also came with a new duty that today we take for granted. It required the city’s executive to make an annual report to the citizens explaining what the city government had accomplished in the past year and how tax monies were spent. Furthermore, in this annual “state of the city” address, as many now call it, mayors were expected to articulate their visions for the future of the city, and to lay out the steps necessary to accomplish large civic projects.
Mayor Robert Young Hayne outlined the first such “city improvement” project in 1837, announcing his vision for a beautiful public park at the southern tip of the Charleston peninsula. That park, which Mayor Hayne christened White Point Garden, endures today as a monument to the foresight of our city government. Subsequent mayors went on to be elected on grand promises of civic improvement, and such platforms have become the norm for our electoral process.
But in 1836, Charleston was still a pretty small city. Most of the local population lived south of Boundary Street at that time, but the population of the Neck, the unincorporated land north of Boundary Street, was growing rapidly. In the late 1840s, Mayor Thomas L. Hutchinson opened a discussion of annexing the Neck, and legislative approval of this process came in December of 1849. At the beginning of 1850, the city annexed the vast territory north of Boundary Street, which was renamed Calhoun Street later that year.
In late 1852 the state legislature again altered the charter of the City of Charleston. Since the mayor’s duties were now more important, it seemed logical to extend his term from one year to two. At the same time, Charleston’s municipal elections were moved from September to early November, closer to the time frame of our modern election day. Thus in November 1853, Thomas Hutchinson was elected the first mayor of Charleston to serve a two-year term.
Two decades later, the city and our state legislature revisited the same topic, arguing that a strong mayor could be more effective if he could secure a longer tenure in office. Accordingly, in December 1878 the legislature ratified an act to extend the mayor’s term to four years, and in November 1879, William Ashmead Courtenay was elected our first mayor to serve a four-year term.
Mayor Courtenay was really the first of what we might consider our “modern” mayors of Charleston. He was a powerful politician, with strong convictions and visions for future the city. During his eight years in office, Mayor Courtenay was able to focus on municipal improvement and growth, with a minimum of time wasted on campaigning and politicking.
Since the turn of the twentieth century, the city of Charleston has grown in many different ways. While a lot of this growth can be attributed to private investment and both state and federal projects, we should not discount the degree of influence attributed to the city’s executive office. As ambassadors for the city, the various mayors of Charleston have succeeded in bringing to the city new investment, new jobs, and lots and lots of tourists.
And now, as Charlestonians go to the polls to elect a new mayor, tonight’s victor will take charge of a much larger city than Intendant Richard Hutson could have dreamt of in 1783. The recent Google map seen below illustrates the city’s present corporate boundaries. Since 1960, the city council of Charleston has annexed a significant amount of territory beyond the peninsula. Everything on this map bounded by red lines—including a huge swath of land west of the Ashley, most of James Island, Morris Island, parts of Johns Island, and all of Daniel Island—now falls under the jurisdiction of the Mayor and City Council of Charleston.
Now it’s time for some useless Mayoral trivia:
It’s been 232 years since the incorporation of the city of Charleston.
In that time we’ve had 60 different city executives, from Richard Hutson to Joseph P. Riley Jr.
We saw 70 years of one-year executive terms, including 53 years of part-time unsalaried Intendants.
We had 26 years of two-year terms, and 136 years of four-year terms.
That’s a total of 179 years of full-time, salaried mayors since 1836.
What was the shortest tenure of a Charleston Mayor? That would be Brevet Brigadier-General W. W. Burns, who served a total of 16 days as a Federally appointed mayor during the era of Reconstruction in the spring of 1868.
What was the longest tenure of a Charleston Mayor? Forty years, of course, a record held by you-know-who.
Speaking of the man of the hour, I’ll leave you with this photo of the Honorable Joseph P. Riley Jr., unveiling a new historical plaque in the summer of 2007 during the bicentennial anniversary of the City Market. In case you’re not familiar with our Joe, the mayor is the distinguished gentleman on the right. On the left is the author of the text of that historical plaque, yours truly.
Nic Butler and Joseph P. Riley Jr., 2007
Thanks for all you’ve done for us. We’ll miss you, Mayor Riley!