First look at rare 1789 Charleston publication

Title page of 1789 book

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A very rare book has returned (albeit digitally) to Charleston after an absence of more than a century. The Library of Congress has recently digitized (at my request) an extremely rare book published in here in the autumn of 1789 under the auspices of our City Council. How rare is it? According my research, the copy held at the LoC is a unicum—that is, it is the only known copy in the world. The book in question is titled Ordinances of the City of Charleston, in the State of South Carolina. . . . To which are Prefixed the Act of the General Assembly for Incorporating the City, and the Subsequent Acts to Explain and Amend the Same. The text was compiled and edited by Timothy Ford, a native of New Jersey who had recently moved to Charleston to practice law. The book was published in September or October of 1789 by Mrs. Ann Timothy, who was also the proprietor of  The State Gazette of South-Carolina, at the corner of Broad and King Streets.

Why is this book important? Because the City of Charleston does not have a complete collection of its own laws. Since its incorporation on 13 August 1783, the City Council of Charleston has ratified a few thousand ordinances, but the texts of some of the earliest ones are missing.  Before the advent of typewriters and computers, the city’s Clerk of Council wrote each ordinance by hand, and he was also responsible for filing, compiling, and indexing the ordinances. In the spring of 1865, a large percentage of the city’s municipal records—documents created by city officials and institutions since the 1783 incorporation of the city—fell victim to looting and destruction at the hands of U.S. troops and visiting civilian souvenir hunters. From 1865 onward, the City of Charleston has a complete record of all the ordinances ratified by City Council, but only a patchwork remains of the nearly one thousand laws passed by the city between 1783 and 1864. No manuscript copies of antebellum ordinances are known to exist, and thus we have to rely on other sources to flesh out Charleston’s legal record.

From its earliest days (and well into the twentieth century), the city routinely published each new ordinance in one or more of the local newspapers. Some of those newspapers are now either missing or quite rare, though digital access to historic newspapers is rapidly improving. More importantly, however, the City of Charleston also periodically published official collections or digests of its many ordinances. I’ve identified about two dozen such publications, spanning from 1784 to 1985. Sixteen such compiled editions were published before the Civil War, and most local copies of those books were destroyed or went missing during the Union occupation of the city in the spring of 1865. A few rare copies of these early compilations still exist in Charleston, but readers have to turn to libraries outside South Carolina to access the rarest volumes.

In Timothy Ford’s 1789 edition of Charleston’s first seventy-five ordinances, now available online, we have the full text of several laws that were not included in later editions, and we also have the earliest known publication of the “Regulations established by the City Council for the good government of the Poor House of Charleston, and the persons residing therein.” The recent digitization of this volume is a boon for historians, and I encourage everyone to take a look at it. Thanks, Library of Congress!