The Colleton County Courthouse in South Carolina (1820-)

One of my favorite things about traveling is being exposed to things different from what we have at home. I don’t just mean swapping White Castle for Krystal, either: as a kid, I was fortunate to grow up with parents who stressed the importance of experiencing authentic slices of local culture on our trips, whether they found us in Montreal, Belize, New Orleans, or the ruined Mayan city of Chichén Itzá. The South Carolina Lowcountry is no different- here in the midwest, two-hundred-year-old Greek Revival Courthouses aren’t exactly common!

The Colleton County Courthouse. Photo taken December 31, 2022.

I spent the week after Christmas on vacation in Edisto Island with my parents and my six-year-old niece. It was my first time back to the island in nearly a decade. I took some pictures around where I spent the week after Christmas on vacation in Edisto Island with my parents and my six-year-old niece. It was my first time back to the island in nearly a decade. I took some pictures of what I found interesting on the trip and I’ll write about them periodically. This is part four of the loose series; read parts one, two, and three here, here, and here.

Well-organized histories of states in the deep south are complicated for a carpetbagger to pin down. It’s partially due to how old most of the settlements are, but the various designations that areas received during the Reconstruction era after the Civil War don’t help matters either. Although a version of Colleton County date from as far back as 1682 as one of the South Carolina Colony’s first three proprietary counties1, the current incarnation was created in 1800.

The Charleston County part of Edisto Island, looking towards Colleton County on the mainland.

Parts of Edisto Island have flipped back and forth between Colleton and Charleston Counties over the centuries. In 1911, the portion of Colleton County south of the Edisto River was annexed by Charleston County. Sixty-four years later, though, the town of Edisto Beach is back in Colleton. Today only about 3% of the island is in Colleton County, but that’s the part of the island my family stayed in during our recent trip.

The original portion of the Colleton County Courthouse can be seen in the middle of this image as the part with the arched windows.

Colleton County’s first seat was in Jacksonboro, a community that was first recognized as a settlement in 1735. In 1822, the county’s government moved sixteen miles northwest to Walterboro. The original portion of the Colleton County Courthouse was built just after the government relocated by contractor William Thompson. Architect Robert Mills from Charleston is generally believed to have designed the building’s portico in finishing an uncompleted design from architect William Jay2.

The courthouse sits on a raised basement and features brick massing stuccoed and scored to give the impression of stone. Its most prominent features are its massive portico and the two curving stairways that ascend to its second story. Beneath the atrium, access to the building is granted through a pair of four panel doors. Supported by four Tuscan columns, the portico itself supports a large parapet that extends the width of the original building. It’s capped with a smaller, multi-tiered roofline.

The north wing of the courthouse was added in the 1930s as part of a WPA project.

Apart from its age and design, much of the courthouse’s historic nature is due to the role it played in the United States nullification crisis that resulted from the Tariff of 1828. Known as the “Tariff of Abominations” by its opponents, the bill was a protectionist tax that raised import duties on foreign manufactured goods to protect domestic industries from foreign competition. Southerners, particularly in South Carolina, vehemently believed that the tariff harmed their ability to trade freely3. Eventually, political radicals in the state began demanding that the state nullify the tax, believing that if a state found a federal law unconstitutional, its residents wouldn’t have to follow it4. In 1828, Robert Barnwell Rhett and James Hamilton, Jr. delivered fiery speeches at the courthouse advocating nullification5.

President John Quincy Adams signed the tariff and immediately lost the 1828 presidential election to Andrew Jackson. It was thought that Jackson would significantly reduce its effects, but he declared the tariff constitutional the following year. Although Jackson eventually acquiesced and lowered some rates in the Tariff of 1832, when a South Carolina state convention voted forcefully to nullify the tariffs, the president threatened the state with war. South Carolina backed down, but the Nullification Crisis was finally resolved with a compromising Tariff of 18336.

Today, a fountain and marker at the northwest corner of the Colleton County Courthouse commemorates its role in the initial nullification meetings. Unfortunately, the building itself aged extremely quickly during the controversy and was reconstructed by Johnathan and Benjamin Lucas just twenty-four years after its completion7.

The western wing of the courthouse, which was added in 1916 and covered in brick and stucco from 1937-38.

The courthouse stood largely unmodified until 1916, when a wood-frame wing extending west from the original courthouse was added to the structure. Substantial changes occurred in the 1930s, when the western wing was wrapped with brick and a new eastern wing, along with an expansion to the north, were undertaken by the Works Progress Administration8. At that time, the interior of the building was remodeled as well.

The building was restored in 2007 under the purview of architects Stevens & Wilkinson. Although its been extensively remodeled and expanded, nothing about the Colleton County Courthouse is unharmonious. All of the building’s alterations add up to make it legitimate in its space, from its exterior stairs to its grand portico. That even includes the tabby sidewalks that surround the perimeter of the courthouse, made from oyster shells, lime, and water.

The 1911 Confederate monument in front of the Colleton County Courthouse.

In 1911, the United Confederate Veterans installed a twenty-five-foot obelisk on a seven-foot base right in front of the courthouse. The monument memorializes the “Confederate soldiers of Colleton County, SC.” The rough-hewn tower makes an enormous impression.

Eighty-six years after the monument was erected, a citizens group led by local African-Americans called for the its removal9. “We believe that Confederate exhibits only serve to re-enforce thoughts and actions which are better buried and forgotten,” wrote Earl Moultrie, a representative of the Oak Grove Citizens Committee10. Their demand came on the heels of Governor David Beasley’s proposal to remove the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s statehouse dome11, an event that eventually happened in 2015 under the governorship of Nikki Haley. Many residents of Colleton County -a contingency that included the Colleton County Historical & Preservation Society- disagreed, and the monument still stands in front of the Colleton County Courthouse today.

Two sets of stairs lead to the building’s main story under its portico.

As shocking as a Confederate monument outside of Colleton County’s stately old courthouse may be to a random midwesterner, its existence is just a part of life for the people who live in Walterboro. Most rust-belt courthouse squares never get any more controversial than featuring a granite copy of the Ten Commandments, after all. Around Indiana, acknowledging the Ten Commandments on government property isn’t any more contentious than memorializing the Confederacy on a courthouse green down in the Lowcountry, it seems.

That’s why I love to travel. Venturing to distant places allows us all to experience different cultures, people, and landscapes. It also affords us the chance to confront historical realities that we don’t regularly come across in our native habitats. I’m not here to comment on the virtues of any monument, whether it’s in Indiana or South Carolina, but I am here to write about a courthouse. Regardless of what sits in front of it, Colleton County has an extraordinarily old one that’s enormously compelling from an architectural -and historical- standpoint.

Colleton County (pop. 38,462, 26/46)
Walterboro (pop. 5,463)
1/46 photographed
Built: 1822
Cost: Unknown
Architect: Robert Mills and William Jay
Style: Greek Revival
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 2 stories
Current Use: Most courts and county offices
Photographed: 12/31/22

Sources Cited
1 Long, J. (2009). South Carolina Atlas of Historical County Boundaries. The Newberry Library. Web. Retrieved January 22, 2023.
2 Colleton County Courthouse (2001). The Colleton County Historical and Preservation Society. Marker. Retrieved December 31, 2022.
3 Michon, H. (2022, July 31). Tariff of 1828 (Tariff of Abominations). The Economic Historian. Web. Retrieved January 22, 2023.
4 Craven, A. (1942). The Coming of the Civil War. The University of Chicago Press. Book. 
5 National Register of Historic Places, Colleton County Courthouse, Walterboro, Colleton County, South Carolina, National Register # 71000765.
6 Northrup, C. & Prange, E. (2003). The Encyclopedia of Tariffs and Trade in U.S. History. Greenwood-Heinemann Publishing Group [Portsmouth]. book.
7 Deacon, J. “Colleton County”. American Courthouses. 2008. Web.  Retrieved January 22, 2023.
8 (See footnote 7).
9 Tobin, R. (1997, February 4). Civil War monument was erected, dedicated in 1911. The Press and Standard [Walterboro]. p. 13.
10 Confederate monument offesnve, group says (1997, February 1). The Herald [Rock Hill]. p. 11. 
11 Hoover, D. (1997, January 19). Overlooked flags irritate black caucus. The Greenville News. p. 71.

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