Most area residents recognize the name Snee Farm as one of Mount Pleasant’s long-established neighborhoods. But far fewer are familiar with one of its early residents – Charles Pinckney.
Pinckney is well-known to historians as one of the signers – and drafters – of the U.S. Constitution. Every day, Americans enjoy the freedoms and protections that were his design.
A small piece of his family’s former 715-acre rice plantation is open to the public as the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site, operated by the U.S. National Park Service. The remainder is the adjoining neighborhood and golf course. But the fate of this park almost turned out quite differently. Like many Lowcountry plantations, the tract was purchased in the 1930s by a wealthy Northerner and used as his winter retreat. Decades later, most of it was sold in parcels for development of the neighborhood. In 1988, Friends of Historic Snee Farm was founded by locals Ann Edwards and Nancy Hawk to save the core of the plantation from further division. The nonprofit group worked tirelessly to raise $2 million to purchase the last 28 acres and, in turn, donated the site to the National Park Service. Today, area residents can enjoy a picnic or stroll through the natural beauty of camellias, live oaks, magnolias and the marshes of Wampacheone Creek.
Tim Stone, superintendent of all national park sites in the Lowcountry, believes the park is undervisited, but now, with its own site supervisor and a plan to add music performances, nature activities and family-friendly events, this setting will attract more than just history buffs.
The plantation was purchased in 1754 by Pinckney’s father, who gave it the name Snee, a Gaelic word meaning bountiful. The house currently there was built by a subsequent owner, but the foundations of many of the early buildings lost to time are visible, allowing guests to explore the contributions of the African-Americans who lived and worked at the plantation. Inside the farmhouse, displays provide further insight into the Gullah culture and the Pinckney family. Archaeological finds and a short video help to round out the historical context of the site.
Like most planters of his day, Pinckney spent only a portion of his time at the plantation, keeping a more grandiose house in the city. However, President George Washington wrote in his journal that he stopped at Snee Farm for breakfast during his visit to the Lowcountry in 1791.
Downtown tour guides quip that Pinckney and John Rutledge collaborated on writing the Constitution at Rutledge’s Broad Street home, which is now a bed-and-breakfast. But there is more to the story than that. Although the legacy of Rutledge as a founding father is often told, Pinckney had a reputation as one of the brightest and most well-spoken of the men meeting in Philadelphia to draft the document – and was a mere 29 years old at the time. He was one of the most vocal and influential delegates at the convention. According to one historian, Pinckney “spoke often and earnestly and was best at filling in holes of the grand design taking place on the floor.” He even served with Alexander Hamilton as a member of the all-important committee to establish the convention’s rules and procedures.
It is indisputable that Pinckney is responsible for one of the most profound articles in the resulting document – “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust.” Also of great significance are his suggestions that the executive branch be headed by one person and that the president serve as commander-in-chief of the military.
There is some debate among historians, but Pinckney may well be the author of a number of other provisions in the Constitution. Three decades after the document became our nation’s cornerstone, John Quincy Adams asked Pinckney to provide a copy of his “draught,” the most complete and comprehensive plan presented by any individual member of the convention. Pinckney sent one of several outlines he had written and the one he thought he had actually presented in Philadelphia. He wrote this copy from memory, however, since his original version had been lost or destroyed. Years later, James Madison disputed the claim that these ideas were in fact solely Pinckney’s or that they had actually been presented before the Constitution was ratified. He never confronted Pinckney about his concerns, but instead omitted credit to him when publishing the journal of the Constitutional Convention. So, to most Americans, Pinckney has become the forgotten founder.
As is usually the case in politics, statesmen are not without adversaries, and many of Pinckney’s contemporaries – including Madison – considered him arrogant while still admiring his intelligence. But park employee Tony Paladino believes they may have been mistaking zeal for vanity. Pinckney himself even wrote, “I always loved politics, and, as I grow older, I have become more fond of them.”
After making history in Philadelphia, Charles Pinckney went on to become governor of South Carolina at the age of 32, a position he held for four non-consecutive terms. During his 42 years in public office, he also held a seat in the U.S. Senate and in the U.S. House of Representatives. When Pinckney wasn’t governor or holding federal positions, he served in the state Legislature. His political leanings advocating greater representation to the backcountry of the state and suffrage to all white men – not just affluent Lowcountry landowners – led to personal conflicts with friends and family and eventually distanced him from his cousin and fellow founding father Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. He supported Thomas Jefferson’s run for the presidency in 1800, against his aforementioned cousin, and, upon Jefferson’s election, was appointed minister to Spain.
During the Revolutionary War, Pinckney was captured when the British took Charleston. He was held on one of the prison ships anchored in the harbor, a fate that led to sickness and disease for many. But Pinckney survived the ordeal and successfully waged a campaign to coerce the British to remove the prisoners from such despicable and inhumane conditions. The British acquiesced but banished him, along with many others, to Philadelphia.
As a tragic twist, Pinckney’s father turned his back on the patriot cause, tainting the family name and resulting in great financial losses for the Pinckneys due to economic penalties imposed on traitors. Pinckney’s financial troubles dogged him throughout his life, exacerbated by his neglect of them. Park Ranger Gary Alexander explained, “Pinckney had inherited his financial holdings but was in way over his head. He’d probably be the first to admit that he was not a businessman but rather a lawyer and politician.” He eventually turned over Snee Farm and other properties, including Shell Hall at Haddrell’s Point, to trustees in order to settle his debts.
These days, when Mount Pleasant residents are driving their children to the local elementary school named for him or attending classes at the College of Charleston, which he helped to establish, they may want to take a moment and reflect upon one of our nation’s most overlooked but significant political figures. And, thanks to two civic-minded women, we are all very fortunate to be able to enjoy the quiet retreat and beauty that is the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site.
By Mary Coy.