Recognize any of these South Carolina historical figures — William Ellerbe, Miles McSweeney, Charles Aurelius Smith or Wilson G. Harvey?
Don’t be flummoxed. We didn’t either. But all were governors of South Carolina in the Jim Crow era. South Carolina currently operates under the 1895 constitution, a document ratified after Reconstruction to marginalize blacks and keep political power in the hands of a few legislators. This constitution, like similar ones in states across the segregated South, created a powerful legislative branch with much weaker executive and judicial branch checks on legislative power.
Governors, then as now, tended to have limited power. Under that constitution, which has been amended more than 300 times through the years, governors appointed some cabinet officials, served as head of the state National Guard and could pardon prisoners, commute death sentences, call the General Assembly into special session and use the line-item veto on appropriations bills.
In the years since the drafting of the 1895 constitution, the power of the governor to appoint cabinet heads has increased, but a governor’s ability to call the General Assembly into special session has been given an end run by legislators. Now instead of ending a session in June, lawmakers simply “adjourn” so that their officers, not a governor, can call them back to Columbia.
Nevertheless, what has changed dramatically throughout the years is the time that governors serve.
The original 1895 constitution called for governors to serve no more than two consecutive two-year terms. From 1897 to 1927, the state had 10 different governors, including William Ellerbe, a Marion planter who died in office in his second term at age 37. He was succeeded by Miles McSweeney, a Charleston native who eventually published a Hampton County newspaper. During McSweeney’s time as governor, his lieutenant governor, James H. Tillman, shot and killed N.G. Gonzales, editor of The State newspaper. Clearly, it was a tough time to be in public service.
In 1915, Charles Aurelius Smith became governor — for only five days. He filled the term left vacant when race-baiting
Gov. Cole Blease resigned because he didn’t want to attend the gubernatorial swearing in of Richard Manning III. Smith died in 1916, just a few months after his record of serving the shortest time as the state’s governor.
Another short-timer was Wilson Harvey, a former Charleston mayor who served less than eight months between 1921 and 1922 after his predecessor resigned to become a member of the federal Farm Loan Board.
In 1926, the constitution was amended to allow governors to serve one four-year term instead of two two-year terms. Between 1927 and 1978, the state had 16 different governors, including Olin D. Johnston, who served two separate stints as governor, from 1935 to 1939 and then from 1943 to 1945, when he went to the U.S. Senate.
Because governors now had the bully pulpit for a longer time without having to run after two years, they started getting known for enacting broader programs. Johnston, for example, made a lot of inroads for mill workers and in improving working conditions.
Fritz Hollings (1959 to 1963) fathered the state’s now-renowned technical education system, recruited industries and put muscle behind the state’s public TV network.
Then in the mid-1970s, the state constitution again was changed to give a governor the chance to run for a second four-year term and, in turn, make more lasting impacts on the state. Richard W. Riley, the first governor in the state’s history to serve for eight years, pumped leadership into improving education. His successor, Carroll Campbell, focused on building economic opportunities and bolstering the Republican party, forever changing the state’s politics.
Nikki Haley is South Carolina’s 116th governor since 1670, when William Sayle was appointed governor by the Lords Proprietor. She’s the fifth since Riley to try to get a second term. But just as Jim Hodges stood in the way of David Beasley getting a second term in 1998, Vincent Sheheen is now trying to become the Palmetto State’s 117th governor.
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