A notice in the August 21, 1822 edition of the Charleston Courier to vote on the intendant receiving a salary.
Friday, October 11, 2019 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­The mayor of Charleston is a prestigious officer who commands respect throughout our community and beyond, but that hasn’t always been the case. Nearly two centuries ago, the city’s executive evolved from a nearly powerless, part-time, unsalaried intendant, to a powerful, full-time, salaried mayor, whose term in office then expanded from a single year to two, and then four, and beyond. Today we’ll compare and contrast the title of intendant and mayor, and trace the gradual accretion of powers that define twenty-first-century Charleston’s most visible citizen.

The city we call Charleston is nearly 350 years old, but the roots of the officer we call mayor date back just 236 years. As I discussed in a previous episode about the growth of civil government on the peninsula (see Episode No. 56), “Charles Town” was an unincorporated township for its first century (and a bit), devoid of any sort of municipal government. In an era before indoor plumbing, street paving, vehicular traffic, garbage collection, sanitation, and the modern conceptions of public health and civil rights, 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, markets, public wells, primitive sewer drains, and even limited social welfare. In 1722, Governor Francis Nicholson bullied the community into ratifying a law to incorporate the town under the named “Charles City and Port,” but the British government voided that law in 1723. For the next sixty years, de-incorporated Charles Town struggled to maintain order as the urban population swelled.

The modern City of Charleston government was finally and properly born in the aftermath of the American Revolution. On the 13th of August 1783, the South Carolina General Assembly ratified an act to incorporate the city under the modern spelling, Charleston (see Episode No. 123). That act created a rather mundane system of municipal government composed of a city council and an intendant. The city was divided into wards (thirteen at first, and later reorganized repeatedly), and on the first Monday in every September, the white male citizens of each ward elected a warden to represent them on city council. After the wardens were elected and had taken the oath of office, 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.[1]

This was the basic outline and calendar of Charleston’s new municipal government in 1783. It’s important to understand, however, that the city’s corporate charter has been amended a number of times over the past 236 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” for the city’s executive officer, 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 twelfth 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 size of the community and its 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 to these English traditions, 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 South Carolina, Georgia, 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 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. A similar change took place at nearly the same time in Tennessee, for example, when the colonial Fort Nashborough became the United States city of Nashville.

So what exactly did the intendant of Charleston do? The 1783 act to incorporate the city 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. In the 1783 act of incorporation, the only phrase relative to his duties concerned 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 for which men actively campaigned. In fact, before the 1830s, the idea of campaigning for any elected office was considered crass and inappropriate for a gentleman. Because there was no salary attached to these elected offices, they were essentially open only to gentlemen with private wealth. In the mindset of early Charlestonians, the notion of being paid for such municipal service conjured up images of influence peddling and prideful avarice. 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 free white male citizens of Charleston were to elect an intendant on the third (no longer second) 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.” [2] A justice of the quorum was similar to the more familiar title of justice of the peace, a low-level magistrate, but a justice of the quorum had the authority to preside over local tribunals composed of multiple justices of the peace. In other words, the 1808 law elevated the intendant of Charleston to a slightly higher rank than his fellow members of council.

   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 could cast a vote for a slate of wardens composing city council, not just the for a representative from his own 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 twenty-one 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 treasurer at least one month prior to the election.[3] 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 evidence 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.[4]

In the heat of that tumultuous summer in Charleston, a number of citizens complained that the municipal government had failed to mount an adequate response to the perceived emergency. The chief problem, as many voices asserted, was the want of a full-time executive endowed with sufficient legal authority to act swiftly and decisively during a crisis. The popular solution to this shortcoming was to elevate the intendant to a true executive, separate from and superior to city council, and to require from him a greater degree of diligence and commitment. In order to compensate qualified gentlemen for this increased responsibility, many citizens suggested that the intendant should receive a salary commensurate with such a prestigious office. On August 6th, 1822, City Council and Intendant James Hamilton Jr. (1786–1857) endorsed this plan by hurriedly passing an ordinance to increase the duties of the intendant and to provide him with an annual salary of $3,500.[5]

Almost immediately after this act, however, many citizens began clamoring for a repeal of the intendant’s salary. Some argued that the sum was far too large, especially during the general economic depression in the wake of the Panic of 1819. Others argued that any salary attached to any elected office was the first step toward an unscrupulous, greedy, and corrupt government.[6] In the end, popular opinion and political machinations derailed this enlargement of the intendant’s powers. Intendant Hamilton was re-elected on September 15th, 1822, on the promise of repealing the new law granting him a salary. Two months later, on October 17th, the city council repealed the salary ordinance and the office of intendant returned to its former, humble, voluntary station.[7]

Nearly thirteen years later, in the spring of 1835, another local crisis generated familiar complaints about the ineffective character of Charleston’s 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 efforts to assist those displaced by the fire and to help them rebuild their homes. 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.

   During the second half of 1835, the local newspapers carried several editorial letters recommending the transformation of the office of city intendant from a part-time, unsalaried position to a full-time, salaried position with increased responsibilities. During this same period, the local newspapers also carried an unprecedented number of official excerpts from the proceedings of City Council. These facts suggest that the elected municipal representatives sought to demonstrate their efficacy by providing to their constituents greater insight into the activities of city government. On August 18th, 1835, City Council responded to the renewed appeals to increase the powers and duties of the intendant by adopting a resolution to instruct the managers of the upcoming city election, scheduled for September 7th, “to open a separate box at each poll for the purpose of receiving the votes of the citizens of Charleston, on the question of having a salary attached to the office of intendant.”[8]

In spite of the public support for the intendant’s salary voiced in Charleston’s newspapers in the late summer of 1835, the proposition was defeated by a large majority.[9] 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. A committee formed to convey the recommendations of that meeting to city council complained again that the intendant was merely the presiding officer of the council, and recommended that the duties of the intendant be increased to make him the chief executive officer of the city corporation, with an appropriate salary.[10] Council received these recommendations warmly and agreed to hold a second referendum on the topic on August 8th, 1836.[11]

In the days leading up the vote, the topic of the intendant’s salary elicited a number of responses from members of the community. Some citizens embraced the idea, while others worried about the increased expenditure without an adequate method of allowing the public to see how the city’s money was being spent.[12] Despite resistance to the change, the second referendum on the intendant’s salary was approved by a large majority of Charleston voters.[13] Accordingly, the duties of the intendant were increased by an ordinance ratified by City Council on August 25th, 1836, and the annual salary of the office was set at $4,000.[14]

   At the usual annual municipal election held on September 5th, 1836, Robert Young Hayne (1791–1839) was elected Charleston’s first salaried intendant and took office the same week.[15] Three months later, on December 21st, the South Carolina General Assembly 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 “alderman.” 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 Joseph P. Riley Jr. (born 1943).[16]

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 transition from weak intendant to strong mayor set in motion the prototype for our city’s modern leaders. 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 vision for the future of the city, and to lay out the steps necessary to accomplish large civic projects. Mayor Robert Y. 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 was christened “White Point Garden” in 1838, and endures today as a monument to the foresight of our city government.

Subsequent mayors went on to be elected on more-or-less grand promises of civic improvement, and such platforms have become the norm for our electoral process. Thomas Leger Hutchinson (1812–1883), for example, sought to push the city limits northward and to annex a large swath of unincorporated “Charleston Neck.” He accomplished this goal in early 1850, during his third successive one-year term, before losing the mayor’s office to a rival. Hutchinson was re-elected in the autumn of 1852, however, and convinced the state legislature to make another permanent change to the city’s charter. Because the annexation of 1850 had fairly doubled the size of Charleston, the mayor’s duties were now more complex. It seemed logical to extend his term from one year to two. The state legislature ratified this change in December 1852, and simultaneously moved Charleston’s municipal elections from early September to the first Wednesday in November.[17] On November 2nd, 1853, Thomas Hutchinson was elected the first mayor of Charleston to serve a two-year term.

   More than two decades later, city leaders and our state legislature revisited these same topics. In June 1877, the state amended the city’s charter by moving the municipal elections to the second Tuesday in December. Then, in December 1878, the legislature again extended the length of the mayor’s term in office, starting with the election of 1879.[18] If a strong mayor needed more time to flex his or her muscle, then four years was better than two. Accordingly, on December 9th, 1879, William Ashmead Courtenay (1831–1908) was elected our first mayor to serve a four-year term (actually, he ended up serving two terms). While you might think it odd to hold a city election in December, that practice endured for a century—into the late 1970s.

Mayor William Courtenay was really the first of what we might consider our “modern” mayors of Charleston. He was a powerful politician, with strong leadership skills and a vision for the city’s future. 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. Because his family was also in the printing business, Courtenay was also responsible for inaugurating the practice of printing annual bound volumes of the “Proceedings of City Council,” and an annual collection of city reports under the title Charleston Year Book (1880–1951). Both of these annual publications represented a significant improvement in the transparency and accountability of our local government.

Since the turn of the twentieth century, the city of Charleston has grown in many different ways. We have more people, more infrastructure, more visitors, and more protection of civil rights. A lot of this growth can be attributed to private investment and both state and federal projects, but 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.

Although he is no longer in office, former Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. makes an excellent figure to cap our tour of the evolution of Charleston’s executive office. Mayor Riley was elected to his first four-year term on December 9th, 1975. Note that he was elected on the second Tuesday in December, the date appointed for our city elections by a state law passed in 1877. During Mayor Riley’s administration, on February 13th, 1979, Charleston’s City Council ratified an ordinance moving the city elections to the first Tuesday in November.[19] Accordingly, Joe Riley was re-elected for the first time on November 6th, 1979. Forty years later, this schedule of electing a mayor in early November to serve a four-year term seems natural and timeless. In reality, however, it’s a relatively new practice that follows more than two centuries of trial and error.

   Now it’s time for some useless mayoral trivia: It’s been 236 years since the incorporation of the city of Charleston. In that time, we’ve had sixty-one different city executives, from Richard Hutson, elected in September 1783, to John Tecklenburg, elected in November 2015. The city witnessed seventy years of one-year executives, including fifty-three years of part-time, unsalaried intendants. Then we had twenty-six years of two-year terms, and then 140 years of four-year terms. That’s a total of 183 years of full-time, salaried mayors since the autumn of 1836.

What was the shortest tenure of a Charleston mayor? That would be Brevet Brigadier-General William Wallace Burns (1825–1892), who served a total of sixteen days as a Federally-appointed mayor in the spring of 1868. What was the longest tenure of a Charleston mayor? Forty years, of course, a record held by the Honorable Joseph P. Riley Jr.

To all the candidates running for the office of Charleston’s chief executive, present and future, I wish you well. The citizens of the Palmetto City tend to expect a lot from their mayor, and that’s no accident. After many generations of tinkering with the recipe, we’ve learned that strong leadership and stability are the key ingredients of success.



[1] Act No. 1191, “An Act to incorporate Charleston,” ratified on 13 August 1783, in David J. McCord, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 7 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1840), 97–101.

[2] Act No. 1921, “An Act to alter and amend ‘An Act to incorporate Charleston’; and for other purposes therein mentioned,” ratified on 17 December 1808, in McCord, Statutes at Large, 7: 125–26.

[3] Act No. 2145, “An act to alter and amend so much of the second Clause of the Charter incorporating the City of Charleston, as relates to the qualification of voters for Intendant and Wardens; and for other purposes therein mentioned,” ratified on 18 December 1817, in McCord, Statutes at Large, 7: 138–39.

[4] For more information about this topic, see Douglas R. Egerton and Robert L. Paquette, eds., The Denmark Vesey Affair: A Documentary History (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2017).

[5] “An Ordinance to increase the duties of the Intendant of the City of Charleston, and to fix an annual salary as a compensation for his services, and for other purposes therein mentioned,” ratified on 6 August 1822, in City of Charleston, Collection of the Ordinances of the City Council of Charleston, from the Twenty-Eighth of September, 1818, to the Twelfth of August, 1823 (Charleston, S.C.: A. E. Miller, 1823), 31.

[6] See, for example, the letters “To the Electors of Charleston” by “A Citizen,” in Charleston Courier, 29 August 1822; from “Many Taxable Citizens” in [Charleston] City Gazette, 30 August 1822; from “Hundreds of Electors” in Charleston Courier, 2 September 1822.

[7] Hamilton’s repeal position was articulated in a brief statement “For the City Gazette,” in [Charleston] City Gazette, 30 August 1822. “An Ordinance to repeal an ordinance, entitled ‘An ordinance to increase the duties of the Intendant of the City of Charleston, and to fix an annual salary as a compensation for his services, and for other purposes therein mentioned,’” ratified on 21 October 1822, in City of Charleston, Collection of the Ordinances of the City Council of Charleston, from the Twenty-Eighth of September, 1818, to the Twelfth of August, 1823 (Charleston, S.C.: A. E. Miller, 1823), 38. According to a statement in the Charleston Mercury, 18 October 1822, the ordinance was repealed by a vote of ten to two. According to a statement in [Charleston] Southern Patriot, 6 August 1835, the repeal of the 1822 ordinance was due to “political or party considerations.”

[8] Charleston Courier, 21 August 1835.

[9] Charleston Mercury, 9 September 1835.

[10] See Charleston Mercury, 11 June 1836.

[11] See Charleston Mercury, 1 July 1836; and Charleston Mercury, 29 July 1836.

[12] See Charleston Mercury, 6 August 1836; and Charleston Mercury, 8 August 1836.

[13] Charleston Mercury, 10 August 1836. The vote tally was 363 in favor of the salary and 294 opposed.

[14] “An Ordinance to increase and define the duties of the Intendant, and to provide a salary for the remuneration of his services,” ratified on 25 August 1836, in George B. Eckhard, A Digest of the Ordinances of the City Council of Charleston from the Year 1783 to Oct. 1844 (Charleston, S.C.: Walker & Burke, 1844), 165–67.

[15] City election results appear in the Charleston newspapers of 7 September 1836. The newspapers of 9 September carry notices from “Intendant” Robert Y. Hayne, indicating that he took office almost immediately after the election results were published.

[16] Act No. 2680, “An Act to alter and amend the Charter of the City of Charleston; and for other purposes therein mentioned,” ratified on 21 December 1836, in McCord, Statutes at Large, 7: 148–49.

[17] Act No. 4106, “An Act to change the day for the elections of, and the term of office of, the Mayor and Aldermen of the City of Charleston, and for other purposes,” ratified on 16 December 1852, in State of South Carolina, The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 12 (Columbia: Republican Printing Company, 1874), 173–74.

[18] Act No. 249, “An Act to Regulate the Election of Mayor and Aldermen of the City of Charleston,” ratified on 8 June 1877, in South Carolina, Acts and Joint Resolutions of the General Assembly of the State South Carolina, Passed at the Extra Session of 1877 (Columbia, S.C.: Calvo & Patton, 1877), 266–69; Act No. 607, “An Act to Amend an Act Entitled ‘An Act to Regulate the Election of Mayor and Aldermen of the City of Charleston, Approved June 8th, 1877,” ratified on 23 December 1878, in South Carolina, Acts and Joint Resolutions of the General Assembly of the State South Carolina, Passed at the Regular Session of 1878 (Columbia, S.C.: Calvo & Patton, 1878), 726–27.