The Road Paradox
For the first 180 years of Charleston’s existence—from the arrival of the first settlers, through the entire colonial era and the American Revolution, through the War of 1812 and the Nullification Crisis, right up to the middle of the nineteenth century—Charlestonians rode their horses and drove their carriages on the left side of the road. Why? Because we were once a British colony, and driving on the left side of the road was one of many English traditions that came here from the “mother country.” Even after we declared and won a war for our independence, many South Carolinians, especially those in and around Charleston, continued to practice a host of British cultural patterns. In fact, it took several generations before our customs became more distinctively “American.” Throughout the nineteenth century, however, each community and each state in the Union followed their own inclination when it came to driving. There were no Federal traffic regulations until the early twentieth century, when the fast-moving automobile made it imperative to regulate the flow of traffic, or the “rules of the road.” So how did the drivers in and around early Charleston fit into this picture?
Driving on the left-hand side of the road is an ancient English practice, the origins of which are a bit murky. Its roots probably stretch back to medieval times, when men on horseback carried weapons like swords, maces, and lances. Since most people are right-handed, and armed men generally carried weapons in their right hands, they preferred to meet oncoming opponents on their right side, to maximize their ability to strike and to defend themselves. This preference was standardized in English jousting tournaments, in which two riders galloped toward each other, each riding on the left side of a central dividing line. If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I invite you to come to the library to see some great books on Medieval warfare.
After decades of studying South Carolina history, I haven’t found a single document from the seventeenth or eighteenth century that mentions which side of the road they used for riding and driving, and that fact shouldn’t surprise anyone. We’re talking about an incredibly mundane part of daily life, one so common that it didn’t merit any discussion. For example, think about this analogy. Two hundred years from now, Charlestonians of the future will look at old photographs of us and wonder about the tall sticks along our streets with wires strung between them. “What are those ugly things, and how did they tolerate the jumble of wires hanging over their heads?” I’m talking about utility poles, or telephone poles, and the electrical wires they support, of course. We take them for granted—they’re a fact of life and most of the time we don’t even notice them. In the future, however, they’ll be rare and unfamiliar. My point is this: driving on the left-hand side of the road in early Charleston was a simple fact of life that no one questioned and about which no one wrote letters to their auntie.
So how do we know that early Lowcountry riders and drivers used the left side of the road? I started my search with the earliest regulations governing the roads of early South Carolina. Our colonial legislature began passing road laws in the late seventeenth century, but these early statutes focus on how to pay for roads, not how to drive on them. The earliest law relating to the streets of urban Charleston dates from the year 1750, but it mostly focuses on how to keep the streets clean and in good repair. The only reference to the behavior of travelers is a clause making it illegal to ride or travel through town “faster than a moderate trot or pace.” The City of Charleston was incorporated in 1783 and the early road ordinances adopted by the new City Council merely echoed the language of that 1750 law. So far, my search through seventeenth and eighteenth-century records uncovered no references to the rules of the road.
The earliest reference to this topic that I’ve found appears in one of Charleston’s newspapers, specifically the Charleston Times of October 23rd, 1802. In that issue, I found the following lines of bad poetry, which appeared out of context, without explanation:
“The Laws of the Road.
The laws of the road are a paradox quite,
For when you are traveling along,
If you keep to the left you’ll sure to be right,
If you keep to the right you’ll be wrong.”
Less than a year later, a more robust explanation of this doggerel verse appeared in Charleston’s City Gazette of June 10th, 1803. A correspondent who called himself “Civis” sent a letter to the editors of the newspaper, offering the following bit of commentary and advice:
“Messrs. Freneau & Williams, Our city ordinance respecting the mode of conducting carriages through this city, being like almost every other, very little, (if at all) attended to; it is only astonishing, from the irregular manner pursued by each individual in driving, that accidents do not more frequently occur.
The two last of the following lines, extracted from an English magazine, being kept in recollection, will always remind one which is the proper side to keep; and it is a duty that each head of a family owes to their safety, to impress this on the mind of his servant, and (what would have a still better effect) to enforce the same by his own example.
‘The Road Paradox.’
‘The laws of the road are a paradox quite,
For, as you are trav’ling along,
If you keep to the left you’ll be sure to be right,
If you keep to the right you’ll be wrong.’
In the way of explanation, I’ll address Civis’s commentary and advice separately. His complaint about the “irregular” flow of traffic is undoubtedly a sign of Charleston’s growing density. The city’s narrow, unpaved streets, many of which were laid out at the end of the seventeenth century, may have been amply commodious during the colony’s early years, but urban traffic had increased dramatically by the turn of the nineteenth century. As the congestion of wagons, carts, carriages, and horses grew, tempers began to flare into what we might recognize as an early form of “road rage.” Since there was no law to address the issues, Civis offered a bit of doggerel rhyme from “an English magazine” as a traffic-calming solution. Civis called this poem “the Road Paradox,” but it was totally unfamiliar to me. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, however, I was able to discover his source.
Civis, writing in the summer of 1803, said “the Road Paradox” was extracted from “an English Magazine,” so I entered those phrases into my Internet search-engine-of-choice and looked for hits that pre-dated June 1803. Moments later, I found my target in a digitized copy of the once-celebrated periodical called Sporting Magazine. In the September 1793 issue, page 376, one finds a page full of rather bland anonymous poetry, among which is “The Laws of the Road,” which Civis called “the road paradox” a decade later.
Indeed, Civis had correctly transcribed the not-so-memorable verse for the Charleston press in 1803, but, more importantly, he also confirmed that at least some Charlestonians were following British customs on our increasingly chaotic city streets. But was driving on the left side of the road the generally accepted practice here? Apparently it was, for community leaders endorsed it when they finally passed a robust traffic ordinance in December of 1805. After addressing the licensing of commercial carts, drays, and wagons, the fifth clause of the new law turned to the issue of traffic flow:
“And whereas, from the number of carts, drays, and other carriages, passing through the streets, and from there being no uniform mode established for driving them, it has become very dangerous in passing, for remedy thereof, Be it ordained by the authority aforesaid, That in future, all drivers of carts, drays, wagons, and other carriages whatsoever, shall pass each other on their right hands, and shall always drive as close [to] the foot-way, with their left hand next [to] the same, as they conveniently can.”
In the forty-odd years following the adoption of the “keep left” law in Charleston, our local newspapers occasionally carried reminders of this practice, in the way of printed excerpts from city laws. In fact, I found the abovementioned fifth clause of the 1805 traffic ordinance reprinted almost daily in Charleston’s Southern Patriot from the beginning of February 1847 through the end of December 1848—a period of nearly two years. This fact suggests that city authorities fully supported the “keep left” policy as Charleston expanded during the age of steamboats and railroads.
The city’s increasing communication with other communities, both within South Carolina and beyond, apparently brought other customs to town, however, and it seems that not everyone who came to Charleston was used to riding and driving on the left side of the road. In 1849, there was a change in the air.
Since people rarely write down their thoughts about mundane, familiar customs, it’s very difficult to know whether the change from driving on the left side of the road to the right was a gradual cultural shift or a sudden change. Without further historical evidence, it’s not possible to say for certain. I can tell you this, however: Less than eleven months after the last published reminder about driving on the left, City Alderman Edward North announced his intention to change the law regarding the rules of the road.
The official minutes of the City Council meeting of November 14th, 1849, which appear in the local newspapers, merely state that Alderman North gave notice of his intention to bring to the next meeting of City Council “a bill to amend the 5th Section of an Ordinance, entitled an Ordinance regulating Carts, Drays, Wagons and Carriages within the city, and for other purposes.” The minutes of that meeting contain no mention of a discussion of this topic, or an explanation of why Mr. North felt it necessary to amend the law. Perhaps the reasons were so obvious to City Council and to the public at that moment that commentary was superfluous. Regardless of the unknown details, we can surmise that at least some people in Charleston felt the need to change our old local habits to conform to those of a larger, increasingly mobile society.
Two weeks later, on November 27th, Alderman North presented to City Council his draft bill for amending the “keep left” clause of Charleston’s 1805 traffic ordinance, and days later the newspapers published its text. Since it’s only a few sentences in length, let me read you the entire bill, which is titled:
“A Bill to alter and amend the fifth section of an Ordinance, entitled ‘An Ordinance to amend an Ordinance entitled an Ordinance Regulating Carts, Drays, Waggons [sic] and Carriages within the City, and for other purposes,’ ratified the 30th day of December, in the year 1805.
Be it ordained, That from and after the passing of this bill, all drivers of carts, drays, wagons and other carriages whatsoever, shall pass each other on their left hand, and shall always drive as close [to] the footway, with their right hand next [to] the same, as they conveniently can, under the penalties now provided by Ordinance for violations of the law in relation to driving within the City.”
According to the official minutes of that meeting (again, published in the local newspapers), the members of City Council read the bill through, then read it a second time, and finally ordered that it be read the customary third time at Council’s next meeting.
The minutes contain no mention of any discussion or commentary, and the local newspapers offered no reaction to the traffic changes under consideration. Alderman North’s bill received its third and final reading on December 13th, and it was engrossed and ratified as an ordinance on December 28th, 1849. Official reminders of the new law began appearing in the local newspapers three days later, on the last day of the year 1849, and into the early months of 1850.
I’m at a loss to offer many clues that might help us understand the motivation behind Charleston’s switch from driving on the left side of the road to driving the right. It is worth noting, however, that this change took place at the same time as Charleston’s annexation of a large swath of land traditionally called “The Neck.” On December 19th, 1849, the South Carolina legislature ratified a law empowering the City Council of Charleston to expand the limits of its jurisdiction from Boundary Street (now Calhoun Street) northward to what is now Mt. Pleasant Street. It’s possible that Alderman North and his fellow council members were inclined to amend the city’s old traffic law in order to help ensure a smooth transition as the city imposed new laws on the roads and the people of the Neck. The process of working out the political and practical details of this annexation took nearly a year, but I haven’t found any mention of traffic issues among the surviving records of that transitional period.
At any rate, we can rest assured that when Lowcountry politicians began pushing South Carolina down the road toward disunion in the 1850s, they did so on the right-hand side of the road. When Charleston’s formerly enslaved population paraded to celebrate emancipation in 1865, they proudly drove to the right of the center line. We take such facts for granted today, but I think it’s interesting to contrast them with the realities of earlier times. When the Charles Town militia marched a group of pirates to be hanged at White Point in 1718, for example, they marched on the left hand side of the road. When South Carolina troops paraded down Broad Street during the American Revolution, they kept to the left, as did President Washington when he visited here in 1791. The Grimké sisters spent their childhood observing slavery in urban Charleston while riding on the left side of the streets. Even John C. Calhoun, who touted southern independence, did so while riding on the left, in the traditional English manner.
Charleston’s early traffic laws were intended to create order out of the occasionally chaotic flow of traffic through the city’s narrow streets. As anyone attempting to navigate the city’s thoroughfares during peak tourist times can attest, however, harmony does not always prevail. We have some of the most confusing streets in the state of South Carolina, with many narrow, colonial-era lanes that are now one-way thoroughfares. Let’s try to remember, therefore, that our early Charleston predecessors, who once plied these streets to the left of the center line, would be as confused by our present rules of the road as those currently visiting “from off.”