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An Extension of Power: Criminal Justice, Law Enforcement, and Elite Rule in the South Carolina Lowcountry on the Eve of the American Revolution

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South Carolina's highly centralized and effective criminal justice system was an important extension of elite political power throughout the colony. It served two major functions: first, it served to protect property, the ultimate source of political power for the planter and merchant classes who ruled South Carolina as it supplied wealth, social status and the opportunity to hold high office. Second, by protecting property (even though the system often focused on elite property) and upholding order, the lowcountry elite united their interests with the interests of the general population who would also benefit from protection against property crime and disorder. Since the lowcountry elite also had to control a vast number of slaves and had to rely on all of the colony's white population to do so, providing effective government could serve as an important way to cultivate popular support. This paper examines the workings of South Carolina's criminal justice system and that system's priorities. By studying patterns in prosecution and punishment, one can see that the courts successfully attended to elite priorities.


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