South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Catherine Templeton claims that she had no idea that one of her ancestors was one of the largest slave owners in the state, and this new information appears to have not influenced her unwavering support for the Confederacy.
The Greenville News recently obtained scanned copies of probate records from 1862 detailing the number of slaves her ancestor owned, and they reached out to Templeton for comment. She said that her campaign was “about the future, not the past,” and that “I embrace my family, warts and all.”
As white supremacists feel emboldened in Trump’s America, and discussions about how to properly depict the Confederacy in American history consume our society, it is necessary to think about the danger of Templeton’s candidacy and her hypocrisy on this issue.
Templeton’s ancestor Hiram Clark Brawley owned 66 slaves in 1860. In today’s dollars they would be valued at nearly a $1 million. This placed Brawley within the top 35 slave owners in Chester County, South Carolina: The county had 909 slave owners at the time. In fact, according to the 1860 census, South Carolina had more enslaved people (402,406) than free people (301,302), and 46 percent of families owned slaves prior to the Civil War.
South Carolina of course was the first of the Confederate states to secede. In its secession declaration, the word “slave” (or slavery or slave-holding, etc.) is mentioned 40 times.
But Templeton believes that the war was not fought over slavery. “I think it’s important that my family didn’t fight because we had slaves,” said Templeton in a campaign speech in Greenville at Bob Jones University in February. “My family fought because the federal government was trying to tell us how to live. We didn’t need them to tell us how to live way back then and we don’t need them to tell us how to live today.”
Brawley’s son, William Hiram Brawley, fought for the Confederacy and lost an arm during the Battle of Seven Pines in 1862. And following President Andrew Johnson’s controversial decision to pardon and grant amnesty to Confederates in 1868, Brawley junior was able to serve as a U.S. Representative for South Carolina’s 1st District and also as a federal district court judge.
Templeton (née Brawley) has long celebrated Brawley’s service to the Confederacy and openly boasts about how her father was named after Judge Brawley. At a town hall meeting last August, Templeton said, “I’m proud to be from South Carolina. I’m proud of the Confederacy.” She also pledged her support for keeping up Confederate monuments around the state, saying that those who want them removed aim to “rewrite history.”
As a Southerner who attended college in Greenville, and whose family hails from South Carolina, I’ve met countless Southerners with views similar to Templeton’s. Most of them don’t fit the description of a generic “redneck” that many outside the South assume would adhere to people with these ignorant, racist views.
Typically, they’ll be nice, friendly, and educated people who you can get along with for years so long as your conversations only pertain to trivial niceties, and avoid politics and any substantial topics. The widespread acceptance of views similar to Templeton’s has normalized them across the South and large swaths of America. But that does not make them any less dangerous or immoral.
Templeton’s political views and her relationship with her slave-owning ancestors essentially boils down to a political ideology governed by a commitment to defending her family’s honor and that of South Carolina. To her, being a South Carolinian and a Confederate sympathizer go hand-in-hand with honor. Yet there is nothing honorable about owning 66 people. There is no honor in having a society in which more people are enslaved than free. It is dishonorable to start the deadliest war—the South fired the first shots at Fort Sumter—in American history in order to defend a way of life defined by the enslavement of most of the people within it.
For well over 100 years, the inability of white Southerners to come terms with the atrocities committed by their ancestors has resulted in public policies that perpetuate the sins of the father and aspire to present the dishonorable as honorable. Templeton’s stance is nothing new and has always resulted in a silencing of our voices and a removal of our political influence in order to sustain a white-dominated status quo.
I can understand why to Templeton and numerous South Carolinians, it is important for them to believe that their ancestors didn’t fight the Civil War over slavery. This can be a hard pill to swallow, but you can’t have it both ways and embrace your family, “warts and all,” as you either deny the existence of the warts, or attempt to present the warts as beauty marks.
Templeton may not have been aware of the scale of her ancestors’ reliance on slavery, but long gone should be the days when American society, and especially minorities, are forced to suffer through an oppressive, terror-filled environment due to the immoral, emotional fragility of white Southerners, and the selective ignorance they choose to embrace.
Thus far this controversy doesn’t appear to have significantly hurt Templeton’s campaign. Embracing the Confederacy won’t derail a Republican’s political chances in South Carolina, but Templeton has other obstacles she must surmount if she is to stand a chance at winning this election.
Four Republicans are challenging incumbent GOP Gov. Henry McMaster, who replaced Nikki Haley. McMaster has a big lead in the polls, but there’s a lot of time between now and the June 12 Republican primary. Templeton’s a distant third in recent polls with Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant in second, but she’s nearly matched McMaster in fundraising. Templeton also has never held elected office so lack of name recognition could be her biggest obstacle, but she definitely has the funds to challenge McMaster up to the primary.
Templeton mostly likely won’t be the next governor of South Carolina, but regardless of her success in this election, her views on the Confederacy are completely unacceptable—except that, unfortunately, her stance still remains socially acceptable in the South.