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Charleston: A Trek through Franco-Americana

A view from one of Charleston's stately battery homes.

Charm – Some cities possess the intangible allure that grips your senses like the halo of a warm morning sun in August. The city in question is Charles Town, now known as Charleston. Even the word Charleston rolls off your tongue in a pleasant melody much like the city that bears its name. There is the history: the French Quarter, the Plantations, the Wars (Revolution and the Civil), and the towering figures like JC Calhoun whose words once moved a nation. There is the is the fried cuisine: oysters, shrimp and crab Po Boy style. Then, there is the nightlife: King Street and the patchwork of bistros, wine bars, speakeasy Jazz bars, and coffee houses that would make even the most foppish of sophisticate’s swoon. These enchantments and more make Charleston one of America’s prized creations.

France and the United States share a much deeper kinship than is widely known, and Charleston is testament to that fact. This bond was forever strengthened when the Sun King (Louis XIV) revoked what was known as the Edict of Nantes, terminating the right of religious freedom for the Huguenot’s (French Protestants). Several hundred thousand made land fall in Charleston and transformed the English colony into a mini Franco-Americana.

It was the cultivation of rice and a slave-based economy that first enriched the city. The Huguenot’s brought old-world architecture, furniture making, and trendy fashion to the New World in true Parisian grandiosity. This can be seen at the Huguenot Church and the beautifully adorned multi-story homes that align the streets of the old city.

Solemn ground worth visiting is the cemetery across from St. Philips Episcopal Church. Its main attraction is the austere gravestone of the South’s greatest statesmen, JC Calhoun. It is Calhoun’s statue that confidently bestrides downtown Charleston daring you to gaze up at him. Though the Great Nullifier’s efforts to abate brewing conflict between the states failed, he deserves tremendous credit for appealing to the “better angels of our nature.”

Slavery is the inescapable fact of Charleston. The city profited immensely from the institution. Slaves worked as laborers in the scorching hot summer fields, as artisans, construction workers, even architects. A must see in Charleston is the Old Slave Mart, a museum that once served as a slave auction. So much history is packed into this two-story space. It chronicles the history of the African Slave Trade in the Western Hemisphere, what life was like for slaves, and their eventual emancipation. It is an emotionally moving and difficult experience to wade through.

To fully process the legacy of slavery, a place well worth a day trip outside the city is Middleton Plantation. Here you will see what the landed gentry of the old South created, both for good and ill. The plantation stretches across acres of plush land furnished with nicely adorned gardens, reflection pools, and impressive countryside views of the Ashley River. At the center of the plantation is the three-story brick estate and two adjacent buildings for gentlemen’s quarters, and library / music conservatory. Slave quarters, a church, and stable yard fill out the rest of the plantation. Henry Middleton in many ways embodies the history of Charleston: he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a well-educated and stately man, and a lowly slave owner.

Grandiosity – The European feel of Charleston is ubiquitous. Like cities across Europe, it is architecturally elegant and cohesive. The mansions of Battery Park overlooking the bay sparkle in red, green, yellow and pink. Their open terraces and commanding balconies are imposing indeed. The walkways lead to gardens and outdoor pools, all neatly stitched together like a multi-colored quilt. The museums and parks are littered with historical plaques and towering monuments (my absolute favorite is The Confederate Defenders of Charleston). It is unsurprising that the who’s who of American elites chose to live here.

Hip – Charleston is a very hip city. The universities ensure it is youthful and lively while the laid-back mentality of the Southerners makes it charming and relaxing. The nightlife is centered on King Street, but I recommend meandering through downtown in search of hidden nooks and crannies. A few I discovered on my journey include the wine bar Josephine, Elliot Borough Mini Bar, and Drink Tapia. These places would fit neatly in New York City just as easily as in Charleston.

Night Promenade - Walking through the streets at night is entertaining indeed. Like Boston, Charleston is wracked with history and you feel it when walking the streets. For me, the voices of the past murmur in the wind, no doubt emanating from the sundry cemeteries and churches. The greatness of Charleston is the greatness of America: its wonderfully maintained streets, hospitable people, cool bars and restaurants, exquisite homes and unquestioned provenance. As Kevin Philips points out in 1775, without the support of South Carolina, the American Revolution was impossible.

On a lonely walk back from the raucous bar scene I came across a mural with a quote from Clementa C. Pinckney. In graffiti lettering it read “Across the South, we have a deep appreciation of history – we have not always had a deep appreciation of each-other’s history.” Pinckney’s words haunted me as they certainly do the city of Charleston. A visit to Charleston allows you to find your own path to the past. Whatever path you choose, at least it it will be done in style.

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