Revisiting Charles Kuralt's America for Charleston in March:
When spring comes to Charleston, it comes in a showy rush. Visitors clopping along in horse-drawn carriages crane their necks to take it all in. Old Charlestonians, however, seem to accept the season as their birthright, just another perfect spring in an unbroken line going back to 1670. It would not be suitable for Charlestonians to be caught oohing and aahing. That is for the ordinary run of people, namely those from "away," those unlucky enough to have been born somewhere else. Charlestonians genuinely feel sorry for such people.
The Rutledges and Ravenels, the Pinckneys and Middletons put a premium on equanimity. The old families are undisturbed by the rich newcomers who have been buying the fine houses south of Broad and moving in as if they belonged here. They do not belong here. They never will.
"But you are not impolite to the new people?" I asked a blueblood acquaintance.
"Certainly not," she said. "We wave to them on the street."
But they do not invite them to join the South Carolina Society, for membership there is inherited; or the St. Cecilia, where members are drummed out if divorced or the children of divorce, and where women may not attend the annual ball if more than two months pregnant; or the St. Andrews Society, or the Yacht Club or the Charleston Club or the Carolina Assembly. The offspring of the "new people" will not be invited to the Children's Cotillions at the South Carolina Hall on Wednesday afternoons, the little girls in their party dresses and the little boys in their Sunday suits; nor, upon attaining young womanhood, will their daughters be introduced at the Debutante Ball in Herbernian Hall. I realize there is still such a thing as "Society" in Boston and Philadelphia, but for sheer disdainful exclusion, Charleston Society wins all the blue ribbons.
A Charlestonian I met, a dilettante direct descendant of Rene Ravenel (arrived 1686), grew up in a house on South Battery that had a cook, caretaker and gardener, and a maid for each floor. Describing old Charleston's habits, he said, "We do not do these things to impress others. We do them because they have always been done."
To which I reply: nonsense. What is the point of Society but to impress those who can't belong? Charleston was founded by lords and ladies as the home of the only American nobility. It was meant to be a reflection of the English Restoration across the sea. Only here can barons, landgraves, and caciques live on, minus their titles and perhaps their land holdings, but secure in their lineage. They believe in their hearts that theirs is the Holy City, set aside for their ancestors and themselves. Nothing like Charleston aristocracy exists elsewhere in the United States. It ought to be preserved in amber. I suppose, in a way, it is.
. . .
I grew up only half a day's drive away in North Carolina, but that is a different sort of state with an entirely different state of mind. Regarding the cavalier Virginians and the haughty South Carolinians, we say North Carolina is "a vale of humility between two mountains of conceit." Everybody has to have something to be proud of, and we North Carolinians always have been mighty proud of being humble. Our state motto is Esse Quam Videri, "To be, rather than to seem." Nobody back home ever would have dreamed of putting on airs the way they do in Charleston, whose motto is Aedes Mores Juraque Curat, "She guards her customs, buildings, and laws." This is perfect for a place that has always assumed its superiority, the place where, as Charlestonians remark, "the Ashley and Cooper rivers flow together to form the Atlantic Ocean."