Does South Carolina History Repeat Itself? Sanford = Blease?

When I was a kid, I remember reading in a Classics Illustrated (for those of you who may be unfamiliar with these, they are comic book versions of classic novels) about the many parallels between Presidents Kennedy and Lincoln:  they were both assassinated, both elected in the 60th year of a century, both succeeded by Vice-Presidents named Johnson, etc., etc.

And it was with this in mind that I realized that if embattled South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford manages to complete his second term, he will be leaving office on the 100th anniversary of the inaugural of South Carolina’s most infamous governor of all, Coleman Livingston “Coley” Blease.

And this coincidence is not all they have in common.

Governor Sanford, of course, became a media sensation back in June when he disappeared for six days.  A staffer had stated he was “hiking on the Appalachian Trail,” but later it came out that he’d flown to Buenos Aires for a tryst with his mistress.  Friday, we learned that his wife and children are moving out of the Governor’s Mansion.

But Sanford’s notoriety hardly began with the affair. You might say he’s a politician who follows the beat of a different drummer — and a bit of a showman on top of that. 

Though his own party controls South Carolina’s legislature, their relationship has often been contentious, with Sanford vetoing numerous line items and the General Assembly just as often overriding the vetoes.  When they overrode nearly all of them in the 2004 budget, Sanford brought live pigs into the chamber to protest legislative support for pork projects.  He’s also attracted attention for refusing to spend South Carolina’s stimulus money — and this is a state in dire economic straights with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.  He and the legislature are fighting over this in court.

So, the parallels?  Well, Blease is said to have had an odd relationship with his wife (see this article from Caroliniana Columns on the strange triangle between Blease, his cousin, a prominent lawyer named Benjamin Abney, and Blease’s wife, Lillie).  My guess is that Blease and his wife had something like an open marriage. 

I have also seen evidence that Blease had at least one mistress.  Some years ago, there was for sale on eBay a Blease letter, composed on his U.S. Senate letterhead I believe (ca. 1930), which concerned financial assistance he was providing to a woman by whom he had had an illegitimate child.  (Blease’s personal papers are said to have been destroyed following his death, which leads one to wonder what was in them.) 

As for political eccentricity, Blease gained notoriety for the 1,500+ pardons he issued during his governorship, probably in order to curry political favor.  He is even said to have pardoned his own chauffeur for speeding (twice)!  Blease was more interested in “giving the poor devils a chance,” as he put it, than in enforcing the law, or so it seems. 

Perhaps owing to disappointment in a failed Senate bid in 1914, Blease actually resigned as governor before completing his second term.

Cole Blease’s political strength lay with the lower classes of the textile mill towns upstate and sharecropping tenant farmers, and he often found himself at odds with the lowcountry gentry and prosperous yeoman farmers of his own party.  His appeal grew from his claim to be the champion of the former, but he seems actually to have done little for them.

It was in fact to the darker angels of racial hatred — which especially festered among these lower class whites of upcountry South Carolina — that Blease seems ultimately to have owed his success. 

He openly advocated the lynching of African American men accused of raping white women, for instance, and is even said to have added a sort of “lynching dance” to his routine when he spoke on the campaign trail.  The old Bourbon wing of his party could only shake their heads at his demagogic antics. 

The parallels stop here, as there’s no evidence Sanford is a racist.

If you’d like to learn more about Coley Blease, Greensboro Public Library has an excellent book called Mill and Town in South Carolina, 1880-1920 by David L. Carlton.  And this book, Wrong on Race:  The Democratic Party’s Buried Past by Bruce Bartlett, also has some information on Blease.  Another good one is A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910-1948, by Bryant Simon, but we don’t have that one. 

There don’t seem to be any books on Mark Sanford yet.  But just wait, I’m sure there will be some soon!  In the meantime, you can read about him in World News Digest, and you also might want to try an EZ search for “Mark Sanford” in NCLive

UPDATE:  And check out this blog post on the “Re-Bleasing of South Carolina” for someone else who thinks Sanford and Blease have something in common.

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