The Royal Colony of South Carolina

The Wilkes Fund Controversy (1769-1770)

John Wilkes - 1769

For several decades, the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly had assumed authority to issue money from the public treasury without the consent of the Governor or his Executive Council, a practice the British House of Commons had never been bold enough to attempt.

The existence of this peculiar tradition first came to the attention of London officials following the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly vote in December of 1769 for a gift of £1,500 sterling to the Society of the Gentlemen Supporters of the Bill of Rights, a London organization formed to pay the debts of John Wilkes, who over the previous few years had successfully set himself up as the chief symbol of resistance to arbitrary ministerial authority in the capital of London.

London officials responded to this audacious Act by issuing an instruction on April 14, 1770 that threatened both the Royal Governor and the Treasurer with severe penalties if they permitted any money, including the sum voted to Wilkes, to be issued from the South Carolina treasury without executive approval.

Regarding this instruction as an attack upon a constitutional custom it had long enjoyed, the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly refused to act in accordance with its stipulations. For the next five years, the instructions from London were the central issue in South Carolina politics. The normal processes of legislative government were entirely suspended.

No annual tax bill was passed in the province after 1769, and no legislation at all after February of 1771. Local leaders became increasingly resentful of what they regarded as an unconstitutional effort by London authorities to deprive the Commons House of Assembly of its customary legal rights through the use of what they denounced as ministerial mandates. Only the outbreak of the American Revolution and the assumption of legislative authority by the newly-formed South Carolina Provincial Congress brought this bitter altercation to an end.

a. The South Carolina Commons House of Assembly voted to send money to London to help defend John Wilkes.
b. The Royal Governor and his Executive Council said the act was illegal.
c. The Commons House of Assembly sent the money anyway.
d. After this controversy in 1771, colonial government in South Carolina began to rapidly disintegrate.

© 2008 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved