Why Is Columbia the Capital of South Carolina?

(Last Updated On: October 3, 2019)
Why Is Columbia the Capital of South Carolina?

Situated in the Southeastern United States, South Carolina is bordered by North Carolina in the north, the Atlantic Ocean in the southeast, and Georgia in the southwest. The state is named in honor of King Charles I of England, with Carolus being Latin for “Charles”. South Carolina was admitted to the Union in 1788, and was the 8th state to ratify the US Constitution. It was also the first state to succeed from the Union during the American Civil War. 

South Carolina is made up of 46 counties today, which can be divided into four distinct geographical regions: the Sea Islands, the Atlantic Coastal Plain (Low Country), the Piedmont Plateau (Midlands), and the Blue Ridge Mountains (Upstate).

The most well-known city in South Carolina is Charleston, which is the oldest city in the state.  The city played a major role in the slave trade, which helped lay the foundation for the city’s future wealth. Today, Charleston remains a popular hub of southern culture, but many are surprised to learn that it is not actually the capital of South Carolina. That distinction goes to the centrally located city of Columbia.

So, why is Columbia the capital of South Carolina, and not Charleston? Let’s find out!

Quiz yourself: Can you name the most populous cities of South Carolina?

The Capital of South Carolina

In 1660, monarchy was restored in Britain following Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate. As a reward for their faithful support in his efforts to regain the throne, King Charles II granted the chartered Carolina territory to eight of his friends in 1663. These men were known as the Lords Proprietors, and by 1670, they had established a settlement in Carolina called “Charles Town”. 

“Charles Town” would develop much more rapidly than other settlements in the region, thanks to being situated on a natural harbor, which led to an increase in trade with the West Indies. Eventually, Charles Town became the primary seat of government for the entire colony, serving as a base for colonial expansion. 

By the mid-17th century, Charleston had become a major center of trade and the wealthiest and largest city south of Philadelphia. However, this prosperity was built on the backs of slaves, who made up over half of the city’s population. These slaves were captured largely from the Congo-Angola border, and other rice-producing regions of West Africa. Using cultivation knowledge and labor from these African slaves, colonists were able to produce not just rice, but cotton, indigo and other crops as well.

By 1770, Charleston was the fourth largest port in the colonies, after Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. And the city had secured itself as the hub of the Atlantic slave trade.

Why is Columbia the Capital of South Carolina?

The problem with being a wealthy port city is that you leave yourself vulnerable to both attacks from sea and land–and that is often what happened in Charleston. Countries like Spain and France didn’t exactly agree with England’s claim to so much of the region, and would periodically launch assaults on the city. Pirate raids and Native American resistance were also common. 

So by the late 18th century, many officials in Carolina sought to find a safer, more centrally located seat of government. Senator John Lewis Gervais would introduce a bill to create a new capital, and it was approved by the state legislature in 1786. Though there was agreement over the proposed site in the center of the state, many officials could not agree on a new name. “Columbia” eventually won over “Washington” by a vote of 11-7. 

South Carolina would join the Union two years later after ratifying the US Constitution, and Columbia would continue to develop–aided by the Santee Canal, which was completed in 1800 and connected Columbia to Charleston via water. Columbia emerged as one of the first successful planned cities in the US. 

Columbia Today

The city of Columbia was largely burnt to the ground while being occupied by Union troops under the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman in the American Civil War. The city would rebuild fairly rapidly, however, becoming a focal point during Reconstruction. 

By the early 20th century, Columbia had emerged as regional textile manufacturing center, and would eventually become a hub for trade and retail. The city would continue to develop throughout the middle of the century. 

Today, Columbia is the second-largest city in the state of South Carolina. Located approximately 13 miles northwest of the geographic center of the state, it is the primary city of the Midlands region. The city is also closely ingrained with the University of South Carolina, the state’s flagship university. Columbia is also the site of Fort Jackson, the largest United States Army installation for Basic Combat Training. 

The city of Columbia has recently seen a revitalization of its downtown area, making the city a popular destination for tourists looking for some southern history.


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Mark Heald
About Mark Heald 195 Articles
Mark Heald is the Managing Editor of Sporcle.com. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.