RECAP: “The Improbable Life of Eliza Lucas Pinckney,” Colloquium w/ SLU Prof. Lorri Glover

To her friend Mary Bartlett’s tongue-in-cheek question about the gender of a comet soaring above Charleston in 1742, Eliza Lucas Pinckney responded, “If it is any mortal transformed in this glorious luminary, why not a woman?” If this was an audacious thing to ask in the mid-18th century colonies, Saint Louis University Professor and Bannon Chair of History Lorri Glover showed in her September 11 talk at the State Historical Society of Missouri that it was likewise a question entirely in line with the life and sensibility of the person posing it.

Presenting the research that went into her new Yale University Press monograph, Eliza Lucas Pinckney: An Independent Woman in the Age of Revolution, Prof. Glover explored in her talk how Pinckney’s life can help us push back against the distorted view of early America as exclusively “a man’s world.” A true planter-patriarch in every way save her gender, Pinckney was, Prof. Glover argued, as formidable, ambitious, and, importantly, as ruthless as the merchant adventurers and colonizers who typically people our textbooks.

Born in Antigua, Pinckney was raised on the expressions of family power and instilled with the sense of racial violence typical of a settler-colonial family (and culture) unashamed of its position as enslavers. If it was on her family’s sugar plantation that she inherited the brutality that would define her rise to prominence and wealth in colonial South Carolina, it was also here that her precocious curiosity about the natural world—another hallmark of her later success—was first sparked. After returning at 15 from five years of study in England to an Antigua rendered unrecognizable by natural disaster and aborted slave uprisings, Pinckney traveled with her family to Charleston to secure their future there. At 17, following the death of her mother and her father’s return to Antigua for military service, the responsibility for establishing said security fell solely to Pinckney. Now in control of every aspect of the family’s massive estate—from managing the finances of the international rice trade to trafficking enslaved humans throughout (and beyond) the colony—Pinckney began to catalog her work in a letter book, ultimately leaving us with perhaps the most voluminous and enlightening set of writings of any woman in British America.

As the title of Prof. Glover’s talk indicated, the work she did as executor of the family estate was indeed improbable for a woman of the Atlantic World, but it was also remarkable by any standard. Among other things, Pinckney represented her family in Charleston social circles; dabbled in lay lawyering; and engaged in countless agricultural experiments—with ginger, cotton, and alfalfa—before distinguishing herself as an entrepreneur by serving as a driving force behind the introduction of indigo to the South Carolina economy (indigo would quickly become the second leading crop in South Carolina and an economic staple until the Revolution).

In unpacking and assessing Pinckney’s narrative, Prof. Glover emphasized how we must never lose sight of the fact that the enslavement of men, women, and children was, at every turn in Pinckney’s story, central to her wealth and status. After she married Charles Pinckney and moved to England, their lavish life of endless consumption was paid for with American slavery. After Charles Pinckney died and Eliza had to reckon with a South Carolina estate that had fallen into disrepair, she rebuilt the family fortune throughout the 1760s by purchasing land to be labored upon and transformed by enslaved people.

It was at this point—when “there was nobody to call [her] to account” and when Pinckney, borrowing from the tropes of patriarchy, had designs on retiring to “live under her own vine and fig tree”—that her world caved in. If our vision of the Revolutionary War is one of reasoned, peaceable, admirable men in velvet knee breeches, Pinckney’s experience of it was the opposite. Following the British bombardment and occupation of Charleston, Pinckney found herself in the middle of a guerilla conflict that ravaged a South Carolina countryside populated mostly by women and children. As Prof. Glover described, not only was the conflict lawlessly vengeful in general; with raids of farms, seizures of property, and the constant threat of sexual violence, it was also specifically designed to break the will of patriotic women. Though financially ruined by the war, Pinckney persevered through the chaos. “Fortitude,” she told her daughter-in-law, “is as much a female as a masculine virtue.” And as Prof. Glover noted in closing, Pinckney would rebound from crisis as white families of power, wealth, and stature so often did during the era: via slavery. Unlike so many of these families, however, Pinckney’s letter book provides not a snapshot but an in-depth rendering of her tale in its entirety—the legacy of racial power; the extravagance and hierarchy of Charleston society; the wartime decline; and perhaps most of all, what happens when you defy convention.