A Brief History of the Charleston County Bar Association
By Ruth W. Cupp
The presence and influence of lawyers in Charleston dates back to the 17th century. The Charles Town bar began when Nicholas Trott stepped off the ship onto the Charles Town dock in 1699. Trott, a legal scholar trained at London's Inner Temple, was the first lawyer to come to Charles Town to practice law. Four years later, Trott became the first Chief Justice of the Colony of South Carolina. By 1720, there were 16 members of the Bar in Charles Town, who successfully organized and convinced the British Crown take control of the colony from its Lord's Proprietors.
By 1750, there were 42 members of the Bar. The House of Commons authorized the construction of a statehouse at the northwest corner of Meeting and Broad Streets, where the current historic courthouse still stands. The Charles Town Bar played an active role in the American Revolution. Bar member John Rutledge served as a member of the Constitutional Convention and first Governor of the State of South Carolina following the ratification of the Constitution, and in 1791 President Washington appointed Rutledge as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Charleston Bar member William Johnson as a Justice of the US Supreme Court.
In 1826, the Charleston Bar organized the first statewide organization of attorneys. After the Civil War, African-American lawyers opened law practices here, but could not join the Bar. The first African American to be elected to a state Supreme Court, Jonathan Jasper White, practiced law in Charleston following his term as a member of the South Carolina Supreme Court from 1870 through 1877. A member of the Charleston Law Society, Henry E. Young, became a founding member of and first Vice President of the American Bar Association in 1879.
The first female member of the Charleston County Bar, Hannah R. Axelman, was admitted on December 18, 1931.
The original State House served as the Charleston County courthouse from until September 1989. On September 21, 1989, Hurricane Hugo destroyed the courthouse. A new, modern Courthouse was opened in 2002, located adjacent to the original courthouse. The original historic courthouse, still located at the intersection of Broad and Meeting Streets, was restored to its 1792 motif, and is still used as a functioning courthouse. To take a virtual tour of the historic Charleston County Courthouse, go to http://www3.charlestoncounty.org/docs/CoC/tour.html.
At the turn of the 20th century, there were 73 members of the Charleston County Bar. At the close of the century, Charleston County Bar membership exceeded 1,000. Currently, the Charleston County Bar has over 1,600 members.