After Slavery: Educator Resources

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8. T. D. Gwyn Argues Against the Fence Law

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Eight: Planters, Poor Whites and White Supremacy in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

Before the Civil War, common law in most of the South allowed people to use land for a variety of purposes whether they owned it or not. These rights dated back to the English Charter of the Forest of 1217. Hunters could follow game, foragers could gather plants or firewood, and most importantly, owners of livestock could let them roam wherever they wanted. Fences were built around crops to protect them rather than being built around pastures to keep animals in. This allowed poor people who owned little or no land to keep animals for milk, meat, and wool. However, landowners had been agitating to change this since the late 1860s. Once Democrats were back in power in South Carolina after 1877, they began moving to change the law and introduce a "fence law," meaning that animals now had to be fenced in and that their owners could be held liable for damage they did to someone else's crops. While the 1876 campaign had drawn many poor whites into the ranks of the Democrats, many of these same poor whites were strongly opposed to the fence law and felt betrayed by Wade Hampton and other Democratic leaders.

T. D. Gwyn Argues Against the Fence Law

Mr. Editor

Much has been said and written for and against the above law. The most of the articles published in your paper are in favor of it. We of the upper portion of the county, as a general rule, are opposed to the law. We do not object to its being a law in those parts of the State where timber is scarce, but in all this region, from North Carolina line to Greenville Court House, we have a beautiful supply of timber for all our purposes. Our plantations are well fenced, and when the different crops are gathered, we have pasture for our stock. The cattle, hogs sheep and goats of both land owner and tenant now have a large range outside of the plantations, both wood and turned-out lands, which afford abundant pasture for them during spring, summer, and autumn. In the winter we turn the stock into our plantations in dry and freezing weather, during which time they require no feeding. When the land is wet and soft, we keep our stock in lots and feed them.

Now if we have the "no fence law," we must fence our wood land for our stock, because we have not got the cleared land to spare, and it would require more rails to fence our wood and turned-out lands, than is now required to fence and cultivate farms. Perhaps three-fourths of the land owners have no old fields to fence in, and would therefore be compelled to fence their wood lands for pasture, in which alone, stock could not live without feeding. This fencing too, would be limited to the owners of the land, because tenants would not fence off a piece of ground for the short time most of them remain on a certain plantation. Very many of them remain one year only. The bad result would be the poor man having no land and no pasture, would be compelled to sell out his stock at very great sacrifice and keep but few, if any at all.

And without stock it would be both hard to live and hard living. This would be a great oppression on the poor man, and God's curse is pronounced upon those who oppress the poor. And again, the land owner, him, or herself, would not be able to keep the number of stock they now have, and hence, the number of live stock in all this great "no fence" region would be greatly reduced, and a corresponding high price would be demanded and paid for the comparatively few stock that would be left. In a short time--a few years at most--the inhabitants of the city of Greenville, who buy nearly all the meat they eat, and very many in the county, who like them, buy much of their meat, would be compelled to pay--well, perhaps, three or four times the prices they are now paying for the meat they now eat. Therefore, the City of Greenville, and all meat buyers in the county ought to oppose the "no fence law." But they may say that stock will be driven in to Greenville, as now, from North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky, and hence the want of stock in this "no fence" clime, will be supplied from those States. In this calculation they will certainly be mistaken, for the stock driven through this "no fence" section, will destroy much of the crops on either side of the public highways, and as the penalty of stock deprivations on farms, is a heavy one, the owners of those cattle, hogs, sheep, horses, and mules, will not risk the liability of this penalty, but will either, drive them other where, or ship them on the railroads, which will cost much more than to drive them. Then the City of Greenville and all the stock buyers of the county will find, when perhaps too late, that the adoption of the "no fence law" will have been a death, or poverty stricken blow to them.

But again, another and stronger reason against the "no fence law," remains to be presented, and it is this. If this law is made a State law, and all the people of the State taxed to build a fence around the borders, the tenants and non-land-owners will leave the State as soon as possible, especially those in the upper counties. I have heard quite a number of these good substantial citizens, who own no land, and who are now good renters, and are making the abundant crops of the county say, that if the "no fence law" is adopted, they will "leave the State immediately before they got too poor to leave," and in the event that gant poverty prevents them from leaving, they will never vote for a Senator or Legislator who voted for such a law. So honorable gentlemen, consider well what you are doing before you urge and vote for the passage of this law. Those good men to whom I refer, say furthermore, that when this "no fence law" is adopted, the Radicals will see the door opened for them to get into power again, and availing themselves of this opportunity, they will rally and adopt as a fundamental article of their platform, "a fence" as it is, instead of "a no fence law," and with this motto emblazoned on all their banners, they will make the welkin ring from the mountains to the sea-board, and ride triumphant into power again. Then, then, when alas too late, the "no fence" law-makers will see their folly, and our doom as a State will be sealed!

These good men who speak thus are democrats; and did all they could for Hampton, glorious Hampton, and his government. But if the Radicals will pledge themselves to repeal this "no fence law," after it shall have been passed by the democrats, they will vote for them, therefore, law-makers, consider the subject politically, before you pass the law. The power of the democratic party lies in the upper counties of the State, and if this power be put into the radical scales, along with the overwhelming majority of the lower counties, it will preponderate in favor of the latter party, and give them the victory, and bring defeat and disaster to the former. Think of this.

These are some of the reasons why the upper portion of the county are opposed to the law. Our voice in this matter should be heard and our wishes regarded.

I am no politician nor political aspirant, but having been requested by many of my friends to write and article against the "no fence law," I have, therefore, done so. If you see fit, Mr. Editor, you will please give this communication a place in your columns, and thus oblige many of your friends, and

Yours very truly,
T. D. Gwyn
South Saluda, Nov. 25th, 1879

Source: Greenville (S.C.) Enterprise and Mountaineer, December 3, 1879


Questions to Consider

  1. How important was access to open range for poor farmers?

  2. Whose economic interests would be served by the passage of the fence law?

  3. How realistic are Gwyn's concerns that the fence law could disrupt white support for the Democrats?

Return to Exhibition: Unit Eight