The concept of the county as a governmental entity originated in Europe. Large areas, often containing several villages, were usually governed by a count. When the Normans conquered England, they used county to describe the geographical areas then known as shires. Eventually, counties evolved to include law enforcement, representation in Parliament and delivery of administrative justice. It was this concept of county that made its way to the Colonies and the Province of Carolina.
In designing the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina in 1682, the Lords Proprietors chose to divide the province into three counties. These counties would become the most basic territorial divisions for government, land grants and administration of justice.
The first counties in the Province of Carolina emerged in 1682 as election districts. There were three: Craven County, which included land north of Seewee Creek (now Awendaw Creek); Berkeley County, which centered around Charleston, included land between Seewee Creek and the Stono River; and Colleton County, which included land from the Stono River south to the Combahee River. Later, a fourth, Granville County, was laid out between the Combahee and Savannah rivers. These election districts had little to do with the operations of Carolina Government. That began to change with the legal division of the province into North and South Carolina in 1729.
During the period following the division, the main functions of local governments were performed by the Commons House of Assembly, which met in Charleston to decide matters of road construction and the provision of laws and courts. Parishes, established by the Anglican Church in 1706, served as the election districts beginning in 1721. During the same year, South Carolina was divided into 33 road districts with responsibility for the infrastructure falling on independent boards of commissioners. The central authority for law and order, however, remained in Charleston. While centralization of authority in Charleston was convenient for lawmakers and judges of the Lowcountry, residents of the Backcountry or Upcountry, suffered from lack of law and representation. In 1769, complaints from Backcountry residents led the Province of South Carolina to create seven judicial districts, each with a courthouse. Charleston became one of these districts.
In 1785, the General Assembly of the new State of South Carolina divided the state into 34 counties. Charleston District encompassed six of the counties. In 1791, when the number of counties was reduced to 25, the six counties in the Charleston District were dissolved.
The lines were redrawn again in 1798 when all counties were reincorporated into districts. Two years later, Charleston District was split into Colleton District and Charleston District. The latter roughly included what are today Charleston and Berkeley counties.
There was still little need for local government beyond the duties that rested with the local road commissioners and justices of the peace. By 1828, most of the operational powers were in the hands of the S.C. General Assembly. It remained so until the adoption of the South Carolina Constitution of 1868, also known as the Reconstruction Constitution.
This constitution established 31 counties as governmental units and included provisions for each county to elect a board of commissioners, clerk of court, coroner, probate judge and sheriff. As governmental units, the boards of commissioners were given jurisdiction over all local concerns of their respective counties.
These circumstances reversed just 27 years later with adoption of the South Carolina Constitution of 1895. The new constitution made no mention of local government, although the S.C. General Assembly was careful to formalize the counties under its own authority. Because the legislative delegations controlled their respective county budgets, these delegations became the governing bodies of each county. And as each county's state senator had veto power over delegation decisions, the senator became the most powerful authority in each county.
The local Board of Commissioners lost even more power in 1900 when the General Assembly established the Sanitary and Drainage Commission in Charleston County. Then, in 1925, the legislature created a separate Charleston County Police Commission; and, in 1931, the Legislative Delegation assumed control of the County Board of Education. With help from a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1926 the Charleston County Board of Health was created, but was later combined in 1936 with the City of Charleston Board of Health.
By the end of World War II, the population was increasing and administrative responsibilities were scattered between a board of commissioners, constitutional officers, sheriffs and assorted school, health and public service district officials. Public demands for more effective local government ballooned forcing reform with the passage of state legislation in 1948, which provided for a system of local government in South Carolina.
Voters in Charleston County decided between a plan which placed control in the hands of a seven-member county council with an appointed manager as chief executive officer or a plan which maintained legislative delegation control but centralized county administrative functions under a council of 11. If neither plan gained majority voter support, the system would continue unchanged.
On September 14, 1948, voters chose the first plan with the appointed manager, and, on January 4, 1949, members of Charleston County Council were sworn into office. On June 6, 1949, a manager was hired, and operations as a council-manager form of government began on July 1, 1949. Since that time, Council was expanded to nine members to accommodate a growing population.
Under the Home Rule Act passed by the S.C. General Assembly in 1975, Charleston County residents chose the council-administrator form of government through a referendum. Charleston County continues to operate under the council-administrator form.