Review of Paul Starobin's "Madness Rules the Hour: Charleston, 1860 and the Mania for War" (PublicAffairs, 2017)

tags: book review, Paul Starobin, Madness Rules the Hour

Luther Spoehr is an HNN reviewer and senior lecturer at Brown University.

To understate the case by several thousand percent, the time immediately before the Civil War has not lacked for attention from historians, academic and popular alike.  Modern treatment may be said to date from David Potter’s Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis, published in 1942, which broke the conventional interpretive mold and argued, through close investigation of evidence, that Lincoln had not intentionally provoked the war.  South Carolina, the perpetual Hotspur of the antebellum South, has been the focus of many studies, too.  Perhaps most relevant to this review, Steven Channing’s Crisis of Fear:  Secession in South Carolina (1970), published as the “New Social History” was just beginning to emerge, covers the same ground as Madness Rules the Hour; it received the Allan Nevins Prize from the Society of American Historians.  Tellingly, and happily, Potter’s and Channing’s books are still in print, holding their place on the ever-growing, apparently infinite shelf of Civil War history.

Although journalist Paul Starobin is entering a crowded field, his fine-grained, ground-level look at a society losing its mind is welcome addition to the literature.  The vivid, fast-paced, archivally-based retelling of how Charleston drove South Carolina and the rest of the South to secession in 1860 admirably captures the fevered, paranoid atmosphere of that boiling cauldron.  Occupying one extreme of a polarized America, Charleston’s leaders harangued and manipulated, spread misinformation and disinformation and propaganda, all in the interest of protecting their special interest in the South’s “peculiar institution.”  (Yes, that, of course, is slavery.  In case anyone needs still more proof that, as Lincoln put it in his Second Inaugural, “this interest was somehow the cause of the war,” this book provides it.)

Starobin provides much more: his narrative looks at virtually every constituency in South Carolina’s most important city (population: 40,000), rich and poor, black and white, male and female, slave and free (including the small community of free blacks in town).  All were caught up in the accelerating frenzy for secession; of those who resisted, the lucky ones were able to get out of town in time.  At the same time, it is worth noting that Starobin devotes very little time to the underlying trends—demographic, economic, political, and social—that were increasingly working to weaken the South’s position in the Union.  Southerners’ perceptions of these were not unfounded.  Even paranoids have enemies.

South Carolina had been threatening to secede for a long time, of course.  The home of “nullification” (formulated by South Carolinian John Calhoun), it had periodically gotten ahead of the rest of the South, only to look back and see that nobody was following.  This time would be different.  In the wake of John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry, the South was on edge.  When the Republicans nominated Lincoln for president, it became…edgier.  The Democrats met in Charleston, and after 57 ballots (the last ones held, appropriately enough, in a theater), the slave states (except Virginia) walked out.  The last political bond holding the sections together had been severed.

What we would now call the “media campaign,” led by the editors of the Charleston Mercury, became one long, sustained howl:  Lincoln, they said, was “the beau ideal of a relentless, dogged, freesoil border ruffian—a Southern by birth and a Northerner in feeling and association—a fanatic in philanthropy and a vulgar mobocrat and a Southern hater in political opinions.”  Just before the November election, it declared, “The issue before the country is the extinction of slavery….The Southern States are now in the crisis of their fate; and…nothing is needed for our deliverance, but that the ball of revolution to be set in motion.”  When it became clear that Lincoln had won, disunionists were delighted.  “The tea has been thrown overboard,” said the Mercury, and “the revolution of 1860 has been initiated.”

Northerners in town—including Major Abner Doubleday at Fort Moultrie—kept their ears to the ground as the rumblings grew louder.  Doubleday sent appraisals of the situation to Lincoln and worried about just what the “Minute Men” were up to.  Strangers who were suspected (sometimes rightly) of being federal agents or reporters for New York newspapers had to stay on the alert, and most left town.  Some stereotypical Yankees stumbled into the storm while pursuing the almighty dollar:  Captain A. H. Colt, an agent of the Connecticut-based firearms manufacturer, was assaulted in the lobby of the Charleston Hotel and quickly “stole away on a steamer to New York.”

Starobin has a sharp eye for primary sources; quoting them lends an immediacy and distinctiveness to his story.  At the same time, his analysis of the growing radicalization of the city’s white population is crisp and persuasive.  The fire-eating elite—especially the Mercury’s editors, the Rhetts—kept raising the local temperature.  John Townsend’s “The South Alone, Should Govern the South” was, Starobin says, “a classic propaganda campaign; nothing like it had been seen on American soil, for sheer volume and intensity, since the circulation in the winter of 1776 of Thomas Paine’s…‘Common Sense.’”  The women of the town egged on the men, urging them to “do or die” and issuing resolutions that they would “honor all men who are for this movement, but are determined to secede ourselves from all who are opposed to it,” adding that “the best ‘feather in the cap’ of any young man, is the ‘Palmetto Cockade,’ and it makes our hearts flutter to see one mounted above a manly brow.”  (There were evidently no counter-resolutions asserting, “Girls say yes to boys who say no.”)

For a good many years, Charleston had been home to a small but relatively secure population of free blacks.  One white leader, Christopher Memminger, later the Confederacy’s Secretary of the Treasury, had said that the black person “has his rights just as well as any other citizen.”  But throughout 1860 their position became more and more precarious.  At some point, thirty-seven of the “brown elite” sent a remarkable petition to local authorities:  “We are by birth citizens of South Carolina…In our veins flows the blood of the white race—in some half, in others much more than half, white blood…Our attachments are with you; our hopes of safety and protection from you; our allegiance is due to South-Carolina, and in her defence, we are willing to offer up our lives, and all that is dear to us.”  The petition—intended, Starobin argues, partly to reassure local officials that the free blacks would not make common cause with rebellious slaves—went for naught.  Their only real recourse, which became ever more difficult to realize as the year wound down, was to flee the state.

By the time South Carolina passed its ordinance of secession on December 20, 1860, Charleston and the rest of the state had whipped itself into full froth.  The news was greeted with fireworks, demonstrations, and parades.  In the echo chamber that the state had become, common sense gave way to fantasy.  Governor Francis Pickens announced that he had information “there may be no appeal to force” by the federal government, but that “if I am mistaken in this…we are prepared to meet any and every issue.”  The Yankees, many believed, were too soft to fight and would be easily beaten if they did.  If other Southern states wouldn’t follow them out of the Union, said some, Charleston might even become a French protectorate.

Starobin essentially closes his narrative here, with South Carolina “out,” Major Robert Anderson digging in at Fort Sumter, and old Edmund Ruffin having not yet fired the symbolic first shot of the rebellion.  But leaving Charleston at its emotional peak and providing only a brief denouement allows the reader to ponder the full import of the book’s title and what happens when a community or a society allows itself to be caught up in what a British author, only 20 years before, termed the “extraordinary delusions and madness of crowds.”  And to think they created such chaos without the aid of social media.  Perhaps the last word should go to the diehard Unionist James Petigru, who famously remarked that “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”  What would he make of us today?

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