A war started by ‘car­niv­o­rous lem­mings’

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Aram Bak­shian Jr. Aram Bak­shian Jr., an aide to Pres­i­dents Nixon, Ford and Rea­gan, writes widely on pol­i­tics, his­tory, gas­tron­omy and the arts.

MAD­NESS RULES THE HOUR: CHARLESTON, 1860 AND THE MA­NIA FOR WAR

By Paul Starobin Pub­lic Af­fairs, $27, 268 pages

To­day’s vis­i­tors to the older sec­tions of Charleston, S.C., find them­selves in an en­chant­ing time warp. The be­guil­ing fa­cade of the an­te­bel­lum South — the man­nerly charm, the taste­fully un­der­stated el­e­gance, even the dig­ni­fied cour­tesy of the mostly black ser­vice per­son­nel — all re­flect the sur­face al­lure of an ele­gant way of life that has mostly gone with the wind. Hap­pily, what lit­tle re­mains now is sup­ported by the tourist trade rather than by slave la­bor.

But in 1860, the piv­otal year that Paul Starobin de­picts in his grip­ping new nar­ra­tive his­tory, the placid sur­face of the city, with its pop­u­la­tion of 23,376 whites, 13,909 slaves and 3,237 “free per­sons of color,” was de­cep­tive. Or­der was en­forced by “con­stant pa­trols of dark-blue uni­formed po­lice armed with swords and pis­tols, some mounted on horse­back, ev­ery­where, at all hours of the day and night, as if trou­ble might be ex­pected at any mo­ment.” Each night, a drum­beat “be­gan at ten min­utes to nine ... the sig­nal by the po­lice for ev­ery per­son of color to get off the streets and get home by the stroke of the hour ... pun­ish­ment for vi­o­la­tion of the cur­few was a flog­ging — which ac­counted for the ‘cries and shrieks’ that might be heard in the still night air of Charleston.” When one for­eign vis­i­tor asked a city guard the rea­son for it all, he replied that it was for “keep­ing the nig­gers down.”

Charleston had al­ways had aris­to­cratic pre­ten­sions. Its very cre­ation was one of the ear­li­est acts of King Charles II, re­stored to the Bri­tish throne in 1660 af­ter a gen­er­a­tion of dour Round­head rule. In 1663 the Merry Monarch granted a royal char­ter to eight “lord pro­pri­etors” to es­tab­lish what would be­come the colony of South Carolina. Charleston, its cap­i­tal, was founded in 1670 and soon be­came a re­gional com­mer­cial cen­ter. It also served as an ele­gant re­sort for wealthy planters from the West Indies, with fash­ion­able shops and lodg­ing, and a so­phis­ti­cated pop­u­la­tion that in­cluded one of Amer­ica’s first large Jewish com­mu­ni­ties and many re­fined Huguenot im­mi­grants, up­per-class French Protes­tants flee­ing per­se­cu­tion.

By 1860 Charleston was also a bas­tion of South­ern ex­trem­ism, a hot­bed of se­ces­sion­ist sen­ti­ment among the planter class — and would-be as­pi­rants to that priv­i­leged elite — who viewed the Union as a threat to their way of life. In a sense, they were right. Slave-based economies are no­to­ri­ously un­com­pet­i­tive. “We pre­tend to work for the state and the state pre­tends to pay us,” ran a stan­dard un­der­ground joke in the Soviet era. It ap­plied even more to a sys­tem where the work­ers were owned by their “em­ploy­ers,” rec­og­nized in law as prop­erty rather than as fel­low cit­i­zens. While the North pros­pered and mul­ti­plied as a so­ci­ety of free farm­ers, la­bor­ers and en­trepreneurs, the South stag­nated.

A sta­ple griev­ance of would-be South­ern se­ces­sion­ists was the “hu­mil­i­at­ing de­pen­dence of the South on North­ern man­u­fac­tures of all types. Even a church built in Charleston was apt to have its doors, win­dows and even pul­pit made to or­der in the North.” At the same time, South­ern war hawks de­luded them­selves with the myth of their own in­vin­ci­bil­ity: Yan­kee money grub­bers could never match South­ern gen­tle­men on the bat­tle­field. Un­for­tu­nately, thou­sands of hum­ble white South­ern­ers who owned no slaves and cer­tainly owed no fa­vors to the “gen­try” would fall vic­tim to the same siren song and pay for it with their lives.

Kon­rad Ade­nauer, the wise old states­man who built a hu­mane, demo­cratic Ger­many out of the ruin and shame of World War II, once re­ferred to his fel­low Ger­mans as “car­niv­o­rous sheep.” Read­ers of Paul Starobin’s brac­ing, seam­lessly nar­rated ac­count of the hys­ter­i­cal events in Charleston in 1860 — first as host to the Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion that frag­mented the ma­jor­ity party into ri­val pro- and anti-union tick­ets paving the way for Lin­coln’s elec­tion, and then as the site of the first South­ern state’s uni­lat­eral se­ces­sion from the Union — may con­clude that the hubris­tic se­ces­sion­ists of the Pal­metto State were so many car­niv­o­rous lem­mings.

In 1896, griz­zled Con­fed­er­ate veter­ans held a re­union in Charleston. A lo­cal ci­ti­zen noted in his diary: “Poor fel­lows — many of these men did not un­der­stand in the least what they were fight­ing about. Our war was brought about by am­bi­tious politi­cians who hoped to get the places of profit and power. They used the prej­u­dices of the day, slav­ery, and sec­tional in­ter­est, to stir up the ig­no­rant masses . ... The masses al­ways suf­fer.” A sad but suit­able epi­taph.

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