- - Tuesday, April 25, 2017


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.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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