“Our Man in Charleston” is a story of Britain's consul in Charleston, South Carolina in the several years before, and into the War Between the States… The Civil War.
Robert Bunch was 32 years old when he arrived in Charleston, an aspiring diplomat originally assigned to Philadelphia, a more agreeable and cultivated assignment. He had roots in America, born in New York to an American mother and gunrunning British father. He did all he could to delay his assignment from Philadelphia, as Charleston was "sickly" in the summer: people did not understand that yellow fever, a form of encephalitis, was carried by mosquitoes. Plus it was oppressively hot. They knew New York was a better summer residence for anyone who could move there.
His first charge as consul was to amend or terminate the Negro Seamen Act 1822, whereby any black seaman landing in Charleston could be arrested. The Act had been passed after an insurrection, but was harsh and particularly offensive to black British seamen, who could not leave their ships when in port for fear of becoming slaves. Bunch's predecessor George Matthew had taken an adversarial legal approach, but Bunch preferred to learn about the local society first. This made him incredibly effective.
Britain had been trying to limit slavery and particularly the 'middle passage' since the early 1800s. It took several years before Bunch saw the Act amended, but he learned much about Charleston, its economic and political leaders, and its soul, along the way.
His ability to insert himself was more remarkable given his personal (and British) view toward slavery. A mere 10 days after his arrival he wrote to The Foreign Secretary, Lord Clarendon "Even people who were on other issues sensible and well informed wanted to hear nothing about slavery is inconveniences its injustice or its atrocities." That opinion on the depravity of slavery as an institution never wavered. His effectiveness and his value to locals increased throughout the book as the importance of British recognition increased. All this while he took ever greater chances of penning unencrypted correspondence to Washington or London by post and private courier. He was always just a breath away from being caught.
Bunch's insightful analyses undermined the Confederacy's desire to be recognized by European powers, while maintaining an air of sympathy locally. We don't fully accept the idea that his efforts to undermine Confederate recognition by European powers changed the direction of history, but history is rife with 'what-if's'. Some have argued that if Pickett's charge had succeeded and Lee had won at Gettysburg, the Union would have sued for peace, England would have recognized the Confederacy, and our country would now be two, or many.
Insurrections were on the minds, and arguments, of many whites, but the truth was, insurrections were rare. John Brown's attack on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry Virginia was conceived to inspire a slave revolt, but was quickly suppressed. More common were massacres of slaves, such as the massacre of freed slaves that followed Sherman's march across Georgia at Ebenezer Creek.
We have all read enough history to avoid making moral or ethical judgments based on our contemporary mores. And yet reading the accounts of the 'Middle Passage', the term for Africans shipped from Africa to Cuba, or illegally to the United States, involved such indecency, we had to ask, did supporters of slavery believe that God saw slavery as the natural order of humanity? And did people really believe that Africans were better off working plantations in America than they would have been in Africa? Bill posited that the better educated, upper levels of society had enough education and understanding of the world that they certainly should have recognized these as mere rationalizations. For the less educated, less traveled parochial farmers, perhaps these arguments resonated. But the bigger picture, including exposure to the Middle Passage, treatment of so many with no legal protection, it is difficult to find any common ground with the Fire Eaters, the political protectors of slavery, even through the lens of history. Descriptions of the conditions were horrifying. The description of that 'unique human stench', emanating from the slaver Echo, brought to Charleston harbor after its interdiction by the U.S. Navy, was powerful prose. Scenes of what other boarding parties found on slavers were equally disturbing.
Our discussions took us across the economic, cultural, and political forces that were converging in the United States, often centered in Charleston. By joining Robert Bunch, we caught a deeper glimpse into those forces.
The economic forces are not complex. In 1807 importation of slaves became illegal, as part of a compromise to get the Constitution ratified in 1787. While the population of African slaves increased 150 percent from 1807 to 1850, cotton production increased 3,000 percent. The price of human laborers – slaves - increased accordingly. Thus much of a slave owner's wealth was measured in the number of slaves he owned. On this topic, Chuck brought up our earlier discussion of Frederick Law Olmstead who reflected after his trip across the South how cheap labor left the South little incentive to innovate on labor costs. It was a doomed economic system, but many fought its demise.
Insight into politics was highlighted in the Democratic convention of 1860, which could not resolve a candidate after some 57 ballots, reflecting the divide between Pro-slavery Fire Eaters such as Rhett and Yancey, and the Douglas crowd that would have been content with territorial sovereignty. The convention gave up and adjourned to Baltimore six weeks later.
Secession was disorderly and took time. The states were not unified after South Carolina seceded. There was no plan, only a few states leading, others came in eventually, but nobody seemed to appreciate what it was all leading to. Fire Eaters were not unified by anything other than an economic need and cultural desire to keep other humans in bondage, a shaky foundation for a new country.
We also learned more about the many characters in Bunch's life, including: James Petigru, the lawyer who argued for amending the Negro Seaman Act, Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, then Lord Clarendon when he became foreign secretary, Lyons, the consul in Washington, who, in spite of his initial dislike of Bunch for his overstepping British bounds, quickly recognized his diplomatic skills and insight into South Carolinian ethos. Lawyer Judah Benjamin understood how South Carolina was so out gunned by the North, but his insight couldn't persuade others to see into the future so clearly.
While the book rarely mentioned Lincoln, it did cast unfavorable depictions of James Buchanan, who saw conflict coming, and was relieved to have delayed it until the final days of his presidency, and of William Seward, a presidential aspirant whom we agreed may have simply lived ahead of his time. He was after all the same Seward who bought Alaska.
Finally, some insights into our contemporary lives that this examination of history prompted:
there is a natural trend to social progression, pushed along by younger generations, but limited by people whose personal experiences influence their worldviews, neither of which are effectively accelerated by external admonishments. We agreed that these forces move faster today facilitated by faster communication and greater migration, but these social trends still encounter broad resistance that only time dissipates. Our parents' formative years were different from ours, as our children's world is different from ours. Social progression has a natural evolution, with differing speeds in different places, as new generations grow and experience their respective worlds. But progression is subject to the same forces of inertia as physics: when pushed by external forces, equal and opposite pushback occurs. The recent ascendancy of the 'unenlightened', blue collar, less educated so-called 'deplorables', and a Trump presidency, is today's manifestation of that trend. The Civil War was a far bloodier result in its day.
All this aside, man's inhumanity continues; last week in Lynn MA, an arrest was made for human trafficking: the sex trade is alive and thrives today. But today, most people are deeply offended, and no justification for today's slavery withstands scrutiny.
Overall, while the prose was dense, and perhaps described more detail than was needed, this book gave a far deeper insight into slavery from its epicenter and the forces leading to our Civil war than most books do, by chronicling the work of an extraordinary diplomat.
America's War for the Greater Middle East
by Andrew Bacevich