Chapter 5

ON KING STREET A FEW blocks away from Robert Bunch’s residence was John Russell’s bookstore. Its owner bore no relationship to the British Whig politician of the same name, but the shop did specialize in European writings. This “literary emporium,” as Russell called it, had a large door and plate glass windows looking out on the lively traffic of the city’s main commercial thoroughfare, and the publications it carried were windows on the world for literate Charlestonians. Over the years it served as an informal salon for the more liberal element of the population or, at least, the less secessionist element, like Petigru and his friends.

Mr. Russell, an affable old bachelor, seemed to have little social life outside the store, but he would order single or multiple copies of books from abroad, and his shop was just the place to pick up and peruse reviews such as London’s New Monthly Magazine. It also carried plenty of Southern publications, including DeBow’s Review and John Russell’s own Russell’s Magazine, which many considered the most literate and reasonable journal in the South.

Conversation in the shop often was animated. In the early 1850s Charleston’s literati would rant for hours about that best-selling author in the Northern states and in Britain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and her Uncle Tom’s Cabin. One of the bards in the group, William J. Grayson, even published a book-length, pro-slavery poem, which he dedicated to James Petigru, entitled “The Hireling and the Slave.” He intended it as a reply not only to Uncle Tom but also to the British, who seemed to love that book so much. They were ignorant of the benevolent institution that slavery really was, he said, since a master was committed to care for the slave all his life. Only “hireling labor” like that of the North or of England created “the isolated, miserable creature who has no home, no work, no food, and in whom no one is particularly interested,” Grayson went on. Slavery was Christian; slavery was God’s will. If the English wanted to free these people so much, Grayson said, let them buy them!

Bunch, when he chanced to meet such characters at Russell’s or elsewhere in his busy day, found ways of offering perfunctory responses. Even with the image still in his mind of his neighbor’s slaves stripped, groped, and whipped, he appears to have learned the value of languid silence, at least up to a point. There was little need to argue, he said, in a society where “slavery does seem to blunt a man’s moral sense of right and wrong so fearfully.”

One of the most cosmopolitan of Bunch’s new acquaintances was William Henry Trescot, a lawyer and diplomatic historian just about Bunch’s age, who divided his time between Charleston and his plantation deep in the marshes near Beaufort.

When Bunch met him, Trescot had just published his history of American diplomacy during the Revolution. Given that the two men knew many of the same people in New York, Washington, and London, it was not altogether surprising that they got along. Years later, in very difficult times, Bunch would describe Trescot as “a man of talent,” an “agreeable companion,” and “a particular friend of mine,” albeit “a little eccentric.” Certainly there was nobody Bunch got to know in Charleston who was better connected.

All Trescot’s schooling was in South Carolina’s academies. He went to the College of Charleston. He apprenticed with local attorneys. He grew up with the upper classes, sharing jokes, cigars, and probably women. He married well in 1848 to an heiress who brought him a substantial income and a plantation that grew coveted Sea Island cotton. But Trescot was also a man of the world. In 1853, the same year Bunch arrived in Charleston, Trescot returned there from a brief stint as secretary to the American legation in London, where he had gotten to know William Makepeace Thackeray (it seems everybody knew Thackeray), met Whig politician and historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, and interviewed Prince Albert. Once, while being addressed by the venerable Marquess of Lansdowne, who had held high office under Kings George III, George IV, and William IV and Queen Victoria, Trescot lolled back on a sofa and put his feet up on a table, a gesture of nonchalance that made him quite memorable to a scandalized elite, which is probably what he intended.

William Trescot was that invaluable contact who could introduce Robert Bunch to people he needed to know, inform him about what others were saying, and interpret what it all meant. Although Bunch mentions Trescot only occasionally by name in his correspondence, Trescot, along with Petigru and Huger and Read, clearly was part of that coterie of “better people” in Charleston that Bunch relied on for guidance and intelligence. That they owned slaves and that Trescot, certainly, was a secessionist, did not much matter to Bunch, at least in the early days. The consul’s mission at that point was a relatively narrow one and difficult enough as it was. Whatever he thought of his acquaintances in Charleston, he had no illusion that he would change their way of life or their way of thinking.

But some men in Charleston tested the new British consul’s self-control to its limits. They were the worst of the worst bigots and secessionists. To say they were firebrands does not do justice to their calculated fanaticism. These extremist pro-slavery politicians were called the “Fire-Eaters,” and through Charleston’s newspapers their voices eventually became known far and wide.

The most famous was Robert Barnwell Rhett, an angry man full of social and political aspirations he could never quite satisfy. Though born with the surname Smith in little Beaufort, South Carolina, at the beginning of the century with few prospects of wealth or fame, he styled himself an aristocrat and presented himself as heir to the honorable bloodlines of five British colonial governors. In 1837 he and his brothers decided to adopt the name of their great-great-grandfather, Col. William Rhett, who had been the British governor of the Bahamas.

Even in South Carolina politics, Robert Barnwell Rhett stood out as an extremist, and the furious debate over the expansion of slavery that had gripped the nation at the end of the 1840s had given him a wondrous pretext for his rage. Rhett tried to cast himself in the mold of his idol and sometime mentor Senator John C. Calhoun, the great voice of nullification who had taken South Carolina to the brink of secession and the country to the brink of war in the 1830s before President Andrew Jackson called his bluff. When Calhoun died in 1851, the governor named Rhett to fill his seat in the United States Senate. Rhett, “the lone star of disunion,” as some called him, used his office to call for immediate secession, but he was a decade too early. Frustrated when his summons went unheeded, he resigned.

Robert Barnwell Rhett was as pure an ideologue as the South could find, the very epitome of unreason that Robert Bunch so detested—because the consul, while he might play his game of bonhomie with people he despised, did not want to be bored while he did it. With Rhett and those who followed his line, no appeals to common humanity or, for that matter, to common sense would sway their opinions.

Among the elegant patricians of Charleston, Rhett, who was bald and plain but extremely vain, often came across as an irascible crank. His politics had nothing to do with the art of compromise, which is why, for most of his life, political success eluded him. But the Charleston Mercury, owned for many years by Rhett’s brilliant but fatally alcoholic brother-in-law, John A. Stuart, gave Rhett a platform for his ideas and his anger. Eventually Rhett bought a controlling interest in the paper and gave it to his son to run. Although the actual circulation of the Mercury was only several hundred copies, its articles were picked up and reprinted widely, including in the New York Times, which used them to show off Southern extremism.

There would be no cajoling or convincing Rhett on the black-seamen issue. The Mercury would be no help to Bunch. When Rhett was in the state legislature, at the slightest provocation he would conjure the ghost of Denmark Vesey. He’d claim that the dread conspiracy of 1822 was the work of free blacks inspired by alien abolitionists; he’d insist that each Negro sailor walking free on Charleston’s streets, whether from the North or from a foreign country, would be a threat tothe city’s very existence.

But Bunch could leave Rhett, as he liked to say, to his own devices. Rhett was not really changing anybody’s opinion one way or the other in the early 1850s. And while the Charleston Mercury was a voice of unreason on almost every issue that concerned Bunch, the Charleston Courier under editor Richard Yeadon was a more responsible and balanced newspaper. When Bunch had a message to get out discreetly, a visit to the Courier offices or a quiet meeting with Yeadon usually did the trick—and the Courier, with only occasional backsliding, supported a revision of the Negro Seamen law.

The editor of a third newspaper in Charleston posed a more complicated problem. Leonidas Spratt was from up-country South Carolina but had married a Charleston woman who had a small town house, ten slaves, and enough money for her husband to buy the struggling Charleston Standard in 1853. There, Spratt began a campaign not only to defend slavery, but to glorify it. The young fire-brand understood that the elite of what was at once the most revolutionary and the most reactionary city in the South were threatened in more ways and on more fronts than many of them cared to consider. What Grayson, the “bard of the battery,” had called “hireling labor” was not just reprehensible; it was an insidious menace to everything the grandees of Charleston held dear. As slaves were taken west to virgin lands, the political and economic complexion of the city was changing. White immigrants from Ireland and Germany were arriving to perform some of the work normally done by slaves or free people of color, and these white employees, simply because they were white, could make demands on the ruling classes that Negroes and mulattoes, slave or free, could never make. By the summer of 1854 the Standard was taking a truly radical position intended to shore up the status quo, recommending that the slave trade with Africa be reopened.

The young editor of the Standard played to the worst instincts of the Charleston elite, some of whom were appalled, some enthralled, and some both as they listened to his arguments. In the theatrical style of the time, Spratt would push his fingers back through his mane of black hair as his passionate language lured his audience to his cause. He told them that a slave-owning society was different from, and better than, one based on free labor; that this “union of unequal races” ennobled the masters and raised up the blacks to a level of civilization and Christianity that Negroes, inherently inferior beings, otherwise could not attain; that the future of the modern South would require more slaves, not fewer, to work in factories as well as in the fields; and that, above all, there was nothing to apologize for about any aspect of the institution, including and especially the importation of slaves from Africa.

The New York Times picked up on Spratt’s editorials and mocked them. Spratt responded that the Times “failed to come to the moral elevation of our argument,” and was making a mistake if it thought that “to be ridiculous is to be defeated.” From the Christians of ancient Rome to George Washington, he declared, revolutionaries were always considered ridiculous by the powers they challenged. The Times published Spratt’s riposte. For an upstart paper in South Carolina, that response was a significant achievement, and Spratt’s notoriety began to spread.

Bunch, whose more trusted sources in Charleston told him that Leonidas Spratt was not to be taken seriously, did not bother to report to London the little tempest the Standard editor had raised in the New York Times, deeming it a distraction. The issues truly complicating Bunch’s work on the Negro Seamen law were, he believed, the historical fears of the kind cited by Robert Barnwell Rhett, and resentments of outside interference, which Bunch had heard about even before his arrival. Spratt, intent on glorifying the virtues of slavery, steered away from the dangers of another Denmark Vesey lurking in the shadows.* His critiques of British abolitionist sentiment were more ironic than they were incendiary. And as sensitive as the issue of the slave trade was to the Foreign Office, in 1854 Spratt’s arguments about reviving it seemed mere debating points. Bunch chose to regard this impassioned, relentless polemicist not with alarm but with amusement. The editor of the Charleston Standard, Bunch wrote to Crampton, is “personally a decent man, although editorially a jackass.”

*Spratt would not want to remind anyone that South Carolina, in the last days of the legal slave trade with Africa at the beginning of the century, had imported forty thousand men, women, and children, and that one of them, known as Gullah Jack, was supposed to have been Vesey’s key lieutenant.

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