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Madness Rules the Hour

Cover of Madness Rules the Hour

Madness Rules the Hour

Charleston, 1860 and the Mania for War
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"The tea has been thrown overboard-the revolution of 1860 has been initiated."Charleston Mercury, November 8, 1860


In 1860, Charleston, South Carolina, embodied the combustible spirit of the South. No city was more fervently attached to slavery, and no city was seen by the North as a greater threat to the bonds barely holding together the Union. And so, with Abraham Lincoln's election looming, Charleston's leaders faced a climactic decision: they could submit to abolition—or they could drive South Carolina out of the Union and hope that the rest of the South would follow.


In Madness Rules the Hour, Paul Starobin tells the story of how Charleston succumbed to a fever for war and charts the contagion's relentless progress and bizarre turns. In doing so, he examines the wily propagandists, the ambitious politicians, the gentlemen merchants and their wives and daughters, the compliant pastors, and the white workingmen who waged a violent and exuberant revolution in the name of slavery and Southern independence. They devoured the Mercury, the incendiary newspaper run by a fanatical father and son; made holy the deceased John C. Calhoun; and adopted "Le Marseillaise" as a rebellious anthem. Madness Rules the Hour is a portrait of a culture in crisis and an insightful investigation into the folly that fractured the Union and started the Civil War.

"The tea has been thrown overboard-the revolution of 1860 has been initiated."Charleston Mercury, November 8, 1860


In 1860, Charleston, South Carolina, embodied the combustible spirit of the South. No city was more fervently attached to slavery, and no city was seen by the North as a greater threat to the bonds barely holding together the Union. And so, with Abraham Lincoln's election looming, Charleston's leaders faced a climactic decision: they could submit to abolition—or they could drive South Carolina out of the Union and hope that the rest of the South would follow.


In Madness Rules the Hour, Paul Starobin tells the story of how Charleston succumbed to a fever for war and charts the contagion's relentless progress and bizarre turns. In doing so, he examines the wily propagandists, the ambitious politicians, the gentlemen merchants and their wives and daughters, the compliant pastors, and the white workingmen who waged a violent and exuberant revolution in the name of slavery and Southern independence. They devoured the Mercury, the incendiary newspaper run by a fanatical father and son; made holy the deceased John C. Calhoun; and adopted "Le Marseillaise" as a rebellious anthem. Madness Rules the Hour is a portrait of a culture in crisis and an insightful investigation into the folly that fractured the Union and started the Civil War.

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About the Author-
  • Paul Starobin is a frequent contributor to the Atlantic and the New Republic and a former Moscow bureau chief for Business Week. His writing on history, politics, and culture has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, among other publications, and he is the author of After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age. Paul lives with his family in Orleans, Massachusetts.

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  • Publisher's Weekly

    February 27, 2017
    Starobin (After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age), a former Moscow bureau chief for Businessweek, reflects on the cultural fissures that led America to civil war in this limited portrait of antebellum Charleston, S.C. Tracking the city’s descent into secessionist fervor, he follows a cast of prominent Charlestonians that includes newspapermen, politicians, and religious leaders. Starobin centers his story on the 1860 Democratic National Convention, which took place in Charleston and intensified regional divisions over slavery. The narrative draws heavily on newspaper accounts and letters, capturing the prevailing fear and uncertainty that enveloped the city’s white slave-owning elite in the wake of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and Lincoln’s election to the presidency. In a disappointing omission, Starobin gives short shrift to the city’s large black population, both free and enslaved, as well as other voices that went unheard during the formal secessionist debates, leaving unanswered questions about the texture of Charleston daily life. Starobin’s episodic recounting of Charleston’s push toward secession uncovers a range of Southern attitudes concerning abolition and national identity, but without a clear organizing argument, the story proceeds in fits and starts.

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Madness Rules the Hour
Madness Rules the Hour
Charleston, 1860 and the Mania for War
Paul Starobin
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