Our enemies are not insane
'Too large for an insane asylum': A Civil War meme that just won't die
It’s a cliche among South Carolina opinion columnists to quote the South Carolina unionist politician James Louis Petigru, who reportedly said something to this effect on the eve of the American Civil War:
“South Carolina is too small for a republic, but too large for an insane asylum.”
At the time Petigru allegedly delivered this quip in 1860, he couldn’t have been blamed for thinking his neighbors were out of their damn minds. The whole political establishment and the mainstream press were all-in on leaving the United States — less than 100 years old at the time — to uphold the institution of chattel slavery.
As it’s used today, the quote is an all-purpose bon mot. It’s been used to describe a lieutenant governor’s campaign finance scandal, a failed attempt at nullifying Obamacare, and a spat between the governor at a major donor to the University of South Carolina. Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker used it to describe South Carolina’s first-in-the-south presidential primaries.
We are led to believe that the South Carolinian, like the Florida Man, is congenitally predisposed to acts of violence and stupidity. “Only in South Carolina,” we say, and roll our eyes.
And I get the instinct to say this. I really do. At the national level, it’s the same instinct that inspired Jon Stewart to host the Rally to Restore Sanity in 2010. Those were the early days of the white reactionary backlash that became the Tea Party movement, which in turn became the MAGA movement, which in turn set itself on overturning an election by violent force in 2020, and which today is working feverishly to install open white nationalists in Congress, the courts, and state legislative seats.
If the last 12 years have taught us anything, it’s that our enemies are not insane. If only for strategic purposes, we're better off assuming our enemies are rational actors.
Even in Petigru’s time, it was a mistake to assume the secessionists were insane. The slavery question loomed large in the frontier states, and the tide was turning against the southern slaveocracy. The South Carolina plantation elites were not crazy; they were making a rational choice in defense of their class interests. They were morally wrong and militarily outgunned, but they correctly understood they’d have to defend their position with violence if they had any hope of maintaining it.
A quote investigation
I’ve been stuck at home sick the last few days (my apologies for publishing a day late), and in my delirious waking hours I’ve been plugging away at two vain projects.
One is a single-purpose Twitter account I started on a whim last week, @ludicrous_sc, documenting “ludicrous moments in south carolina politics.” It’s a local-yokel ripoff of the popular “crazy ass moments in american politics,” but I decided against using the word “crazy” because 1. the term is considered ableist in some circles, and 2. see rant, above.
My other side quest has been to prove or disprove the authenticity of that Petigru quote. I’ve heard variations on it throughout my adult life, but I’ve never seen it traced back to a primary source. When people make reference to it, they often hedge on how and when it was uttered, and they can’t even seem to agree on the exact phrasing.
I can’t visit any archives at the moment, but I thought I’d share my findings based on online research so far.
First things first, Petigru was a slaveholder. That fact overshadows any discussion of his unionist sentiments. According to biographers William and Jane Pease:
Petigru had been a slaveholder ever since marriage, when their prenuptial marriage settlement had given him joint use and control of Jane Amelia’s 10 slaves. In addition, his Savannah River rice plantation had at its peak about 125 slaves, which Petigru had owned outright. And even after he had sold them, the 1840 federal census recorded 22 slaves living in the yard of his Charleston home …
He was willing to make extensive detours so that Sammy, his coachman, could visit his wife, but unwilling, because he already owned more household slaves than he needed, to buy that wife so the couple could live together.
This helps us to understand Petigru’s line of argument. In practice he agreed with the secessionists on the moral question of slavery, but he looked at the “Fire-Eaters” calling for secession and thought that was a bridge too far. In his view, the secessionists were not wrong for defending slavery, but insane for dissolving the Union to do so.
In response to a late-night Twitter thread, Robert Salvo pointed me to an early version of the quote — the earliest I’ve seen so far — in Abner Doubleday’s 1876 book Reminiscences of Forts Sumter and Moultrie in 1860-’61. Doubleday was a Union major general who was stationed at Fort Sumter off the coast of Charleston and fired the first defensive shots of the Civil War. He wrote:
Soon after the state seceded, that stern old patriot, Judge J.L. Petigru, of South Carolina, came over, with one of his friends, to pay us a final visit, to express the deep sorrow and sympathy he felt for us in our trying position. As he knew that arrangements were being made to drive us out, he bade us farewell with much feeling. The tears rolled down his cheeks as he deplored the folly and the madness of the times. He had been previously asked in the city if he did not intend to join the secession movement. He replied, “I should think not! South Carolina is too small for a republic, and too large for a lunatic-asylum.”
It’s a secondhand account at best, and written 16 years after the fact. The wording is pretty close to the commonly accepted version of the quote today, except that Doubleday used “and” instead of “but,” and “lunatic” instead of “insane.”
Another early paraphrase comes from Edward Everett, former U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, in an address he delivered at the inauguration of the Union Club on April 9, 1863. He was talking about the secessionists’ demand that the U.S. military abandon Fort Sumter:
What! In a time of profound peace, and in the face of a disclaimer on the part of the President of any intention to increase the garrison or the armament of the post, then occupied by but a single company, to open upon it without a shadow of provocation, from eleven batteries; to cannonade it with red-hot shot, because the general government did not see fit to evacuate it and surrender the public property, at the first tap of the rebel drum, — why it is the work of madmen, sufficient of itself to justify the reply of Judge Petigru, who, when asked by a stranger the way to the lunatic asylum, told him he could not go amiss in South Carolina.
Here we see an early divergence in accounts of the quote. On the one hand, some sources say Petigru said it in response to a direct question about whether he would support the secessionists. On the other hand, many of the early accounts have him coming up with the joke on the fly, when asked for directions to an insane asylum in Columbia. Maybe both are true; he could have gotten a lot of mileage out of that line.
In Carl Sandburg’s epic Abraham Lincoln biography, The War Years: Volume 1, we get three versions of the quip, including one that condemns the whole country to the asylum:
A minor affair it was that in Charleston, South Carolina, a peculiar and lovable old uncle, James Louis Petigru, lifelong friend of Rhett, whom Rhett regarded as the greatest of living lawyers, was asked if he would join the secessionists. “I should think not!” said Petigru. “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for a lunatic asylum.” The balances that lay behind his grave face came out again one winter day when a stranger asked him which way to the lunatic asylum. Judge Petigru pointed east, “There it is”; pointed south, “and there”; pointed west, “and there”; pointed north, “and there too.” The stranger was told he couldn’t possibly go wrong. When he asked why, Petigru walked off, groaning: “The whole country is a lunatic asylum and the people all lunatics.” Another version had it that he pointed to a church where the secession convention had assembled and said to the inquiring stranger, “It looks like a church, but it is now a lunatic asylum; go right there and you will find one-hundred and sixty-four maniacs within.”
Who was Rhett? According to columnist Ralph McGill, writing on the centennial of secession in 1960, that was Robert Barnwell Rhett, U.S. Senator from South Carolina and owner of the ardently pro-secession Charleston Mercury newspaper:
The two met after Rhett and Governor Gist had urged through the decision to secede.
“Are you with us?” Rhett asked.
“I should think not,” said Petigru. “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”
He turned and pointed to the Baptist church where the secessionists had convened.
“It looks like a church,” said the aroused judge, “but … go right there and you will find one hundred and sixty-four maniacs within.”
The church, according to William and Jane Pease’s 1995 Petigru biography, was First Baptist in Columbia. McGill, like a lot of writers mentioning the quote around the centennial, seems to be drawing on Sandburg’s widely influential Lincoln biography, with the notable exception that “lunatic” has been changed to “insane,” in keeping with polite language of the times.
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Pease, William Henry and Jane H. James Louis Petigru : Southern Conservative, Southern Dissenter. University of Georgia Press, 1995. (154)
Doubleday, Abner. Reminiscences of Forts Sumter and Moultrie in 1860-'61. Harper & Brothers, 1876. (56)