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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Down the Cataract.

If you read one book on the tumultuous years right before America descended into civil war, David Potter and Donald Fehrenbacher's The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861 is the one to choose.

Largely the work of Potter, who died before finishing it, and completed seamlessly by his colleague Fehrenbacher, TIC earned the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1976. Despite being nearly forty years old, it is the gold standard for one-volume histories of the era [Alan Nevins' four-volume Ordeal of the Union comes highly recommended by a long-time friend of the blog].

What Potter does brilliantly is to explain the deeply-confusing and conflicted era, where multiple stresses were pulling the still-young American Republic in all sorts of directions. It starts with Manifest Destiny's shearing away of half of Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and ends in the supernal idiocy of the newly-minted Confederate cabinet's decision to pull the trigger at Charleston. 

During that time, America saw three political parties rise, two die and one be fatally riven. A Louisiana slaveholder proved to be the most implacable enemy of the South and a Pennsylvania bachelor her stoutest friend. A ferocious tide of nativism crested in the mid-1850s and ebbed even faster than it had risen.

And all the time, slavery moved front and center in the dispute between the sections.

If it did nothing else, TIC would be invaluable for explaining the otherwise schizophrenic attitude of the free states to slavery. While it is true that, save for abolitionists, Yankees had little use and less time for black people, rejecting vehemently the idea of racial equality, it was equally true that the detestation of slavery was real and genuinely held. This is perhaps best seen in

The bottom line for free staters was that their dislike of slavery was balanced against their love for a constitutional order that, however embarrassingly for them, protected the South's peculiar institution. This is perhaps best seen in Lincoln's exasperated 1855 letter to his slaveholding Kentucky friend, Joshua Fry Speed:

You know I dislike slavery; and you fully admit the abstract wrong of it. So far there is no cause of difference. But you say that sooner than yield your legal right to the slave -- especially at the bidding of those who are not themselves interested, you would see the Union dissolved. I am not aware that any one is bidding you to yield that right; very certainly I am not. I leave that matter entirely to yourself. I also acknowledge your rights and my obligations, under the constitution, in regard to your slaves. I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet. In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio, there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continued torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the Constitution and the Union.

[It should be noted that, when war came, Speed stayed loyal to the Union, helping rally Kentucky, and in 1864 Lincoln appointed Speed's brother James as Attorney General.]

In what might seem ironic to modern readers, Potter points out the equally split personality of the South, which was in many ways even more nationalistic than the free states, but devoted to its peculiar institution. Dixie, too, had to balance slavery with a love for the Union. 

Thus, for over a decade, both sides would whipsaw between these poles, with momentous political decisions (the disastrous Fugitive Slave and Kansas-Nebraska Acts being the most important) reinforcing the strains and pushing people to the poles. By 1858, the Democrats, who had been America's sole remaining national (as opposed to sectional) party, had largely been destroyed outside of the slave states. This was the result of a series of pyrrhic Southern political victories which eroded most of its support in the free states. 

Not, of course, that the free states were blameless--hardly. Reading about the North's apotheosis of John Brown after that consistent failure's most spectacular failure is chilling. One doesn't have to be descended from Confederates to be horrified by the calls for blood from across the North. 

Then came the election of 1860, and then the war. Three quarters of a million deaths later, the disputes ended.

All of this is presented in clear prose, objective in its content and judicious when the historian is called upon to render a judgment. An indispensable work of American history.


  1. I quite agree. I'm going to have to find another copy somewhere. I especially like Potter's observation that the greatest friend AND worst enemy of the historian is hindsight.

  2. "...the supernal idiocy of the newly-minted Confederate cabinet's decision to pull the trigger at Charleston."

    Which was largely Davis's decision (albeit backed by most of the cabinet), a curious one in view of the restraint that usually characterized his career. Of course, "restraint" is relative - relative to the fire-eaters he served with.

    I don't know what Potter says, but the best I can make out is that Davis wanted to find a way to finally push the border states into secession. Well, he got that - for some of them, at least. But at what a cost.

    Ironically, one voice strongly against attacking was Robert Toombs. Robert Toombs! "Mr. President, at this time it is suicide, murder, and will lose us every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a hornet's nest which extends from mountain to ocean, and legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary; it puts us in the wrong; it is fatal." Toombs may have been a drunk and a fanatic slaveocrat. But he was dead right on that occasion. He was also a brave man (see Antietam).

  3. Have to move this up my "to read" list. Thanks for the review.