The Road to the Road to Gettysburg

When Brett Schulte approached me to participate in his “10 Best Gettysburg Books” project, I told him that I’d be delighted to do so – except for the fact that I haven’t read 10 Gettysburg books. In a shameless attempt to get a piece of the action, I’m therefore contributing in my own way, by supplying a list of my favorite books dealing with the period leading up to the Civil War – let’s call it “The Road to the Road to Gettysburg”.

In order to accommodate different types of readers and interests, I’ve included a variety of books. Some are broad in their geographic and temporal scope, while others focus on particular events (e.g., the Nullification Crisis) or issues (e.g., Free Soil). In many instances I have tried to mention alternatives or follow-up suggestions for those so inclined. There are books here both for true beginners – those students of the Civil War who have never delved into the fascinating pre-War world – and a few that even those with more experience may not have encountered.

All of the usual caveats apply, plus some others. This is not a list of the "best" or "most important" books. I carefully selected the adjective "favorite" to make this clear. I am not a professional historian, simply a reader who has become drawn to American history of this period. I read what interests me, and some things interest me more than others. For this reason, and because my interest in American history came late (fewer than ten years ago), there are large gaps in my knowledge that necessarily affect my selections. And my reactions to the books I have read are of course personal. Where I have selected one book on a topic rather than others that might be regarded as leading candidates, I have tried to explain why. If I have missed a favorite, I encourage you to take me to task (gently!) and add your suggestions in the comments. I may or may not have a good excuse.

A. Introduction and Prequel

1. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford University Press 2007).

This first selection is in the nature of a prequel or introduction. Daniel Walker Howe’s book, covering the period from the end of the War of 1812 through the Mexican War, is not a “coming of the Civil War” book. It is, however, the finest general survey of the era that I know of. If you want to orient yourself and understand the events, personalities and trends of the period leading into the immediate pre-War era, there is no better place to start. Jill Lepore has a penetrating review of What Hath God Wrought in the New Yorker, Vast Designs: How America Came of Age, that will whet your appetite by giving you a feel for the book’s virtues.

Prof. Howe’s principal competition is probably Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (W.W. Norton & Co. 2005). As the title suggests, Prof. Wilentz covers more ground than Prof. Howe does – ground that is unnecessary for present purposes, since the period 1848-1861 happens to be covered by one of the finest American history books ever written.

If you are thinking about exploring the period, but not at treatise length (Wilentz’s book contains almost 800 pages of text, Howe’s in excess of 850), Harry L. Watson’s Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America (Hill & Wang 2006, originally published 1990) (roughly 270 pages of text) is an outstanding alternative. Watson focuses primarily on the period through the end of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, but his ability to impart his knowledge of and feel for the period and the Second Party System are superb. Somehow, you manage to get 75% or more of Howe in less than one-third of the pages.

One other way to explore this period, for those so inclined, is via biography. Robert V. Remini is probably the leading authority on Andrew Jackson. I haven’t read his three-volume magnum opus on Old Hickory, but the single volume condensation, The Life of Andrew Jackson, is quite good, and his biography of Jackson’s arch-enemy and Abraham Lincoln’s idol, Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union is even better.

B. Overviews of the Pre-War Period

2. David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (Harper Perennial 1977) (first published 1976)

If you read only one book about the period leading up to the Civil War, David M. Potter’s magnificent The Impending Crisis is the book you should get. More than thirty years after it first appeared, it continues to stand head and shoulders above all competition. This is not a close call, people.

For those of you who haven’t heard of him, Professor Potter (1910-1971), together with Kenneth M. Stampp, was one of America’s finest historians to come of age around the mid-20th Century, and The Impending Crisis is his masterpiece. First published in 1976, after Professor Potter’s death, it is the culmination of a lifetime of study and research. Beautifully written and highly readable, it is both comprehensive and passionately argued. If you read this single book with care, you will be richly rewarded with a nuanced understanding of the political events of the antebellum period and the arguments about Civil War causation.

It is rare, in my experience, that a work so completely dominates its field. Take advantage of the opportunity.

3. Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (W.W. Norton & Co. 1983) (first published 1978)

After – but only after – you have read and absorbed Prof. Potter’s masterpiece, you might consider Michael Holt’s Political Crisis of the 1850s for a somewhat different view. Prof. Holt is an intensely political historian: elections, and the officials elected, matter.

Prof. Holt’s most valuable contribution is his focus on the fact that the mid-south, unlike the cotton south, did not immediately secede in response to Lincoln’s election but only after Sumter. Any theory of Civil War causation, he maintains, must account for this phenomenon – and slavery density alone is not an adequate explanation. In a brilliant piece of detective work, Prof. Holt identifies the continued presence of a viable two-party system as a potentially key piece of the puzzle. By the mid-1850s, Democratic parties dominated all of the lower south states, while vigorous Whiggish opposition persisted in the mid-south, providing a political base around which opponents of secession could rally when the crisis came.

4a. William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion, Volume I: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854 (Oxford University Press 1991) (first published 1990)

4b. William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861 (Oxford University Press 2008) (first published 2007)

It is impossible to compile this list and not include William W. Freehling’s obsessive, often fascinating and quirky Road to Disunion series. As Professor Freehling relates in the preface to the first volume, he initially expected that a book about the causes of secession would cover the late 1850s. His research took him further and further back in time until he wound up in the American Revolution.

I should disclose up front that Professor Freehling is not a great writer. All I can say is that, if you can get past his idiosyncratic prose (and you even come to savor it after a while), you will benefit from the insights of a man who has been obsessively (that word keeps coming to mind) studying and cataloging the antebellum south for virtually his entire adult life. The volumes move chronologically, but they also repeatedly stop to survey the terrain. Entire chapters can be, in effect, discrete essays – about the southern transportation system, or southern literature, or the intellectual arguments that were constructed to transform slavery from a “necessary evil” into a positive good.

Prof. Freehling's greatest contribution lies in his ability to highlight and explain the profound differences that existed among antebellum southerners, and in fact that theme structures the volumes. How did it happen that secessionists, repeatedly defeated and rejected by their fellow southerners for decades, finally triumphed and were able to lead their previously-unwilling cohorts out of the union? In Prof. Freehling's words (which will give you a taste of that prose style):
Secessionists are the desperadoes in the Old South's story. . . . Between Calhoun's unconditional desire to perpetuate slavery and Jefferson's conditional hope to end the institution, so many Southerners fought for so many visions that secessionists lost and lost and lost, losing finally all confidence in winning. After Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, this minority of the southern minority conspired to bring off a last gamble. In 1861, to extremists' amazement, disunion triumphed. This is the tale of how and why vanquished secessionists became victors -- and of a south which remained too divided for the victors to win their gamble with the sword.

C. Particular Events and Issues

5a. William W. Freehling, Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina: 1816-1836 (Oxford University Press 1965)

5b. Richard E. Ellis, The Union at Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States’ Rights and the Nullification Crisis (Oxford University Press 1989) (first published 1987)

When it comes to the Nullification Crisis of 1832-1833, we are blessed with an embarrassment of riches – and the two books listed above complement each other beautifully. Professor Freehling’s book (which is much better written than his later Road to Disunion series) focuses primarily on the situation within South Carolina – how did it come to be that the inmates took charge of the asylum? He tells a gripping story and argues with some persuasiveness that South Carolinian leaders viewed resistance to the tariff as a preemptive strike against future threats to slavery.

Richard Ellis’s book, on the other hand, focuses on the reactions of Andrew Jackson and other national leaders, and then examines the effects of the president’s aggressive rhetoric and posture on the Democratic coalition. Presaging the reaction of mid-south states before the Civil War, many southern Democrats both adamantly denounced South Carolina’s position and yet were repelled by Jackson’s consolidationist and anti-state’s rights rhetoric and his willingness to “coerce” South Carolina if necessary.

6. John C. Waugh, On the Brink of Civil War: The Compromise of 1850 and How It Changed the Course of American History (SR Books 2003)

I do not think that the definitive book on the Crisis and Compromise of 1850 has been written yet.

Many would disagree. Holman Hamilton’s Prologue to Conflict: The Crisis and Compromise of 1850 (University Press of Kentucky 2005) (originally published 1964) is usually cited as superb. The paperback version of Hamilton’s book contains a forward by Michael Holt to that effect, and Prof. Holt’s opinion is not to be taken lightly. Since I am apparently the only person who has not been swept off his feet, take my alternate recommendation with many grains of salt.

John Waugh’s book may lack some of Hamilton’s detailed analysis – Waugh is a journalist by trade, not an historian – but it is a tremendous amount of fun. Mr. Waugh grippingly relates the inherently dramatic story, provides vivid portraits of the many famous figures who participated in the drama – Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, among others – and supplies arresting and often hilarious stories and vignettes (some of which are related here and here). It is true, as I mentioned in an earlier post discussing the book, that Mr. Waugh does not do justice to the end of the crisis, the period after the collapse of the Clay omnibus plan at the end of July. But that is the also a weakness (in my humble opinion) of Prof. Hamilton’s book, so I don’t think you’re losing anything.

For those particularly interested in the Crisis and Compromise of 1850, one other book deserves mention as a supplement. Mark J. Stegmaier’s Texas, New Mexico, and the Compromise of 1850: Boundary Dispute and Sectional Crisis (Kent State University Press 1996) focuses, as the title suggests, on the role played in the Crisis by the looming border dispute between the State of Texas and the newly-acquired unincorporated territory of New Mexico. The book is therefore a valuable corrective to most accounts, which typically underplay what I see as the most potentially dangerous issue: the possibility that a clash along that border might have precipitated a wider conflict. It also highlights the critical role played by one of our greatest presidents, Millard Fillmore, in resolving the crisis.

7. Jonathan H. Earle, Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Free Soil, 1824-1854 (University of North Carolina Press 2004)

The spread of the anti-slavery-expansion impulse in the North is generally conceived of as largely an outgrowth of Whiggish, moral objections to the peculiar institution – Abraham Lincoln being the paradigm. But this perspective is ultimately unsatisfying, for it leaves a mystery: loyal, hard-money Jacksonian Democrats such as David Wilmot, who seem to have had few moral qualms about slavery if confined to the South, precipitated the anti-slavery-expansion crisis in 1846, and large numbers of Democrats (including Martin Van Buren, the architect of the Democrat Party) thereafter joined that movement. Who on earth were these people, where did they come from, and what motivated them?

Jonathan Earle’s Jacksonian Antislavery is the only book I know of that explores these and similar issues, and does so to fascinating effect. Prof. Earle convincingly shows how resistance to the Slave Power and slavery expansion were, in many ways, natural outgrowths of radical Democratic values such as fear and hatred of perceived monopoly and “aristocracy” and devotion to the continued availability of “free soil” (both cost-free and slave-free) for settlement and farming. Abolitionism was always a fringe movement. Free Soilism transformed the North. If you want to begin to understand why masses of Democrats ultimately deserted to the Republicans (and by inference why they were absolutely critical to the Republican coalition), this is the book to consult.

For an earlier discussion and review of Prof. Earle’s book, see here. A runner up in this category is Eric Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War, although it has a very different focus.

8. Gavin Wright, The Political Economy of the Cotton South: Households, Markets, and Wealth in the Nineteenth Century (W.W. Norton & Co. 1978)

For the more adventurous among you, Gavin Wright’s book remains, more than 30 years after its publication, the single best work on economic issues relating to the antebellum south, slavery, farming, cotton and secession. If you are not an economist, as I am not, you may skim over portions of the book and miss some of Professor Wright’s subtler points, as I certainly did. Even so, an attentive lay reader will encounter a host of brilliant insights. Prof. Wright’s development of the idea that slavery was a method of capital accumulation and not simply a method of labor organization, and the consequences flowing from that insight, are worth the price of the book alone.

Those concerned about impersonal, economic explanations for historical events should fear not: Prof. Wright goes out of his way to make clear that he is not an economic determinist who believes that economics alone dictate events. At the same time, his penetrating analysis points out economic phenomena that help explain southern society and southern reactions to perceived northern threats against slavery.

For earlier discussions of aspects of Prof. Wright’s book, see here, here, here and here.

9. Kenneth M. Stampp, America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink (Oxford University Press 1992) (first published 1990)

I mentioned earlier that Kenneth M. Stampp was, together with David M. Potter, one of America’s finest mid 20th Century historians. America in 1857 focuses, as the title suggests, on that pivotal year and the dramatic events it encompassed – from the inauguration of James Buchanan and the issuance of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Dred Scott days later, to the short but sharp Panic of 1857. But the core of the book is an outstanding discussion of the situation in Kansas and President Buchanan’s disastrous decision to betray his own emissary, James Walker, and support the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution. To make this story comprehensible, Prof. Stampp ventures back to provide a superb summary of the tremendously confusing earlier events in and concerning Kansas (where there seem to have been elections held every other week), and he takes us through the conclusion in the following year, when the Democratic anti-Lecompton forces spearheaded by Stephen A. Douglas administered a devastating defeat to their own party’s president.

I particularly like Professor Stampp’s book because it also tacitly provides a well-argued counterpoint to the contention that all historical events are utterly contingent. Prof. Stampp is no determinist, but he points out convincingly that, with the passage of time, certain outcomes became more likely. The Civil War was not inevitable in mid-1858, but many doors had closed in the previous eighteen months. In a real sense, the nation was materially closer to the “brink” than it had been.

D. The Secession Winter

10a. Russell McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession (University of North Carolina Press 2008)

10b. Daniel Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists In The Secessionist Crisis (University of North Carolina Press 1993) (first published 1989)

10c. Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (University Press of Virginia 2001)

Although this may appear to be a transparent attempt to shoehorn extra books into list that is supposed to be limited to 10 – and it is – my linkage of these volumes is actually not all that unreasonable. All three examine the same period – the Secession Winter from Lincoln’s election through Sumter – but from different perspectives: the North, the mid-South, and the deep South. Reading them together provides an excellent opportunity to watch as the sections maneuver for position and thus to discern their concerns and motivations.

Partisans tend to label President Lincoln as a rabid warmonger intent on starting war to subjugate the South, or paint him as a rosy-hued semi-pacifist who did everything he could to avoid armed conflict.

Russell McClintock’s book absolves the president of both charges. A meticulous and extremely well documented study of Northern reaction and response during the Secession Winter (and Spring) of 1860-61, it is a worthy successor to Kenneth Stampp’s And the War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis, 1860-1861 (Louisiana State University Press 2006) (first published 1950). I reviewed Dr. McClintock’s work in an earlier post, which I invite you to read. If you want to take a look at the facts before you reach your conclusions on Lincoln, this book is an excellent place to start.

As students of the Civil War know, the slave states did not secede en masse before President Lincoln’s inauguration. While the seven Cotton South states did so, the mid- and upper-south states resisted. As I mentioned previously, Michael Holt has argued that no theory about the causation of secession and the Civil War is worth its salt that does not explain this obvious but usually ignored discrepancy. In his superb book, Daniel Crofts takes Prof. Holt up on his challenge by conducting an in-depth analysis of the “reluctant Confederates” who resisted secession in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina between November 1860 and the Spring of 1861.

What Prof. Crofts finds is that the interplay among a number of factors seems to account for the difference. The degree of enslavement was clearly important, but that alone does not explain the massive resistance that developed in the mid-south to the secession tidal wave that swept the lower south away. A vigorous two-party system (which had largely disappeared from the Cotton South but persisted in the mid-south), geographical patterns of political affiliations and their interactions with high-density slave ownership regions contributed significantly to the positions adopted by these states.

Along the way, Prof. Crofts does an admirable job of making understandable a host of phenomena that are difficult for us to absorb today. Among other things, what was “conditional unionism”? Why or how could people simultaneously proclaim devotion to the Union, and abhor and denounce secession as disastrous lunacy, yet insist that only the carrot, and not the stick, be used to persuade the lunatics to return – and then themselves secede when the stick was applied? Prof. Crofts also provides the most comprehensible review I have seen of the myriad proposals, conferences and plans that were proposed and floated during the period.

Charles B. Dew’s slim volume is not a precise counterpart to the studies of Prof. Crofts and Dr. McClintock, but it is a fitting way to end this list. During the Secession Winter, five deep south states sent commissioners to other slave states in an attempt to persuade them to secede. Prof. Dew’s work examines the messages that the commissioners brought and demonstrates that slavery and race were at their heart. Anyone who contends otherwise must grapple with this powerful and persuasive study and refute it. To the best of my knowledge, no one has.

E. Postscript and Conclusion

Readers may have noticed that, for a “pre-Civil War” list, mine is light on books that focus specifically on secession in the lower south – Prof. Dew’s book is probably the only one that can be so classified.

Unfortunately, the finest books that I have read on secession in the lower south – and they are superb – are single-state studies that I deemed a bit too specialized for this list. That said, I cannot bear to omit them altogether. I have previously discussed three of them in an earlier joint review, which I invite you to read: J. Mills Thorton’s Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800-1860, Lacy K. Ford’s Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry 1800-1860, and Stephanie McCurry’s Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, & the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country. Having re-read all three since composing that review, my respect for them has only grown.

As I said at the outset, this is one lay person’s idiosyncratic "favorite" list. I welcome your thoughts and additions. Don’t hesitate. As any blogger will tell you, comments – including constructive criticism – are always welcome. Conversely, if you are looking for leads on particular issues or events that I have not addressed, I would be pleased to provide suggestions if I have them.
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