Book Review: The Panic Of 1857 And The Coming Of The Civil War

The Panic Of 1857 And The Coming Of The Civil War, by James L. Huston

It is remarkable that, to my knowledge, this is the first book that combines the political and economic history of the Panic of 1857 and shows how it played a pivotal, if neglected, role in the timing of the start of the American Civil War. In many ways, the Panic of 1857 shows alarming similarities to today–an economic downturn that led to massive unemployment, a debt and solvency crisis within the United States, calls for austerity that sabotaged political power, in the midst of a deep sectional crisis in American politics. The authors do not draw any parallels between the situation of the 1850’s and the contemporary crisis over similar political and economic causes, but these parallels are available to the reader who chooses to draw them.

The book is organized in a chronological and thematic fashion, with ten chapters that look at such issues as the Panic of 1857, the political and economic explanations of the panic, the resulting panics in Congress that combined economic with sectional problems about slavery, the election of 1858, an austerity-minded Congress dominated by Southerners and their sympathizers that alienated key support for Democrats in Pennsylvania, the economic recovery and the connection of the Panic of 1857 with the rights of free labor in the north, and the election of 1860, after which a short but powerful conclusion follows. The book contains a narrative flow, and careful primary research, but is also full of statistical analysis to prove the pivotal importance of economic affairs (including a moderate tariff) to the decisive swing of Pennsylvania from a Democrat-leaning to a Republican-leaning state between 1857 and 1860 that led to the election of Abraham Lincoln as president and the start of the American Civil War.

There are a variety of conclusions that one can draw from this carefully researched and carefully reasoned work. For one, the success of Lincoln and the Republicans was not a certain outcome, as both major parties had the possibility of consolidating support. The initial weakness of the Republicans as a coalition of diverse interests became a strength in flexibility, while the insecurity of the Southerners in control of the Democratic party led to a rigidity that alienated Pennsylvanians more concerned with economic matters (like a tariff that protected their mining and industrial interests) and led to increased strength by Republicans who took the opportunity given to them to forge a coalition that included business interests and upwardly mobile laborers, as well as economic and political conservatives susceptible to protectionism and nativism. The fact that Pennsylvania was the pivotal swing state of 1860 made the rigidity of Southern Democrats (a major tactical error) decisive in giving victory to the Republicans, and thus inducing the insecure Deep South slave states to secede in order to protect their immoral institution of slavery.

It is therefore ironic that moderate Pennsylvania, the only state where economic interests in aftermath of the Panic of 1857 trumped concerns over the expansion of slavery and its competition with free labor (and the resulting degradation of free labor to something approaching the status of a slave), ended up forcing the issue of slavery upon a deeply divided nation in 1860. Since the Panic of 1857 divided the Democratic coalition and ultimately led to a fusion of economic conservatives with free soil Republicans in border Northern states like Pennsylvania (as the author demonstrates statistically for economic history as well as through a careful analysis of the primary source material for political history), and Pennsylvania proved decisive in givin victory to the Republicans, the author shows that the short-lived Panic of 1857 had a vital and neglected role in the timing of the American Civil War.

As a proud Unionist Pennsylvanian, I find this irony both poignant as well as satisfying in its well-researched and well-written argument. The author sensibly concludes that some definitive crisis was inevitable between slavery and freedom within the United States, given the contradiction between the ultimate aims of the North and South. And the moral and economic elements of slavery and free labor tended to become connected to other elements–such as land grant colleges (reflecting assumptions that increased education would lead to increased job opportunities), cheap Western land (that would lead to internal immigration that would decrease the supply of labor and lead to increased wages), as well as internal improvements (which would help the internal development of the western states). Southern opposition to these widely popular bipartisan Northern goals led to a political situation that led to Republican victory in 1860, with all of those fateful consequences. If you are a reader of the Civil War with a tolerance of statistical analysis and an interest in economic and political history, this is an excellent work that deserves to be read.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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