The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861, by David M. Potter, Completed and Edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher
Just as the last book I read about the origins of the Civil War was written by Don Fehrenbacher and finished and edited by someone else , it is only fitting that earlier in his career Professor Fehrenbacher had done the same for someone else’s classic work on the antebellum period. And make no mistake, this is a classic work, classic for several reasons. For one, it is an ambitious (almost 600 pages of main body text) single volume attempt to explain the ins and outs of how the ultimate crisis of the Union came about through misunderstanding and blundering, through a failure of statesmanship and through ultimately irreconcilable ideals. The author, moreover, seeks to be evenhanded in his approach, and even if there are clear points of view, both among the large number of sources cited here, many of them with sparkling footnotes, he seeks to give credit to the opinions and approaches of all, whether they are abolitionists or secessionists, for all of their tensions and contradictions and in the most favorable and charitable light.
In terms of its organization, the book is largely chronological according to theme. The book begins with an introduction of the state of the United States in 1848, with the context of the Mexican-American War and America’s gains in the Pacific Northwest, and then examines how things went wrong so quickly. The author discusses the four core approaches that attempted to solve the looming problems of territorial spoils, the rising fears in the South over their decline in matters of demography and political power, and the growing feeling among many northerners that surrender to the South was unacceptable. Southern control of the courts and the ability of Southern senators and Doughface presidents to block internal improvements important to the Midwest and Far West ended up provoking Northern political majorities that propelled Abraham Lincoln into office, and this book makes it clear that given the context of Dred Scott and John Brown, neither northern nor Southern interests, for all their divisions, were willing to compromise to an extent that would satisfy the other.
This book manages to hit all the high notes when it comes to looking at the looming crisis of the Union in the mid 19th centuries. For starters, its title is a clear nod to the Hinton Helper classic work of the same name, which is mentioned here in the context of Southern concerns about class struggle and the abandonment of pro-slavery politics by nonslaveholding yeoman farmers, especially in the Appalachian areas of the South. Besides this, the book talks about the decline of Manifest Destiny and popular sovereignty as potential solutions to the crisis between North and South, the fact that every kind of issue, from internal improvements to territorial acquisitions, was seen in the light of slavery. The fall of the Second Party system into sectionalist wings, Bloody Kansas, and the tensions in both northern and southern society between different groups and with each other.
While the author, in general, attempts to avoid historical judgments that depend too much on hindsight, there are still some areas where the author makes comments and critiques of the Republicans of 1860, including Abraham Lincoln, from the point of view of the Civil War and its start. If anything, the author is more generous to Southerners and their struggles for honor and dignity than it is to the incoming Republican regime of Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, the book is perhaps most complimentary to the motives and actions of Stephen Douglas, bending over backwards to show him as principled and caught up in situations beyond his control. A wise reading of this book appreciates its excellent research, and also its attempts to view everyone in a charitable light, even though every reader will likely bring their own biases to bear in casting blame. No one reading this book fairly and intelligently will fail to see that our own age has some of the same difficulties when it comes to people taking contradictory positions and in not taking the political issues of the time seriously. This book certainly takes matters seriously.