The Fate Of Their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, And The Coming Of The Civil War, by Michael F. Holt
This short and delightful book, about 150 pages including its appdendices, manages to accomplish its target aim of using the prelude to the Civil War as a case study in the importance of politicians in setting the context for the well-being or lack thereof within society. An accomplished political historian with a book written about the rise and fall of the Whig Party, Holt demonstrates the larger national and more local partisan rivalries, where partisans of all sides sought to define their opponents as starkly different as possible and then sought to attain power in contrast to that straw man image, and where national parties only cooperated during elections and were highly sensitive to the results of state and local races that let them know how well they were doing in articulating their positions and appealing to an often indifferent voter base that lacked an interest in the larger political process, even if they voted far more often, as a general rule, than we do today. By pointing to the responsibility of civil leaders in determining the course and destiny of the United States as it lurched towards the Civil War, the author points to the similar importance of political matters throughout history, a point that, however unsatisfying, is important for students of history to remember.
In terms of its contents, this book is well-organized to complete its goals. After a preface defending the legitimacy of the study of political history in a general sociopolitical climate that is hostile to the importance of dead white men to American history, the author examines the Pandora’s Box of sectional dissent over slavery going back at least as far as the late 1810’s and the fight over the admission of Missouri as a slave state. The author then goes to the Wilmot Proviso and the intraparty and intra-sectional fight over slavery in state and federal elections before spending its final chapters on the course of and effects of the last two sectional “compromises” in 1850 and 1854, over the Kansas-Nebraska Act that were the direct lead up to the final sectional crisis. After this come various primary documents relating to the political rhetoric that led the Union towards Civil War, including a public letter from Lewis Cass advocating a Janus-faced approach to popular sovereignty, text from an annual address by Zachary Taylor advocating the admission of California as a free state and decrying sectional parties, the resolutions originally proposed by Henry Clay that were modified into the Compromise of 1850, once the boundary issue between New Mexico and Texas had been dealt with, some of the text from the Kansas Nebraska Act, Lincoln’s House Divided speech, and Seward’s Irrepressible Conflict speech. The end result is sound historical analysis that is based on a sober reading of the pertinent primary and secondary sources, which are detailed in the suggested further reading section at the end of the book.
There are a few notable takeaways to this book that make it immensely worthwhile reading despite its brevity. One of the takeaways is that the collapse of the Southern wing of the Whig Party was immensely important in bringing about the Civil War, just as the fall of the Federalists was a major factor in the Missouri crisis. Another takeaway is that the continuing crisis over the (often illusory) expansion of slavery was more about the honor and dignity of slaveowning elites and the people of the South as a whole than it was over the practical implications of slavery, and that the inability of Southerners to defend their own honor without offending the honor and dignity of Northerners led to a series of crises that ended up forcing the Civil War. Since the elite of the North and South were both highly interested in obtaining and preserving their political offices, their own personal honor and dignity ended up leading to political crises that in turn influenced the behavior of their supporters who were less aware of and less interested in matters outside their own region and locality. Who we have in positions of offices matters a great deal, both in terms of their moral and ethical character, as well as in their competence at handling the demands of office and the ability to deal with others effectively. This is as true now as it was during the time before the Civil War, and we are as disinclined to seek wise leaders now as we were then, with the potential for serious problems as a result.