America In 1857: A Nation On The Brink, by Kenneth M. Stampp
The year 1857 has long been recognized as an important one in the start of the Civil War, and the author does a good job at figuring out why this was the case in a complex discussion of the biggest stories of the time within the United States. One of the aspects of this book that is particularly interesting is the way that the author uses a current events and reportage approach to examining what happened with the historical benefit of hindsight to point out how it was that these current events ended up shaping the next few years and how it could have gone differently if other decisions had been made. Blending a discussion of the political and economic together, the book shows how fragile and divided the United States already was and how the division and fractiousness of the United States as a whole was also connected to the fractiousness of other institutions within the United States like churches and political parties. The same causes were responsible for dividing the nation as a whole as well as those institutions which in normal times would have gone about their normal business without much fuss. The book demonstrates the crisis point that had already been reached and some of the more decisive attempts to wrestle with this crisis and deal with it that were ultimately unsuccessful in avoiding conflict.
This book is more than 300 pages long and contains twelve chapters that look, in a generally chronological fashion, at the most important political aspects of 1857 in the United States. The book begins with a sense of optimism and a fresh start with the lame duck session of Congress that ended the term of Franklin Pierce as president (1). The author discusses politics and its role within the social milieu of the United States (2) as well as the realities and pressures that were placed upon the president-elect James Buchanan in trying to fairly apportion positions to supporters and various cliques and factions within the Democratic party (3). The author discusses the Dred Scott decision and the hostility that it invoked as well as the historical context of the case itself and how it became about so much more than the fate of an obscure black family from the Midwest (4). There is a discussion of the heart of the matter of slavery and sectionalism (5) as well as a look at popular sovereignty in Kansas and the difficulties that were resulting from the mistrust between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces there (6). A chapter on the dog days of summer includes a discussion of violence in Utah (7) before the author discusses the brief panic of 1857 and its different results in the North and South (8). After that the author discusses the local and state elections of the North that showed a certain equal state between Democrat and Republican (9) before the book reaches a tragic conclusion in its last three chapters with a look at the farce of the Lecompton constitution (10), the tragedy of Buchanan’s decision to try to force it through Congress to defend the slave power (11), and the bitter fruits that resulted in early 1858 from this error (12), after which the author includes manuscripts and newspapers consulted in writing this work as well as abbreviations used, notes, and an index.
One cannot help but read a book like this with some deep sadness and foreboding given the way that things would turn out. Able and honest men sought to avoid conflict in places like Kansas and Utah and to deal justly with complex situations where a great deal of mistrust existed towards the federal government and towards fellow citizens and neighbors. Efforts to preserve political power on the part of the administration ran afoul of the tensions and pressure to defend the insecure foundations of plantation slavery in an insecure South. And even those parties like the Whigs which were clearly on the way out sought to exploit economic and political causes to stay relevant, finding out that their desire to preserve law and order and unity within the United States was threatened by the violent disorder and anarchy brought upon urban communities through the nativist lynch mobs that were called “plug uglies.” Stampp does a great job in showing the complexity of American life and politics in 1857, and it is a work that deserves to be read by those who would understand the way that politics works during crisis periods of deep division where people are constrained by political realities to do that which only inflames the crisis they experience.